Another group of writing elements (and terms) folks often commingle and confuse:
Tone, Mood, Style and Genre.
It’s understandable how folks often get these terms jumbled up as they all work together to help define the nature of a story and truth be told it’s not always easy to separate them.
I guess an argument could be made that a writer doesn’t really need to make a technical distinction between them—we automatically apply a tone, mood, style—and usually fall within a genre—regardless of our intention.
However, clarity hones focus. And anytime we can look at our writing through a clearer, more focused lens, doors open up.
So as a professional mercenary writer it’s important to know the difference. Let’s go.
Tone is the expression of the writer’s attitude in the writing.
In a sense you can think of it as the Writer’s emotional state.
It really can be seen on two levels.
First, the writer’s attitude towards whatever they’re writing about. Let’s say you want to really paint Klingons as the most vile, destructive beings in the story. Your writing might take on a callous, overbearing tone.
—Off the top of my head, like:
“The Klingon ship housed only a single raiding party of ten warriors. More than enough to kill an entire platoon of federation officers, an act they had repeated on many occasions. The scores of communicators pinned to polished targ bones on the bridge, proof of such victories. Though other Klingon houses found the display unremarkable, after all they were merely human trophies.”
And second, more generally, how the writer comes across in the narrative independent of the subject, just how the writer “speaks” (think of when your parents used to yell at you as a kid, “don’t take that tone with me!”)
Whether it’s stern, brooding and dramatic like this opening piece from Frank Miller’s Daredevil “Love and War”:
“I have built an empire on human sin. I am feared by the honest and the wicked. Elected officials obey my will as swiftly as the lowest pimps and pushers. I have everything I desired… Everything I desired… until I met you…”
OR, comical and sarcastic like the opening to the Deadpool movie:
“No, my slender, brown friend. Love… is a beautiful thing. When you find it,
the whole world tastes like daffodil daydream.
So you gotta hold on to love. Tight!
And never let go. Don’t make the same mistakes I did, got it?
Or else the whole world tastes like Mama June after hot yoga.
Sir, what does Ms Mama June taste like?”
Plainly put, tone in fiction, is like tone when having a conversation.
You can deliver the narrative with any emotion behind it.
Keep in mind that the tone we’re discussing here is for the narrative itself, not individual character dialogue (as characters will carry tones unique to themselves).
Another thing to keep in mind, is that tone generally stays the same throughout an entire script.
Think of it this way, if you’re having a conversation with someone about a certain subject, your emotional connection to the subject is not usually going to change mid-conversation.
If you’re telling someone how much you love pizza, then get very angry about pizza for some reason, then go back to being enamored by it–you’re gonna come off as bi-polar or at the very least indecisive.
Now of course, fiction is more complicated than pizza, so you CAN shift tone throughout a script, but this should only be done deliberately, in conjunction with the movement of the narrative.
Luring the reader in with one tone, then shifting to another without causality can completely detach an audience.
Mood is the established emotion of the moment (or atmosphere).
In a sense you can think of Mood as the underlying emotion of a specific scene (or overall story) itself.
From the tell-tale heart, here Poe’s character invites the police into the home where he’s committed the murder.
Suddenly I knew that the sound was not in my ears, it was not just inside my head. At that moment I must have become quite white. I talked still faster and louder. And the sound, too, became louder. It was a quick, low, soft sound, like the sound of a clock heard through a wall, a sound I knew well. Louder it became, and louder. Why did the men not go? Louder, louder. I stood up and walked quickly around the room. I pushed my chair across the floor to make more noise, to cover that terrible sound. I talked even louder. And still the men sat and talked, and smiled. Was it possible that they could not hear??
This passage has a distinct neurotic, panicked mood.
What if we rewrote it with a different controlling emotion?
I knew that the sound was not in my ears, it was not just inside my head. How foolish, such a little sound would persuade with such passion. I couldn’t help but giggle. As the sound, too, became louder, so did my laughter. It was a squishy, irregular sound, like the sound of flatulence through the rear of a fat pig, a sound I knew well on account of my ex-wife and her obsession for pie. Louder it became, and louder. Though I was sure, the men could not hear it, they too began to laugh. I stood up and walked quickly around the room holding my stomach with tears streaming down my face. I pushed my chair across the floor to make more noise, to cover the sound, to return some sense of normalcy to the scene. I talked even louder. Yet, despite my best efforts the laughter in the room only grew. In moments the men and I found ourselves falling to the floorboards. The only crime at hand, was that our complete folly might soon come to an end.
What mood do you get from that passage?
However you interpret my bad, off the cuff showcase, we can agree it’s certainly different.
While mood will often envoke similar emotions in the reader, this isn’t always the case (and the emotional affect of mood, can obviously be overridden by other elements of writing.)
Mood is more pliable than tone, reflective of the myriad of circumstances that come up in a story… but pay attention throughout the narrative. Drastically changing mood, or staying in a particular mood too long can quickly break a convention of genre.
If people go in expecting a horror story and get “three parts dark and stormy” and “seven parts, sunsets and candle light dinners”, your audience may be waiting outside your home with pitchforks and torches.
