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Refining The Tone Of Scenes When Editing A Novel, by Helene Young

The tone of my stories is something that matures with each phase of editing. I had an epiphany recently when the morning drive time presenter on Brisbane’s ABC Radio 612 showcased songwriter Emma Stevens, and her song ‘A Place Called You’. The song was originally released with a boppy feel to it courtesy of the ukulele, the use of major chords and a lighter tone to her voice. A later version with keyboards and a minor key is darker, haunting and oh so sad.

Here is a YouTube link to each version. See what you think.

Listening to the two versions made me consider how a writer achieves the same effect in a scene. Having just handed in the completed structural edits of my next book I know first hand that small changes and additions can change the tone of a scene.

Here’s an example of embroidering the basic words to add mood.

First draft:


Her childhood friend, the local policeman, trailed water into the shop as the door clunked shut. His skin was alabaster; his eyes seemed hooded and set deeper in his face. His broad shoulders were hunched into his waterproof.  She froze.

Second Draft:


Her childhood friend, the local policeman, was framed in the doorway like a gunslinger in a western movie. Water cascaded off the hood of the waterproof and down over his broad shoulders. His normally tanned skin was leached of colour, the sparkle in his grey eyes missing. His mouth that smiled so readily was set in a straight line, concern in the creases around his eyes.  He looked stern. She froze.

The second version may be a touch over-written but it delivers a much greater sense of the character. In later editing it will lose a few words.

Here’s another example from Half Moon Bay. Ellie Wilding is a photographer so it’s important to show that she views her world through that professional perspective. Here’s what happened from the first draft through several edits to the finished version.

First Draft:

‘Maybe.’ She was watching him with those crystal clear eyes that seemed to see through his lies.  They were almost at his car and he flicked the remote hoping she’d let the conversation drop.

Finished Draft:

‘Maybe.’ She was watching him with those crystal-clear eyes that seemed to strip him to his core. He reached forwards and cleared a patch in the condensation on the window, hoping she’d let the conversation drop.

‘That’s exactly what it’s like.’ Ellie nodded at the distorted view of the playing fields through the smeared circle. ‘I know there’s a whole lot more to this, but all I can see is a blurred picture. It’s like having a damaged lens. Only a matter of time until I sharpen the focus and see the truth.’

Uncomfortable now, Nick started the car and music filled the cabin. He turned the air-conditioning on to clear the windows and turned the volume down enough for ‘Khe San’ to be bearable.

People often tend to think of editing as a process where we remove words but in fact it’s often the time when we add descriptive words and phrases, only to strip them back later, leaving behind the essence.

Adjectives and adverbs, in my opinion, receive unjustified bad press. We may not want our stories to be so full of embellishments that the reader becomes bored but well-chosen words here and there can dramatically alter the tone with little effort.

Be bold, I say. Lavish words on your characters and help them shine. You may well be surprised by the results.


Helene Young’s author website:

Helene Young’s bio page


Wings of FearShattered SkyBurning LiesHalf Moon Bay     A Distant LandThe Fragment of Dreams

Writing Novels in Australia

3 Comments Post a comment
  1. Hi Helene,
    Great advice – the rewriting and redrafting editing stages are very crucial in writing.

    September 29, 2013
  2. Thanks, Claire, for me editing is the fun part of writing when I can see real potential in all those words I’ve poured onto the page.


    September 30, 2013

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