A novel's tone/atmosphere is typically established within the first few chapters of the book.

So, let's say, we establish the story as a light-hearted, over-the-top fantasy deconstruction, with humor only I will understand.

And now, how am I supposed to turn this into a psychological horror, where the repurposed enchantment and illusion spells, from the D&D 5e System Reference Documents, dispense great misery on the characters.

Establishing the tone is one thing, shifting it either to the lighter or the darker side is a different one. How do I execute this tone shift without it feeling awkward?

5 Answers 5


The difficulty with tonal shifts are their disruptive potential. A story may be chugging along nicely when out of nowhere a stereotypical romance turns into a survival horror. The key to pulling this off is foreshadowing. Only by keying the reader in on what could come can the reader get through a tonal shift without being entirely surprised or turned off.

Foreshadowing a tonal shift could come in the form of a scene, a chapter, a piece of dialogue, or even some backstory which is still firmly rooted in the current tone but alludes to a different tone or set of themes. Take the romance/horror example. Two characters could be discussing a steamy, rumored affair between a supporting character and another character who will become the bloodthirsty antagonist. This conversation has all the markings of dialogue out of a romance novel, but one character mentions he was once convicted of stalking, or that he is rumored to have been abusive with a former partner. In the moment, this amounts to nothing more than a rumor, but it does inform the reader that such topics and themes are fair game in this story.

Of course, tonal shifts do not always need to be so drastic and immediate. Take the Lord of the Rings for example (I'll use the movies, given the tonal shift is much more clear). The initial backstory is dark and brooding, introducing a terrible and unfathomable evil and widespread bloodshed. Cut to the shire, where the Hobbits attend Bilbo's birthday party with singing, dancing, and fireworks. When the story shifts back to that darker tone following Frodo receiving the Ring, it's not so jarring. Imagine if the movie started in the Shire, without any backstory. That would be much more jarring!

In your case, you might utilize a darker take on your world's history to foreshadow your shift. You can still retain a lighthearted atmosphere, but drop in one or several sobering flashbacks or discussions of the darkness that is to come. Personally, I think fantasy is ripe for such a technique given reader expectations of battle/death/dark magic in most fantasy settings.


It is quite common for a work of fiction to show a "Calm before the storm".

Maintaining good humor after the tonal shift is much more difficult, and rare. The movie "Life Is Beautiful" is the first example which comes to my mind. Much more common is that dramatic shift is serving for the purpose of characters' maturing up and losing their innocence (like in Gone with the Wind).

So, don't worry about the tonal shift if your plot dictates it. Focus on your characters - do they stay realistic over the course of change? Someone can break, someone will get hardened, someone will laugh in the face of death.


One of the best examples that come to my mind of executing a tonal shift is Catch 22. It starts hilariously funny, mocking all the absurdities of the military. Then the same elements are revisited again and again, only they become darker each time, until what is left is the horror of war. For example, right in the beginning, there's a mention of "the dead man in Yossarian's tent", and of a naked soldier sitting in a tree. In the last chapters we find out

The dead man is a soldier who was on board a bomber before his paperwork was ever processed on the base. He was killed, but he can't be reported as KIA because officially he wasn't there in the first place. And Yossarian was naked because his only uniform set got soaked in said dead soldier's blood.

How is this tonal shift done?

First, it is foreshadowed. As I have said above, events are revisited, with new layers of meaning revealed. You needn't be as spiral as Catch 22 - no reason why your plot sholdn't progress more linearly. But something that will turn out to be dark later can be half-mentioned - hints, that you don't linger over at this stage, but later the reader will realise they were there all along.

Second, it is gradual. There is no jarring jump from comic to tragic. Instead, the plot sort of spirals into tragedy. Events develop. We learn new things as we read on. Things that appeared funny and light-hearted suddenly reveal darker meanings and stop being funny.
It is like Al Gore's frog metaphor: if you jump from comedy to horror all at once, readers will flinch. If you make the change gradual, they won't notice things are spiralling out of control until it's far too late.


My advice to you would be to watch the first third of a few horror movies and take careful note of how you feel while you are sitting there scoffing popcorn (there has to be popcorn).

Typically, movies like that start out very light and humorous - you might initially feel like you are watching a romantic comedy or one of those hilarious road-trip movies. Then - something happens. Perhaps it gets dark and the GPS gives up. Maybe there is an accident on the road ahead and the only route is through a forest. Possibly there is a loud noise from downstairs and you know for a fact that no-one could possibly be down there.

Whatever the problem - a tonal shift will occur - suddenly or gradually, as subsequent events unfold. Watch for it. Take notes on how it has happened and what the actors/directors have done to achieve this effect. Then work on replicating this effect in your writing.

Alternatively: read horror. It takes longer that way, but the advantage is that it can give you the words you need rather than just the images/tonality.

Good luck with your project.


For my money to make such a shift work you either have to do it really slowly or as a single shockingly abrupt event. My preference is generally for the latter, so that the characters are rolling along and then the world turns and suddenly they're in a completely different situation. This allows you to show the characters struggling to understand why they have been suddenly plunged into a situation beyond their control and understanding. While it's shocking to the audience as well as the world of the story they, the readers, are living that shock with the protagonists of the tale which is comforting.

To make a slow change effective takes a lot of time and effort, so much so that I can't think of any single novel where it's done effectively. You have to add in incremental shifts that the characters note but rationalise and that the reader doesn't understand in isolation. For minor shifts this can be done with a few small nudges and an "aha! moment" where it all comes together but to make large global shifts you have to pass through too much "middle-ground" because the increments add up to a shift, or several, long before they add up to the ultimate goal position.

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