If you find this article useful, I invite you to swing by StoryToScript.com My paid member site deep dives a whole host of writing concepts. Practical, useful, insights in my hallmark no-bullshit style. Insights and tips you can implement today to improve your writing! Don't forget to visit the store page and snag a book; something to learn from, or just something to entertain.
Style is the writers technical choice of how they actually structure their narrative.
First and foremost it’s the actual way a writer is writing: diction, sentence structure, exposition heavy, dialogue heavy, etc. But really ANY repeating patterns (including use of tone and mood) can be attributed to a writer’s style.
Just reading through the website here, you’ll see lots of style: I’m a fan of using casual slang, mild profanity, goofy analogies, no oxford commas. I refer to a de facto masculine, break the fourth wall by calling readers “lads,” or “gents” and one of my favorites, old school double dashes instead of one ems.
Some elements of style are much more subtle than others. (nobody really cares when I “- -” something, as compared to “—” something…) But you know what they say, “the devil’s in the details.”
Last in the group is,
Genre is fiction focused on (or consisting of) a set of commonly recognized conventions.
I guess in the beginning, for whoever wrote the first few stories, genre didn’t exist. But these days, with a million billion comics, books and movies out there, it definitely does. You see humans are creatures of habit, who always look for patterns.
Audiences expect and rely on these patterns when reading genre material.
This is an important and powerful rule to understand.
A good writer plays with genre convention, delivering on these expectations without resorting to cliche. (I’ve got a nice article on the core genres as well as a collection of monster articles on some of the individual genres, search Story to Script for “real insights.”)
It’s no oversight genre was placed at the bottom of the list as the conventions that create a genre often include aspects of Tone, Mood and even Style.
For example, in horror we often expect something dark, isolated, with an air of desperation and panic. Or in a romantic-comedy, expect to see something sassy, upbeat and… well, comical.
Of course, genre goes far beyond Tone, Mood and Style, with much more specific conventions.
- fantasy usually has very distinctly drawn good and evil characters,
- Detective fiction typically requires a dead body within the opening pages,
- a Heist story almost always has an unexpected safety measure the characters aren’t prepared for…
Changing Tone, Mood and Style can drastically affect the nature of a story. In fact, a completely dead premise can often flourish with new life when such changes are applied.
Notice here, I didn’t say change in genre.
Of course, change in genre applies…
SILENCE OF THE LAMBS
“A young F.B.I. cadet must confide in an incarcerated and manipulative killer to receive his help on catching another serial killer who skins his victims.”
Genre swap to comedy:
“A completely daft F.B.I. cadet accidentally confides in an incarcerated and manipulative killer to receive his help on catching another serial killer who skins his victims.”
but before you rush to slap a genre label on a script (or premise) look more closely to the Tone, Mood and Style and begin your changes there.
A change in Tone:
I wanted to throw in a clear sample of how changing tone affects the writing.
For the lesson I’m going to borrow some of Steven Grant’s work from “Howard the Duck issue #32, circa 1986” (happen to have it in arm’s reach):
“In the beginning there was an egg. His earliest aptitude tests revealed Howard was best suited to be a mortician! But his own career goals led him in less secure directions! Minstreal, pugilist, hardhat–he’s been all of these! But mostly, due to his truculent tongue, his abrasive wit, and his low tolerance for occupational abasement… He’s been unemployed!”
Cue the tone change:
“Great things come from simple beginnings… and never-ending effort. Originally selected for mortician school, Howard cast aside his predetermined fate and followed his passion. Minstreal, pugilist, hardhat, a true jack of all trades, master of none. A life of low income and simple pleasures as his truculent tongue, abrasive wit and low tolerance of occupational abasement kept him on the unemployment line far more than he felt comfortable admitting.”
What tones do you pick up from Grant’s writing snippet as compared to mine? How does the tone change, alter the snippet? What kind of story would you expect the rest of the issue to be in each version?
Finally, I want to leave you with another sample of tone.
Not from a comic, or my own work, but from a work of fiction you might of heard of, “H.G. Wells, the War of the Worlds”. If you feel like playing with tone, give it a read then take a whack at rewriting it with a different tone.
“No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s and yet as mortal as his own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinised and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinise the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water. With infinite complacency men went to and fro over this globe about their little affairs, serene in their assurance of their empire over matter. It is possible that the infusoria under the microscope do the same. No one gave a thought to the older worlds of space as sources of human danger, or thought of them only to dismiss the idea of life upon them as impossible or improbable. It is curious to recall some of the mental habits of those departed days. At most terrestrial men fancied there might be other men upon Mars, perhaps inferior to themselves and ready to welcome a missionary enterprise. Yet across the gulf of space, minds that are to our minds as ours are to those of the beasts that perish, intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic, regarded this earth with envious eyes, and slowly and surely drew their plans against us. And early in the twentieth century came the great disillusionment. “
If you rewrite the passage, take a minute to re-read and think about your expectations of the rest of the story written in that new tone. If you weren’t clear on the four before, hopefully this article has revealed the power behind Tone, Mood, Style and Genre–use the power wisely young padawan. ▪
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Nick Macari is a full-time freelance story consultant, developmental editor and writer, working primarily in the independent gaming and comic markets. His first published comic appeared on shelves via Diamond in the late 90’s. Today you can find his comic work on comixology, Amazon, and in select stores around the U.S.
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