Everything you read has a tone. Blog posts will have an engaging and conversational tone; Textbooks often have an informative, matter-of-fact tone. A piece of satire might have a humorous or ironic tone. Tone in literature encompasses the wide variety of moods, thoughts, and feelings that authors imbue their work with.
But, what is tone? Where does it come from? And how do authors wield different types of tone in writing?
Tone can be a slippery concept to grasp, so let’s explore it methodically. We will first define tone in literature and look at relevant examples, then we will discuss the importance of tone and how it influences our writing. Finally, we look at tone vs. mood, two commonly confused literary devices.
What is Tone in Literature?
Tone in literature refers to the author’s attitude toward a certain topic.
Tone in literature refers to the author’s attitude toward a certain topic. Through specific word choice, the author reveals their feelings and opinions to the reader, conveying the author’s intentions behind the text. The tone of a story is always described using an adjective.
Tone often reveals itself through narrative details. For example, read this excerpt from Mark Twain’s “A Telephonic Conversation”:
What are some adjectives that describe this excerpt? The narrator could be described as sounding “baffled” or “nonplussed.” The telephone is clearly a recent invention for the author’s time, and the use of words like “irrelevant,” “unjustifiable,” and “queerest” suggest the author’s attitude toward telephone calls. Thus, “baffled” or “nonplussed” are two possible tones for the excerpt.
What Tone Isn’t
Before we continue, it’s important to note here what tone isn’t. Tone in writing does not refer to the following:
- A specific character’s attitude toward something.
- The attitude of the narrator—including the attitudes of first person fictional narrators.
- The mood or moods evoked by the piece.
Tone solely refers to the author’s attitude toward the subject of a specific piece of writing. It does not reflect the attitudes of characters, it only suggests the attitude of the author at that specific moment of the text.
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How to Convey Tone in Writing
Overall, tone in literature is conveyed through two means:
- What the author describes to the reader, and
- The author’s word choice.
So, to understand the author’s tone in writing, it’s important to analyze both the details that the narrator hones in on and the words used to describe those details.
The author can use the two tools above to convey their attitude in a variety of ways. In the Mark Twain excerpt above, he uses first person narrative to directly tell you how he feels. But an author can just as easily convey tone in writing with the third person, like Kathleen Thompson Norris does in “Bridging the Years”:
One way to describe the author’s attitude toward Jimmy and Anne is “mature.” The details suggest a feeling of seniority: the author clearly believes Jimmy and Anne are young and a bit immature. The author conveys this by using words like “absurd,” “useless,” and “swift,” indicating that the Warriners acted hastily and without planning. Additionally, the juxtaposition of the couple’s dreams (French windows, nasturtiums) next to their reality (obsolete plumbing, dark cellars) highlights the Warriners’ foolhardiness.
Yet, nothing about the passage feels critical—we’re merely observing the Warriners at this moment of their lives. So, we might say the passage has a tone that’s both “lighthearted” and “mature.” The author sees these characters as juvenile, but she doesn’t express this in a way that’s “holier-than-thou”—rather, the narration remains amused and observational.
What is Tone in Poetry?
Tone reveals itself in poetry much the same as it does in prose. By paying close attention to the poem’s details and word choice, the reader can gain a deeper understanding of the poet’s attitude.
Consider the first two couplets from the poem “Poplar Street” by Chen Chen:
The speaker’s tone could be described as both “meek” and “searching.” Words like “oh” and “sorry” reveal the speaker’s immediate disquietude, especially since he describes himself as “taken aback.” Despite this, he tries to make a connection with the non-coworker, commenting on details that one wouldn’t usually discuss with a stranger. Imagine a stranger saying these two couplets to you: does he sound confident and self-assured, or hesitant and self-conscious?
Types of Tone in Writing
There are endless types of tone in writing, limited only by the range of human emotions.
