Tone, Tonal Shift, & How to Write Them



How do you shift tone in the middle of a book to keep pace with what is going on or shift tone between projects you are writing? How can you manipulate the tone to show emotional and intellectual development of a character, or to display without stating it flat out that said character is becoming more politically aware? I have read several novels which do this but cannot figure out how they do it.

This is one of the hardest questions I’ve ever gotten, because it’s also something I’ve struggled with in my own writing. So I took it as a challenge to see what I could learn, to benefit both lacommunarde and myself. And, of course, all of you!

First and foremost, what does tone really even mean? I thought about it as I read (tone is apparent in all writing, not just fiction/prose), and tooled around the internet a bit, and it’s a pretty elevated and complicated concept. This is the hybrid definition that I came up with, as it applies to fiction:

Tone is the attitude that the writer expresses toward the piece’s subject matter (exposition or action) and audience, via the narrator*. Tone is expressed through all stylistic/technical choices, including but not limited to diction, syntax, detail, imagery, and figurative language.

The best analogy I heard was to think of tone as it applies to literature in the same way that it applies to peoples’ voices when speaking: obviously the same statement can be made with many different tones of voice, therefore altering the statement’s meaning. Whereas with our voices we alter our intonation, syllable stresses, and pitch, tone in literature is altered by word voice and placement, the details and imagery the writer chooses to include and omit, the metaphors/similes she employs, and so on.

An important thing that I learned about tone is that it’s different from mood, though “tone” and “mood” are often used interchangably when talking about literature. They’re similar, but not the same. Mood is the atmosphere or emotion that comes across in the writing, regardless of what’s actually happening (for example, a death scene could be written about in a lighthearted, joking way; the language a narrator uses to describe her crush could be angry). The voice metaphor applies here, too—the mood of what you say might be “happy”, while the tone is “sarcastic” (say, if you’re making a joke).

Since most stories center around the evolution of a conflict, from when it’s presented to when it’s solved (the progression of which we refer to as “plot”), most stories also have a tonal shift—especially if they’re character driven—because the character changes over the course of the story.

  1. My first piece of advice for lacommunarde, therefore, is to know what she want her and the narrator’s* tone to be at the beginning of the story, versus at the end. It sounds like at the beginning her narrator is politically naive, and the tonal shift will illustrate her changing attitude/awareness toward politics. So she’s got that piece down.
  2. Now, lacommunarde said she wants to “shift tone in the middle of a book”. It is possible that a major event could change your narrator’s tone with the snap of a finger, but it’s more likely that this change will be gradual, and the result of several events. Consider what those might be. If you’re starting out on a first draft, knowing what the catalysts for your tonal shifts are will help you plan; if you’ve already written a draft and are in the editing phase, I’d suggest thinking about what major events have happened in your story to change your character’s tone, and yours. Then edit the language to reflect that.
  3. What lacommunarde is probably noticing as she reads other novels is a subtle change in the writing that reflects the tonal shift. The “diction, syntax, detail, imagery, and figurative language” that I  talked about in the above definition. Those elements are what change to reflect the tonal shift. A good exercise to try would be describing your character’s attitude toward the same political event (or candidate, or law, whatever) at the beginning of the story, versus how she feels at the end. How can you word these two descriptions differently? If you can make them read very differently, then you’ve figured out how to shift tone!

A great example of tonal shift can be see in (of course!) Harry Potter. JK Rowling and Harry’s attitudes toward the story changed because Harry and the audience got older, learned more and more about how the wizarding world functions, etc. It is therefore often said that the tone went from “light” to “dark”. The shift in tone can be seen in everything from the language to the subject matter.

Again, this is a pretty heightened concept that I still struggle with, but I hope that you all think I’m onto something here. And I hope, lacommunarde, that I could be of some help!

If anyone else has anything to add, send YW an ask and I’ll add it right to this post.

*It doesn’t matter what the narrative mode is—tone can be expressed from a first person narrator or multiple omniscient third person narrators.


This post will be archived on our Advice page, under “Characters”, “Dialogue, Voice, & POV”, and “Style”.

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