Tone is the psychological setting of your story. It establishes the ethos of your world, that is to say the prevailing philosophy. It is one of the key elements in giving weight and gravity to your story. It’s also very easy to get wrong.
Wild tone shifts are a problem, of course, though if handled skillfully they can be useful: they get the reader’s attention, for good or ill. What I really want to talk about today, however, is the danger of unmodulated tone. Of tone which is so thoroughly consistent from scene to scene that it becomes oppressive.
Into every life a little rain must fall, but it also can’t rain all the time. There need to be moments of tension in your story, but also moments of relief. It must fell as if the characters have some chance–no matter how slim–of changing their world. They have to be encouraged sometimes, and discouraged at others. An iron-clad consistent tone removes this possibility. Consider the grimdark story, which has become popular of late, where human life is often futile and its activities meaningless. Such stories rarely have satisfying endings–because the tone has already set the reader up to believe that there can be no satisfaction in such a crapsack world. If every signpost along the road reads DEAD END, a happy ending will feel forced and unrealistic. At the very least you need to show a time, perhaps in flashback, when the character was happy. A pleasant interlude, that makes the grittiness that much more unbearable. Absent any kind of hope or redemption, your world isn’t gritty, it’s grimy. A story that makes readers feel like they need a bath afterward. Was that what you wanted? If not, indulging too much in a dark tonal palette puts you at risk of ruining the emotional payoff of your story.
The converse, of course, is just as bad. Twee stories take place in a world without consequences, where the characters can screw up as badly as they like but the author will pick them up afterward, dust them off and bandage their boo-boos, and everyone is home in time for dinner. Such stories feel saccharine and unenjoyable. Not because they’re so unrealistic but because they’re weightless. There are no stakes, so there’s nothing to earn.
There is one kind of story where I think unrelenting tone works well, which is the naturalistic story, where the intent is to create a world so absolutely authentic and believable that it feels perfectly realized. Such stories tend not to have anything like a traditional plot, and often revolve around following a character through their daily routine. They are extremely difficult to make satisfying, however, because they eschew all the normal strategies of fiction. Not to say it can’t be done, and done well, but it may be one of the greatest challenges in writing.
Overly-consistent tone, as with any element of writing, draws too much attention to itself. It becomes the point of the story. Which is not always a bad thing–think of the witty froth of P.G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves stories, or the airless horror of The Road, for examples from either end of the spectrum. Books I love dearly, but which make no attempt to deliver a satisfying beginning/middle/end structure.
Think about what kind of story you want to write, and how you want readers to feel about it. If all you want is to convey a mood or emotion, absolutely run wild with tone. But if you’re more interested in having readers relate to your characters, or to put them through a roller coaster of a plot, step back a little from your tone, now and again. In what will become a refrain in these musings, my advice is to give your story room to breathe. On the eve of the climactic battle, let your characters have a friendly game of cards to soothe their nerves. In the midst of your story about the best birthday party ever, don’t be afraid to let a mouse run through the kitchen, scaring the birthday boy, for comic effect.
Tone is a tool. It is one of many in the writer’s toolbox. Learn to use it effectively and it can add enormous color and life to your story. Let it run away from you, and your story will suffer. It is well worth sitting down, before you even start plotting, and think about how you plan on using tone.