There are endless types of tone in writing, limited only by the range of human emotions. Let’s look at some common tones you might encounter, with examples. Each example of tone in writing communicates the same information, but uses different word choice and details to convey the author’s attitude.
|Tone Word||Example Sentence|
|Envious||His adorable new puppy explored the backyard with glee, and yes, it wiggled around on its back like it was making snow angels in July, and yes, it was a perfectly precious thing which anyone’s hearts would have been opened just to see, and he was very very lucky to have the new puppy all to himself.|
|Dour||He got a puppy. What on earth would he want a puppy for? The wretched things pee everywhere, damage the furniture, and always manage to wake their owners up in the middle of pleasant dreams.|
|Curious||He got a puppy, which was mostly confusing for people, since he openly disliked dogs. What would he want with a pet?|
|Hopeful||Maybe this new puppy would open his heart toward the world—both such bruised and tender things that, perhaps, will heal with love.|
|Condescending||He got a puppy, isn’t that adorable? Who does that anymore? So cute, so American, like a rich but terrible father trying to win his child’s love before a custody battle.|
|Agitated||He got a puppy, but there’s no need to talk about it, because it’s no more exciting than someone getting a new car horn or a bigger stereo system, except both of those things are probably much quieter than a new puppy is, so just don’t bring it up.|
|Educational||He got a puppy, but he made a lot of mistakes along the way. First, he never confirmed that the puppy was potty trained; second, he realized he didn’t own the leash he thought he owned; and third, he ran out of paper towel trying to clean up the puppy’s mess.|
|Accusatory||He got a puppy, like everyone knew he would, because he was hellbent on creating the worst living situation imaginable for everyone around him.|
|Unsure||Well, he did just buy a puppy, but he might have a bad habit of putting his dogs up for adoption once they get too big.|
|Ironic||He did what any normal, rational, totally sane, completely “in his mind” man would do, and bought a puppy.|
|Despondent||Why did he have to get a puppy? There goes my healthy sleep schedule.|
|Contemplative||He got a puppy which, if you think about it, was the best way for him to find motivation and love his life again.|
|Nervous||He got a puppy. A Rough Collie, in fact. A puppy with lots of germs, really sharp teeth, perhaps an inclination for blood. Nothing to worry about, right?|
|Relieved||There was no need to worry about him after he bought a puppy.|
|Apathetic||Eh, he got a puppy. I think it was brown.|
The Importance of Tone in Writing
Tone is an essential component of an author’s style. The author has to make certain stylistic choices to convey a certain tone, including a command over word choice, punctuation, sentence length, vernacular use, and the observational details they choose to include.
Let’s examine three more examples of tone in literature. We’ll take note of the author’s stylistic decisions and how the tone of the passage affects the way we read it.
More Examples of Tone in Literature
The following examples of tone in literature come from both classic and contemporary works.
Examples of Tone in Literature: Yiyun Li
Let’s start with this excerpt from the story “A Thousand Years of Good Prayer” by Yiyun Li:
Let’s break down the tone of this excerpt in three steps. We need to analyze:
- The subject of the passage,
- What details the author presents us, and
- The word choice that complements those details.
The subject of this passage is the woman whom Mr. Shi calls “Madam.” Specifically, we’re reading about Mr. Shi’s personal relationship to Madam, whom he has only just befriended at a local park. Identifying this subject allows us to focus on the way she’s described and the author’s apparent attitude.
The details that the author presents reveal Madam’s unique personality. She wears colors that are unexpected of “a woman of her age,” with hair barrettes befitting “a small child.” The author also reveals that Mr. Shi has the impulse to tell Madam about his life, even though that’s not his habit.
Some words that the author uses to describe Madam are color words: red, orange, purple, and yellow, with “a white elephant and a blue-and-green peacock.” She also has “thin hair” and her accoutrements hang on in “a wobbly way.”
Clearly, Madam is a woman of odd juxtapositions, with a child’s soul that persists in her old age. Nonetheless, she is described to us faithfully, as the author takes care to note not only her dress and age, but also the impact she has on Mr. Shi.
Knowing this, we can best describe the tone of this passage as “nuanced.” The author wants us to know about the complexities of Madam without revealing any secrets, so the passage paints a portrait while letting the characters reveal themselves.
