Over a period of one year, famous artist Claud Monet dedicated himself to painting a set of haystacks during various seasons, weather conditions, and times of day. Sounds monotonous, right?
On the contrary, the results were stunning, because Monet discovered a technique that can revolutionize any scene—whether it’s typed in a word processor or splashed onto a canvas.
Monet’s Haystacks all contain basically the same subjects, but the lighting recasts the mood increment by increment. I used to judge his tastes as too “refined” for impressionism, but these paintings blew my attitude of belittlement to pieces. Each stroke of his brush demonstrates how writers can captivate readers with characters, settings, and events that, at first glance, seem ordinary.
The Secret Hidden in the Hay
On Monet’s quest to capture the magic of transient light, he had his assistant haul multiple canvases out to his neighbor’s field, where he’d paint until the ambience shifted. Light became the centerpiece of his artwork, affecting every blade of grass, flake of snow, and speck of dirt.
Lilla Cabot Perry recalls Monet’s advice to her as she was developing her impressionist skills: “When you go out to paint, try to forget what objects you have before you, a tree, a house, a field, or whatever. Merely think, here is a little square of blue, here an oblong of pink, here a streak of yellow, and paint it just as it looks to you, the exact color and shape, until it gives your own naïve impression of the scene before you.”
Before I explain how Monet’s philosophy relates to writers, if you aren’t familiar with his Haystacks, look them up now! The paintings drip with color, not so much illustrating the landscape as expressing the chill whisper of an autumn morning or the lazy sigh of an overcast summer afternoon. When you compare each one, the significance of the lighting becomes unmistakable and fascinating.
The Lesson for Writers: Tone Is Paramount
If you asked me to name some authors who have effectively applied Monet’s approach to fiction, Patrick Rothfuss and Ray Bradbury would be at the top of my list. Coincidentally, these two are also matchless at prose. If you don’t already own copies of The Name of the Wind and Fahrenheit 451, click the links below for previews of the first few pages. I’ll also quote the opening lines to entice you to read farther.
It was night again. The Waystone Inn lay in silence, and it was a silence of three parts.
The most obvious part was a hollow, echoing quiet, made by things that were lacking. If there had been a wind, it would have sighed through the trees, set the inn’s sign creaking on its hooks, and brushed the silence down the road like trailing autumn leaves.
It was a pleasure to burn.
It was a special pleasure to see things eaten, to see things blackened and changed. With the brass nozzle in his fists, with this great python spitting its venomous kerosene upon the world, the blood pounding in his head, and his hands were the hands of some amazing conductor playing all the symphonies of blazing and burning to bring down the tatters and charcoal ruins of history.
Did you catch how the tone seeps into the pores of every jot and tiddle? Light tinges everything it touches in a similar manner. Although we often think of shadows as black, colors are never static, so gray or blue or purple might be visible depending upon the items involved. Our interpretation of our surroundings is subject to the position of the sun, the moon, the stars, and whether a lamp is fluorescent or LED.
Tone is the literary equivalent to light because it creates the reality readers see in their imaginations. In impressionist paintings, light takes precedence over individual details. In fiction, I’d suggest that tone should follow the same rule.
When readers pick up a book, what are they looking for? An emotional experience. But the shade of a character’s eyes, the workings of governments, and the ping-ping of sci-fi blasters almost never deliver that when described pragmatically. Without light, objects become amorphous, and without tone, details become meaningless.
Study the prologue to The Name of the Wind. Notice the missing sounds of wind or conversation, men huddled in the corner of a bar, a stone hearth, flaming red hair. The details themselves aren’t interesting, and nothing consequential happens, yet the scene is intense! Why? Because sorrow and mystery saturate every sentence and build toward this part: The Waystone inn was his, just as the third silence was his. This was appropriate, as it was the greatest silence of the three, wrapping the others inside itself. It was deep and wide as autumn’s ending. It was heavy as a great river-smooth stone. It was the patient, cut-flower sound of a man who is waiting to die.
Now that you understand how tone transforms scenes, though, what can you do to capitalize on it? Just put your energy into three steps.
Step #1: Point of View
Impressionist paintings rely on the artist’s perceptions, whereas storytelling revolves around a character’s inner self. Unless the POV is omniscient, the character who is most relevant to the scene will narrate the happenings in his or her unique voice. First-person is the most intimate because all of the observations will be direct, but usually third-person at least includes hints of the character’s personality.
Regardless of the POV you choose, if your protagonist’s thoughts and demeanor clash with your setting or plot, you have a problem. You’ll send mixed signals to readers, and they won’t know how to respond. Are they supposed to feel outraged or annoyed? Relieved or ecstatic? Pay attention to the slang and metaphors your POV characters use, the flavor of their internal monologue and dialogue, and of course their actions.
Here’s a scene I made up as an example of the slip-ups you’ll need to watch for. The strikethrough text indicates where the tone (foreboding) derailed, and the revision comes immediately afterward.
Kestian strolled waded through the field nettles surrounding the ancient fortress. Glimmering mist arrayed its crumbling towers. Mist lurked around the corner of every crumbling tower. Someone peeked at him—from where, he didn’t know—and a shiver tickled his neck. Someone tracked his movements, and he imagined eyes floating in unlikely places: the trunk of a tree, the rolling fog, the moss on the ground.
