Oct. 31, 2023

Story Tone & Words

Story Tone & Words

What makes some stories easy to slip into and others more like homework? Good writing is the obvious answer, but even the experts pearl-clutch when someone treads on their pet structures or rules.

In this post, let’s consider good writing as having consistent tone, mood, and word choices that effectively tell the story. And let’s also see how effective writers do this.

I’ve often found occurrences of word fights — words within a brief space that conflict with the tone and mood the writer is trying to achieve. Tone and mood. Those make a spooky story scary, a thriller a rush to read, and a suspense scene that leaves you twisting in the wind.

For example, a writer sent me a piece with his story set in the days of stagecoaches. He used the swaying motion in the first paragraph to describe a coach’s movement. For the rest of the story, the writer pushed how rough and difficult travel was in those times. I pointed out to him the phrase swaying motion was too soft, and perhaps bounce and lurch would better suit.

Written words have texture, emotion, taste, smell, and sound. Written words activate the same sensory parts of the brain as audible words, some more than others.

Word effects

Some words have frozen, breaking glass effects, and others have a buttery softness that lingers. Both affect immersing the reader deeper into a scene when used appropriately. Those are the picture words that convey a rich and intense quality to a noun, verb, or person, and like clothing, each piece should match the others as an accent or complement. Or if you like, apply that to dinner flavors and the wine choices.

Occasionally, a writer will rub two words against one another, words with divergent meanings, to create a feeling beyond what the individual words create.

The mellow clang of the bronze bells….

Another clever use of word selection can be to name something without naming it.

The sound of rustling starched whiteness interrupted. “Doctor Philips can see you now, Mrs. Willington.”

The reader knows the words refer to a nurse’s arrival


A picture is worth a thousand words. Unknown.

True, but writers aren’t given a thousand words to paint a picture of a scene or a bowl of fruit. We must economize by using dense, crunchy, intense, impactful words that convey a paragraph of information to the reader in one punch or one soft feather tickle. But never both in the same scene unless the writer wants the reader to feel they’re walking across an unstable landscape.

Notice that I used the word bland writing earlier. Also, notice how the word bland sounds bland to the ear. In the brain, it feels flat, unappealing, and tepid.

Words that bloom

Look in a dictionary, any dictionary. Riffle through the pages and stop when you find one with a long entry. More times than not, you will find numerous definitions, synonyms, usage, and word strings that embrace the senses and conjure images. I call those the chocolate words that have savor and last on the tongue and in the mind’s memory.


Choosing mood words is about understanding how syllable / phonetic sounds affect us. From under my professor’s cap, I give you that there are only 44-word sounds in the English language. An easy, non-threatening number.

Most were given to us as labels in elementary school: short vowels, long vowels, R-controlled vowels, consonants… and a few more.

The point is to choose amplified words with sounds that suit the tone.

Sample accented sounds in words for tense, action, adverse, or suspenseful situations:


Sample accented sounds in words for languid, pastoral, and pleasant moods.


Reading for effect

Readers rarely repeat. Re-reading a sentence or paragraph is usually reserved for resolving confusion. Notice all the RE syllable words. The three in a row create alliteration and set up the rhythm of the second sentence. 

But that’s not my point. This is. I had a teenage friend who would buy a comic book and read it three times, once fast, once slow, and a third time fast again. He told me he wanted to get his quarter’s worth (yeah, it was that long ago). I would read it with my single-speed brain, thinking he was a bit odd. But now that I am a writer, going back is an enjoyable, new chew on a profoundly well-written section. Few things in life can be repeated with such enjoyment, where the second and third times are often more enjoyable than the first.

Good writers build those moments, and readers should take the time to enjoy them.