Look at that tree. It’s a pretty normal tree, right? I tried to pick a very neutral picture of a tree–one that could be anywhere, with anything going on around it outside the frame. Anything could be happening to the person observing it.
How would you choose to describe this tree? That choice should depend on what your character is feeling, and the overall tone of your story. This tree could be described in any way you need to make it fit that tone. It’s all in how your character observes it.
My point here, is to show that you don’t need to set the scene to fit the tone. You don’t need scary weather (or a scary tree) for a scary scene, you just need to describe whatever weather is happening, for example, in a scary way.
Let’s describe this tree in a few tones, as observed by someone called Jane who has different feelings depending on what you need for your story.
Creepy: The lone tree followed her from the corner of her eye. She tried not to look at it, but it lingered there just out of sight, pulling, tugging at her until she turned her head. The trunk rose from the earth like an arm from the grave, and grasping finger-like branches sprouted mold-green leaves that seemed to turn her way as she passed, as if somehow sensing her movement. Those leaves absorbed all sound, all light, and pulled at the air, creating a vortex that drew her ever toward the dry and crumbling embrace of the twisting branches.
Happy: The tree gave Jane a wave as she passed, welcoming her to the day. The rustling of its leaves in the wind was a song, a refreshing music in her ears. In a moment of spontaneity she dodged off the path, her feet swishing through the springy grass, and laid a hand on its trunk. It seemed to vibrate with life, spilling its extra energy into her heart. She reached up and rubbed a leaf between her fingers. The glow of the sun lit golden veins in the leaf–veins that Jane was sure must be pumping pure life and love through the interior of the tree.
Depressing: The tree stood alone in the endless desert of grass. Its branches reached uselessly out, grasping for the absent. Jane had a momentary desire to approach the isolated creature–to touch it. But she was not like it. They could have no kindred contact, no communication. The tree stagnated in solitary confinement with its soil and sun–food and water for the prisoner. It would produce pointless seeds that would be swept away by the wind or the landscapers, until the final day of release when it would be cut down and burned to warm the skin of some being it would never comprehend.
Excited: Onward! the tree seemed to say. It waved its branches like a matador urging her to charge, and Jane could not help but increase her pace.
(This one is much shorter because we don’t want to slow down the excited tone we’ve set by over-describing.)
Frustrated: One tree in the entire, empty, wide open field–one single, god damned tree and it had to be right there, blocking her view of the sunset. Its dumb, hulking branches stretched out to hide the light, and even as she hurried forward to get past its mindless, torpid frame, the colors in the sky already faded. Of course they did. The winds of fate had guided the seedling to just that spot. Sun and rain had nurtured it, urged it up and out into the sky–all with the the aim of getting its flapping leaves in her way at just this moment, and making her day one fraction of a shit worse.
The tree, of course, is not the point. The tree could be anything. The idea is that you describe objects and events and people based on the tone you want the story to have, and the feelings your character is experiencing.
Give it a try! It makes each scene you need to describe more fun to write when you have some way you need to bend it.
One Reply to “How to set the tone”
Awesome post. Great examples. Thanks.