What would The Lord of the Rings trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien be without an oppressive aura, The Oz Collection by L. Frank Baum sans its yearning pathos, and Charles Dicken’s Oliver Twist with no melancholy? A novel’s story tone can make or break it’s emotional appeal for readers. Given that most readers say they read for the way stories make them feel, it behooves an author to set a story tone that will inspire the right mood. We’ll look at some examples to learn how to do this, but let’s start with a definition of the concepts that will come up in this article.
In fiction writing, the author sets the story tone by giving an opinion or making an observation on a topic (the theme) that stirs emotions within the reader. The universal emotions evoked by the story tone are known as the story mood (or atmosphere).
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Set a Winning Story Tone
Writers don’t usually pay much attention to story tone, but a mistake with this important element can be a deal-killer. A reader might not know why he or she can’t “get into” a well-written book with an interesting premise, but a mismatched story tone could well be the culprit. The tone of your story should enhance the main theme. If it doesn’t, start over. It’s that important.
Supporting the main theme of your book with an appropriate story tone is no small feat but well worth the effort.
Deciding which story tone to set is an artistic choice. To help you make it, ask yourself the following three questions:
- What is the story’s main theme?
- What do you want to say about the theme?
- How do you want the reader to feel while reading your story?
The Lord of the Rings fantasy trilogy has a theme that explores the effects on the human spirit of power. The author’s opinion that power corrupts but that it is possible through innocence to resist evil plays out throughout the story. Tolkien masterfully leads the reader through beautiful-but-terrible settings fraught with peril on a journey into despair itself. At Mount Doom the temptation to surrender is strongest for the hero, who must decide whether to cling to innocence and save the world or cave into corruption and destroy it.
To prove his theme, Tolkien used a story tone that takes us into the darkest darkness where the tiny flame of hope can flicker most brightly. His message resounded with his contemporary audience, gripped by World War II, and resonates in modern times. The universal emotions of despair and hope it stirs within readers remain timeless.
The Oz Collection by L. Frank Baum, tells the story of a prodigal to reaffirm the importance of home and family. The movie version of this book states the theme best when Dorothy says, “There’s no place like home.” The author gives his opinion within the story that having a home is a treasure we don’t fully appreciate.
To communicate his opinion, the author created a yearning story tone. The heroine’s misplaced desire to escape her home is unexpectedly fulfilled when catastrophe strikes in the form of a tornado. Note that it is not a happy event that calls Dorothy away from home. Unless said event turned out badly, that would have worked against the tone the author wanted the story to have.
Although Dorothy sees wonders in Oz, they often terrify her. She must travel a winding road made of yellow bricks before her burning desire to return home can be fulfilled. The color yellow is often thought to represent happiness, of interest because the universal emotions this story relies on are the yearning for happiness (likened to “home”) and the terror of losing it.
Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens, takes us into a world of poverty in the streets of London, where we meet a host of colorful characters all focused on their own survival. This dog-eat-dog storyworld is the important, even necessary, backdrop for an act of stunning selflessness that drives home the author’s point. Despite its starving orphans, gloomy settings, and gut-wrenching storyline, the story tone supports a redemptive theme. Dickens’ opinion that despite the basic selfishness of man, love prevails ties into the primeval desire for freedom, happiness, and love. No wonder this story remains a cherished classic.
Final Thoughts from Janalyn
I define story tone and mood in more detail in the article: “Story Tone and Mood—What are They?” If you are fuzzy on the difference between story tone and story mood, I suggest reading this post. For more on use of a central theme in fiction, read “Develop a Story Line with a Theme.” Have something to add? Let me know in a comment. If you enjoyed this post please share it.