A stone dwarf with a twisted staff adorned guarded the gate. Kestian shuffled edged past.
The twisted staff plunked in front of him sliced across his path. “He who goes into the Dolnim’s keep returns not in this life. He who goes in not knowing what he seeks, finds at last ignorance’s boon.”
Step #2: Motifs
Light establishes the mood largely through the diffusion of a particular tint, such as warm or cold. A single idea duplicated over and over is what wraps us in the splendor of a sunset or the mournfulness of a steady drizzle. As Monet said, “For me, a landscape does not exist in its own right, since its appearance changes at every moment; but the surrounding atmosphere brings it to life—the light and the air which vary continually. For me, it is only the surrounding atmosphere which gives subjects their true value.”
In a story, this “tint” is called a motif: “a recurring narrative element with symbolic significance” (definition courtesy of Reedsy). These narrative elements can be plot focused (a child’s death), character focused (analogous people whose lives lead to contrasting outcomes), or theme focused (a medallion that represents fame). Repeating these narrative elements emphasizes their importance. If you’re trying to convey that fame is enslaving and empty, you might feature three medallions in a scene: one that a young upstart is eager to win, another that’s awarded but not rightfully earned, and a third hanging above a mantel that belongs to a deceased man.
The motif in the prologue to The Name of the Wind shouldn’t be difficult to spot. The only shocking revelation is the pervasive silence, not a murder or a coup or misguided motives. Most writers would have been content mentioning the first type of silence to set the mood, then moving on to action and dialogue. But that wouldn’t incorporate any motif. Repetition arouses readers’ curiosity so that they start searching for the reason a symbol is so prominent.
Ray Bradbury also instills motifs into his opening scenes. Pure light is the call of truth and discovery, flames are the happy deception Montag is living in, and darkness is his fear of the light (truth). However, one motif overarches the others: inevitability. It first appears when Montag is about to round a corner and somehow senses that a girl will be waiting for him. The fatalism reprises when he expects his foot to collide with something on the bedroom floor—a pill bottle his wife overdosed with.
In between these two incidents is another iteration of the motif and one of the most beautiful passages I’ve ever read:
Montag shook his head. He looked at a blank wall. The girl’s face was there, really quite beautiful in memory: astonishing, in fact. She had a very thin face like the dial of a small clock seen faintly in a dark room in the middle of a night when you waken to see the time and see the clock telling you the hour and the minute and the second, with a white silence and a glowing, all certainty and knowing what it has to tell of the night passing swiftly on toward further darkness, but moving also toward a new sun.
Although the fact is never explicitly stated, the motif reveals that Montag is on the verge of change—that the fire’s glow and the darkness he clings to are flickering as truth emerges. This is the primary motif partly because it’s spotlighted more but also because giving readers a premonition is yet another essential aspect of tone.
Step #3: Prophecy
Here I’m going to deviate from Claud Monet. While I could continue drawing a connection to impressionist painting, I’d risk skewing my argument. Nevertheless, prophecy does flow naturally out of the tactics I’ve discussed thus far.
If you’ve read The Name of the Wind, you probably came to the same conclusion I did: the plot is (mostly) foretold in the prologue and first chapter. Kvothe glides through the story as if he’s riding a current that can’t carry him to any other destination except the one he arrives at.
We’re accustomed to assuming that a story’s ending reminds us of its beginning because the author employed chiastic structure—a pattern of events that mirrors itself. But this fails to explain why every moment is undeniably intrinsic. Something more magical is at play, and I believe it springs from tone.
Even in the first couple paragraphs, both Rothfuss and Bradbury stir up feelings that return again and again to haunt later chapters. From early on, you can predict exactly what sort of book you’re plunging into. I call this “prophecy” because it evokes more awe and suspense than simply recognizing a pattern. It reminds us of real prophecy, which originates in the One who exists outside of time, and through it we receive, perhaps, a glimpse of that omniscience.
“For I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning, and from ancient times things that are not yet done, saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will do all my pleasure’” (Isaiah 46:9–10).
To impart a prophecy of your own, identify the tones you want readers to absorb, then make those ideas especially obvious in your opening chapters and keep reviving them after that.
Bonus Step: Practice Poetry
Rothfuss and Bradbury are masters at making words dance. While meter and metaphor alone might not turn scenes into dreams, you’ll add vibrancy that lifts even more words off the page. To learn this art, you might try directly copying their style like I did with author Markus Zusak, or you could explore exceptional poetry and challenge yourself to write your own. Our poetry article series can help guide you on that journey.
Don’t worry if intoxicating scenes aren’t second nature for you yet. Like Claud Monet, keep your eyes on the big picture and never stop experimenting. The details will fall into place.
Many moons ago, a series of suspiciously providential events led Daeus to cast his lot among the worldwide community of Christian storytellers. Since then, no reports indicate that he has come back out. Perhaps he is lost among those fine gallivanters forever. Rest in peace, Daeus Lamb.
Daeus dreams impossibly large (which doesn’t bother him a bit) and tends to bite off more than he can chew. Watch this in action as he tries to capture the depths of the fantasy genre on his YouTube channel, or as he seeks to express the meaning of life in just a short novelette. (Psst. It’s a popular little book called God of Manna and you can get it for free here.)