Creative Writing: Setting the Tone

Have you ever read a chase scene that made you feel like you were taking a Sunday stroll? Or maybe the intended Sunday stroll felt like a choppy river ride. Although this can often be due to word choices and faulty imagery, sometimes a few slices to a long, run on sentence can do the trick. When we’re frightened, our mind moves quickly. We think in fragments, with one thought jumping to the next with little, if any, time for retrospect or analytical thinking. Our writing should reflect the natural tone of thought.

If you are writing an intense scene intended to elicit fear or suspense, choose short, even choppy sentences. And strong verbs.

Ex: The light turned green. He gunned it. A flash of movement to his right turned his head. Gripping the steering wheel tighter, he gave a jerk, narrowly missing a side-on collision. The high-pitched blare of a horn pierced his eardrum. He accelerated until buildings and warehouses blurred into indiscriminate bands of color. Faster, faster! Red and blue lights flashed in his peripheral vision. Sirens squealed. A bead of sweat trickled down his forehead and into his eye. He blinked it away.

Not: The light ahead of him turned green. He knew the speed limit was thirty five, but his fear urged him to break it. He thought about all the tickets he’d received over the past year. Tanya would kill him. (Really? He’s gonna think about this now? Or is he caught up in escape?) There was a flash of light to his right as he sped across the intersection. It was an oncoming car. (Won’t we make this connection ourselves?) He turned the steering wheel (which verb paints a better picture of action? turned or jerked? Which sounds more panicked?) to miss the oncoming car. The driver honked his horn. He pushed his foot on the grass to go faster. A police man turned on his lights and siren, adding to his anxiety.

Okay, so now let’s try the same scene but with a different tone.

The light turned green. Pressing on the gas until his car accelerated just below the thirty-five mile per hour limit, he draped his hand over the steering wheel and replayed Jenna’s words in his mind. Was she really busy, or was she looking for a convenient way to avoid him? Things had been so much easier with Tessa. Maybe she was a little loud and rough around the edges, but you always knew where you stood. No more guessing and light footing it, studying every eye-twitch for hidden messages.

A flash of light to his right followed by the familiar “whirl-eeee-weee!” of a siren drew his eyes to his speedometer. The dial hovered just above eighty. Great. Here came his third speeding ticket for the month. One more and he’d set a new record.

Wanna try it? See if you can create two conflicting scenes (one intended to elicit fear, and one with a more relaxed or analytical feel. Or perhaps anger and then sadness.) using the following:

A (lit or unlit) stair well, a (dead or alive) flower, peeling wall paper, an extension cord, a workbench with tools of your choice and an old rusted chest. Ah, what’s inside?

As usual, email, facebook or comment your answers. Who knows, maybe one of these prompts will turn into a 90,000 word story!

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