what is tone in literature?

What is Tone in Literature? 

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.

Contents

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”:

I handed the telephone to the applicant, and sat down. Then followed that queerest of all the queer things in this world—a conversation with only one end of it. You hear questions asked; you don’t hear the answer. You hear invitations given; you hear no thanks in return. You have listening pauses of dead silence, followed by apparently irrelevant and unjustifiable exclamations of glad surprise or sorrow or dismay.

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:

  1. What the author describes to the reader, and
  2. 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”:

Jimmy and Anne Warriner had stumbled upon the Jackson Street cottage five years ago, just before their marriage, and after an ecstatic, swift inspection of it, had raced like children to the agent, to crowd into his willing hand a deposit on the first month’s rent. Anne had never kept house before, she had no eyes for obsolete plumbing, uneven floors, for the dark cellar sacred to cats and rubbish. She and Jim chattered rapturously of French windows, of brick garden walks, of how plain little net curtains and Anne’s big brass bowl full of nasturtiums would look on the landing of the absurd little stairway that led from the square hall to two useless little chambers above.

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:

poplar street 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:

Mr. Shi starts to look forward to the mornings when he sits in the park and waits for her. “Madam” is what he uses to address her, as he has never asked her name. Madam wears colors that he does not imagine a woman of her age, or where she came from, would wear, red and orange and purple and yellow. She has a pair of metal barrettes, a white elephant and a blue-and-green peacock. They clasp on her thin hair in a wobbly way that reminds him of his daughter when she was a small child—before her hair was fully grown, with a plastic butterfly hanging loose on her forehead. Mr. Shi, for a brief moment, wants to tell Madam how much he misses the days when his daughter was small and life was hopeful. But he is sure, even before he starts, that his English would fail him. Besides, it is never his habit to talk about the past.

Let’s break down the tone of this excerpt in three steps. We need to analyze:

  1. The subject of the passage,
  2. What details the author presents us, and
  3. 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</h3 > Here’s another example, from the prologue of Romeo & Juliet:

Two households, both alike in dignity,
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”:

Peter Pinter had never heard of Aristippus of the Cyrenaics, a lesser‐known follower of Socrates who maintained that the avoidance of trouble was the highest attainable good; however, he had lived his uneventful life according to this precept. In all respects except one (an inability to pass up a bargain, and which of us is entirely free from that?), he was a very moderate man. He did not go to extremes. His speech was proper and reserved; he rarely overate; he drank enough to be sociable and no more; he was far from rich and in no wise poor. He liked people and people liked him. Bearing all that in mind, would you expect to find him in a lowlife pub on the seamier side of London’s East End, taking out what is colloquially known as a “contract” on someone he hardly knew? You would not. You would not even expect to find him in the pub.

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.

For more on mood, check out our article on mood in literature.

What is Mood in Literature? Creating Mood in Writing

Tone vs. Mood Venn Diagram

What is tone, and how is it different from mood? This Venn Diagram summarizes their differences.

what is tone vs mood in literature

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.

Looking for honest feedback on the tone of your work? The online writing courses at Writers.com are designed to give you the feedback you need on your work. Take a look at our upcoming course calendar, and check out our Facebook group to join our creative writing community. We hope to see you there!

2 Comments

  1. […] is a writer’s attitude toward their topic. For instance, I am writing in an informative but conversational tone in this […]

  2. jt on August 25, 2022 at 8:06 am

    this is absolutely so amazingly and greatly appreciated

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