February 1 – 7: “Which matters more – sentence structure or word choice?

thriller-roundtable-logo5This week ITW Members Paul McGoran, Elizabeth Noble and Carol Goodman are discussing tone. In developing a thriller’s tone, which matters more – sentence structure or word choice?




gone awayElizabeth Noble is the author of over a dozen novels including her mystery/thriller/suspense series Circles. Gone Away is the fourth novel in the series. Several of her thrillers take place remote wilderness locations. When she’s not spinning tales of murder and mayhem she’s a veterinary nurse who lives in Cleveland, Ohio with a very spoiled dog and cat. The comment she hears most often from readers is “I didn’t see that coming!”



River Road CoverCarol Goodman is the author of fourteen novels, including The Lake of Dead Languages and The Seduction of Water, which won the 2003 Hammett Prize, and, under the pseudonym Juliet Dark, The Demon Lover, which Booklist named a top ten science fiction/fantasy book for 2012. Her YA novel, Blythewood, was named a best young adult novel by the American Library Association. Her books have been translated into sixteen languages. She lives in the Hudson Valley with her family, and teaches creative writing at The New School and SUNY New Paltz.


paying for Pain coverPaul McGoran lives and works in Newport, Rhode Island. His first novel was the noir thriller MADE FOR MURDER. He began writing crime fiction after a long career in marketing. His favorite thing about writing is disappearing into the mind and thoughts of his characters. He is convinced that writers like him have a form of multiple personality disorder–without the alarming clinical symptoms.


  1. In developing a thriller’s tone, which matters more – sentence structure or word choice?

    In fiction, tone is the attitude expressed toward the story and its subject matter. Attitudes such as playful, serious, ironic, condescending, friendly, angry, apprehensive—all are examples of tone. An author commonly expresses the tone of a piece through a narrator. The world-weary P.I. with the cynical attitude is a classic example of using tone in crime fiction. Of course, this kind of P.I. is a cliche—and his tone edges toward monotone.

    When using multiple points of view in fiction, the writer can adopt a shifting tone depending on which of the story’s characters is in charge of a scene or chapter. Both sentence structure and word choice (diction) will help build the tone of a scene, but so will gestures, facial expressions and dialog. Imagery, too, will have an effect on tone.

    I’m having a hard time deciding whether sentence structure or word choice is more important in developing tone. But I can say that a thriller normally has a propulsive energy that is grounded in short declarative sentences. With this as a given, word choice may be an author’s best bet in distinguishing his brand of thriller from everyone else’s. Which gets us into the territory of an author’s voice and the mood he/she is trying to create. But I digress.

    I brought in mood because it’s an element I try to establish early on in a novel, and I use it in a more consistent fashion than tone. In a noir novel, for instance, the mood ranges from dark to very dark, while the tone will have a broader range. The overall tone of a thriller will depend on the attitude of the protagonist, but the author will have many chances to vary this aspect of his/her thriller through secondary characters. And that, I believe, is as it should be.

  2. Which matters more – sentence structure or word choice?

    When developing the tone of a thriller in my opinion word choice and sentence structure have equal importance.

    Let’s begin with the words. Words are what set the scene for the reader. They’re the information the reader needs to ‘see’ the story. Word choices fill our brains with images: dark sky; congealing blood on the pavement; a sharp, cold wind; the odor of decaying flesh. Through words the mental movie that goes along with reading a book are created.

    Words alone do not invoke an emotional response, however. What the words of a story begin, are completed by the sentence structure.

    Consider why we read thrillers? Why do we like them? It’s the sense of urgency. The gasp when we realize our hero is about to be ambushed. The apprehension when turning the page to learn what happens next. Think about when something exciting happens and there are several people recounting the events later. They talk fast. Use short sentences and abbreviated descriptions.

    ‘The sky was black.’ Gives us, the reader, enough to know what the environment of the scene looks like. The use of a shortened sentence structure is what gives the reader that tightness in their chest, that sense of urgency that in turn gives us the thrill.

    Creating that exciting, suspenseful tone of a thriller demands good descriptive words. Having those words arranged in a certain way rounds out the mood and emotions we feel from the story.

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