Examples of Tone in Literature: William Shakespeare
Here’s another example, from the prologue of Romeo & Juliet:
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.
From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life;
Whose misadventured piteous overthrows
Do with their death bury their parents’ strife.
The fearful passage of their death-mark’d love,
And the continuance of their parents’ rage,
Which, but their children’s end, nought could remove,
Is now the two hours’ traffic of our stage;
The which if you with patient ears attend,
What here shall miss, our toil shall strive to mend.
The tone of this passage, as well as a recurring tone throughout Romeo & Juliet, is one of sympathy toward the play’s unlucky protagonists. The speaker makes a point of acknowledging Romeo and Juliet’s situation: they are both “star-cross’d lovers” who come from an “ancient grudge,” whose deaths are the only cure for their “parents’ strife.” The two lovers’ unfortunate fates were written in the stars.
Additionally, the words “misadventured” and “piteous” precede this idea that the lovers must die to mend their family conflict. These words reveal the author’s attitude toward Romeo and Juliet, and they also occur in the sonnet’s volta, signifying both the play’s dramatic irony and the sympathetic tone we should perceive it with.
Why this tone? Shakespeare is trying to highlight the tragedy of this play. If young love is pure and holy, anything that interrupts that love is a failure of humankind, and though Romeo and Juliet’s romance was impulsive, it deserved a fair shot at life.
Examples of Tone in Literature: Neil Gaiman
Last, let’s analyze the tone of the opening paragraph to Neil Gaiman’s “We Can Get Them For You Wholesale”:
The author’s tone in this passage is certainly ironic. Peter Pinter encompasses a very humorous duality: despite being an immeasurably moderate man, he’s suddenly engaging in suspicious activity in a suspicious part of town.
The author’s description of Peter Pinter underscores this irony. Peter is described as being like Aristippus of the Cyrenaics, whom you will probably never hear of unless you study Ancient Greek philosophers. The author also includes Peter’s penchant for bargains, his “proper” behavior, and his properly middle-class existence.
These items, when juxtaposed against Peter’s suddenly seedy surroundings, betray a playful sense of irony from the author. Not only is Peter’s story rife with situational irony, but the details that Gaiman focuses on reinforces this irony, creating an exposition that’s both humorous and perplexing. The fact that “you would not” expect Peter Pinter to be in this situation reveals the author’s ironic attitude, as well as the attitude one might expect from Peter’s close relations.
Tone vs. Mood in Literature
What is the difference between tone and mood?
Tone refers to the author’s attitude. Mood refers to the emotion that the author is trying to evoke from the reader.
Tone in literature, as we’ve mentioned, refers to the author’s attitude toward the subject of their writing. An author can express any number of attitudes through the words they use and the details they share.
Mood, by contrast, refers to the emotion that the author is trying to evoke from the reader. Compared with tone, the mood of a text is far more intentional, as the author wants to make the reader feel a certain way.
Sometimes, the tone and the mood of a passage are the same. The previous example from Neil Gaiman’s short story is both ironic in tone and in mood: the author thinks that Peter’s situation is rife with irony, and he also wants the reader to find Peter ironic as well.
However, consider the excerpt we shared from Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet . The author’s tone is deeply sympathetic, but the actual mood of the passage is somber. Shakespeare wants the author to feel sorrowful about the play’s events, because the unnecessary death of young love is a tragedy that everyone is responsible for.
Mood is different from tone in three ways:
- Mood can be influenced by the setting of a piece; tone cannot be.
- The author creates a mood to evoke certain emotions from the reader; tone is a matter of the author’s writing style.
- Literary devices help develop the mood; tone relies on dialogue and description.
Tone vs. Mood Venn Diagram
What is tone, and how is it different from mood? This Venn Diagram summarizes their differences.
Explore Tone in Literature at Writers.com
Tone is a byproduct of the author’s style and point of view. Nonetheless, it’s possible for a piece of writing to have a counterintuitive tone—the author may be expressing one emotion but suggesting another with their word choice.
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