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The “Feel” of Your Writing

“Everything is in the tone.”—Sherwood Anderson

For a well-polished manuscript, make sure you use tone and mood effectively. Tone in fiction refers to an author’s attitude toward the characters and events in the story. The tone helps to create the mood—what the writer wants the reader to feel. Will the scene feel mysterious, carefree, scornful, confident, suspenseful, adventurous, pessimistic, or sentimental, to name just a few? Different readers might not experience the mood in exactly the same way, but an author does aim to create a certain “vibe.”
Some stories maintain a consistent tone from start to finish (e.g. J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye). Others have an overall tone that changes from time to time. Still others show frequent changes in tone.

Mood tends to change more often than tone, since the tone reflects the attitude of the narrator/main character. Those attitudes can change as characters experience different stimuli, problems, events, and the behavior of other characters. With a first-person narration, the tone can also reveal the character’s attitude toward the reader. As a story moves toward a climax and conclusion, the mood will intensify in ways that help readers adjust to the coming resolution.

Does the tone in your manuscript send the right signals? Do your writing style choices evoke the feelings you want from your reader? If not, readers might feel distanced from your story. As you review your writing for tone and mood, think about these elements.  

Word choices
Did you use colorful and specific language that contributes to the tone and mood? Notice how Sheila O’Connor expresses loathing and disgust in this passage from Where No Gods Came:

“I despise Wiley for showing up in our lives and ruining everything….Wiley hooting and hollering until the morning. Wiley, with his long sideburns winding down his face, his brown teeth. Wiley telling my dad it was a waste of a life to work for a living.”

This passage also shows the role of tone in character development. We see what this character, Faina, focuses on while thinking about Wiley, as well as the words she uses to express those feelings. Both contribute to the tone.

A writer’s style might include word choices that are more or less formal, and the use (or not) of profanity. Some scenes might call for more adverbs and adjectives than others. Some words sound more like the setting than others (e.g. words that have a soft sound work better in a romantic scene than words with hard consonants).

Even a change in font can make a difference. Consider these sentences:
“What were you thinking?” he asked.
“What were you thinking?” he asked.
What were you thinking?” he asked.
“What were you thinking?” he asked.

Also think about how the tone changes if the writer replaces the verb “asked” with coaxed, prodded, muttered, or demanded.

Sentence structure
You can manipulate the tone and mood by working with sentence structure, including varying lengths, deliberate use of run-ons or fragments, and word order (syntax). Will internal dialogue (also called internal monologue) appear often, or not?

Suppose, for example, that your character has been injured and is slowly regaining consciousness. Think about how he would experience that from moment-to-moment. He’d be groggy and disoriented, so instead of long, complex, fast-paced sentences, you could slow things down with a series of sentences that show his adjustments while re-entering the waking world. These might include incomplete sentences, such as: “a man knelt over him, a man in a uniform . . . holding his wrist, staring . . . Bright lights, too bright. Dizzy.”

If your character is racing away from danger, you might use long, complex sentences with repeated words, e.g.: On she raced, through the woods, then across the pond, leaping from one rock to another, then past the barn, the henhouse, the neighbor’s yard—faster,  faster, faster.

This passage also shows how adding the article “the” before several words affects the pace.

Paragraph structure
Construct paragraphs in a way that enhances tone and mood. What patterns or mixtures will create the atmosphere you have in mind? Do you need long paragraphs, short paragraphs, or something in between? Can the scene use a one-sentence paragraph or one-word paragraph? Will the dialogue go back and forth quickly or slowly? Paragraphs can even go on for a page or more, depending on the writer’s style choices.

Similes and metaphors
The use of figurative language can help you achieve the desired tone. Notice how two different similes help readers see the attitude of this fictional character:

To Lex, the road trip seemed like one long visit to the dentist.
To Lex, the road trip seemed like five birthday parties in one.

Have you used punctuation effectively so that readers pause in certain places, or move along at a faster pace if that suits the mood? Did you use a dash in places where an ellipsis or comma would work better? Notice how the tone changes below:

Lenore sat in the back seat, hands on her lap, gazing out the window. “Let’s go!”
Lenore sat in the back seat; her hands were on her lap and she gazed out the window. “Let’s go.”

Tone strongly affects the way readers experience a setting. Suppose, for instance, that you want a comforting, safe atmosphere. Your tone could be affectionate and traditional, with a setting that features an easy chair, a soft, thick afghan, stew bubbling on the stove, and a crackling fire. The style would be friendly, not formal or arrogant.

A weak passage might need more sensory details—sound, touch, smell, and taste, as well as sights. These can help readers connect with both the setting and the character’s attitude in the scene.

Nonfiction writing has tone and mood, too. The writing style choices show the writer’s attitude toward the subject matter and audience. The tone might be friendly or condescending, or perhaps concerned, helpful, empathetic, encouraging, critical.

Whatever you write, consider the “feel” of the writing. This attention to detail can make the difference between writing that falls flat and writing that lives and breathes.

Tips to Build Skills  
Here are ways to hone your skills in creating the tone, atmosphere, and mood you desire.

Read and write poetry. Even if we don’t write poetry for publication, the practice can sharpen our skills in using diction, phrasing, sentence structure, punctuation, and figurative language to evoke a mood. A good classic to study is “The Raven” by Edgar Allen Poe.    

Examine the tone and mood in one or more short stories and/or novels. After you read a scene, write a few words that describe how you feel. Then examine how the author used words, phrasing, punctuation, and paragraphing to create the feel of the scene.

Practice writing descriptions that create a specific atmosphere. For example, describe a noisy, busy woodland setting and then a quiet, peaceful woodland setting. Show the lobby of a posh hotel and the lobby of a run-down hotel.


Victoria Sherrow has published short stories, articles and books (fiction and nonfiction) for readers aged preschool through adult. Her books have received starred reviews and been honored by the American Library Association, Parents Choice Gold Award, National Association for the Advancement of Science, and NYPL Best Books for the Teenage, among others. Victoria has taught at The Institute of Children’s Literature for more than 25 years and has also been an assistant editor and writing contest judge. Recently, she revised and polished a 230,000-word book for adults.

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