The comments Jeff Savage left for Writer Tip #2 flow into this tip so smoothly, it's almost like we planned it. Which we didn't, but I could act all glib and pretend like we did.
Today we're going to talk about setting the tone, either for your whole book or just for one scene. Jeff pointed out that your tone of voice will immediately convey to the reader what they are supposed to be thinking and feeling as they read, so I won't discuss voice too much here. What I'd like to concentrate on is the nitty-gritty of word choice.
Sometimes when we're typing along at 120 words per minute (because we all type that fast, right?) we throw in words that mean approximately what we want to say and tell ourselves that we'll come back and fix it later. That's a pretty wise practice -- why slow the flow when you're on a roll? Come back later and polish it up. And in that polishing, take a close look at each of your word choices.
1. "A light rain fell." The word "light" instantly denotes a gentle spring rain, or a pleasant drizzle. This is a happy rain, rain we're glad to get, a refreshing respite from dry heat. We're glad to see this rain. You wouldn't say "A light rain fell, dampening the dead body that sprawled on the ground in a puddle of blood." (I'm sorry -- Jeff got me thinking about dead bodies. You can blame him.)
But what if it is lightly raining? Let's look at the word "light." What other words could we use to convey the same message (not very much rain) but with a less cheerful word? Off the top of my head, I can think of "slight," "drizzling," "scattered," and "intermittent." I'm sure you can come up with several as well.
2. "She smiled as she drove the stake through the vampire's heart." Okay, perhaps her teeth are exposed, but would she really be smiling? We'll assume here that this is the climax to a long, scary scene. Perhaps the vampire has been chasing her through the whole book and she's finally gaining her freedom. We've been building up stress and this should be the grand hi-ya! How about "grimaced" (although watch this one -- it's one of the more commonly overused words) or "gritted her teeth" Or even "inhaled through her teeth." All of these would indicate that her mouth was open and her teeth were showing, but "smiled" is too happy a word.
Okay, I realize I've gone a little off the deep end with these examples. Once you get me thinking about dead bodies, who knows where I'll end up. But in summary: set the tone of the scene with your word choice. Don't use happy words in a tense setting. If you're creating a happy setting, don't use tense words unless you're building up to something later on. Keep your word choices consistent with the feeling you want your reader to have. Now I'm gonna go gut me a vampire.