Atmosphere is one of the most important literary elements in a story—and tone and mood can help make your reader’s experience more real and immersive. But even though they play a similar role, these two literary devices have a few key differences in the way they enhance the atmosphere of a story.
It’s easy to confuse tone and mood, so in this article we’ll clear up what the difference is and how to use them effectively in your writing (with some helpful examples!)
What is tone in writing?
In a literary work, tone is the author’s attitude within the actual text. It conveys a manner of speaking, just like someone talking out loud can take on different tones of voice. Examples of tone might be things like cynical, inflammatory, fearful, arrogant, hopeful, or nostalgic.
By paying attention to the tone of your work, you can make the story feel more real to your reader.
What is mood in writing?
Mood in literature refers to more than just sentence structure and word choice; it’s the feeling created by the entire narrative. Stories with strong themes often have strong corresponding moods.
For instance, if your theme is “Love Conquers All,” the mood of your story will probably be romantic, hopeful, and optimistic. If your theme is “Crime Doesn’t Pay,” some mood examples might be harsh, gloomy, or pessimistic. You can use a lot of different elements to create a mood. We’ll look at some examples below.
The difference between tone vs. mood
The difference between tone vs. mood is that tone is about the narrator’s attitude within the piece of writing, while mood is the overall sensation that the reader gets from engaging with your story. Tone can contribute to mood, but mood is much broader and includes many different storytelling elements.
So how do they look different in practice? Consider these two examples from William Goldman’s cult classic The Princess Bride.
I wandered through December. No topcoat. I wasn’t aware of being cold though. All I knew was I was forty years old and I didn’t mean to be here when I was forty, locked with this genius shrink wife and this balloon son. It must have been 9:00 when I was sitting in the middle of Central Park, alone, no one near me, no other bench occupied.
This snapshot is brimming with tone. It’s sardonic, depressing, and introspective. Goldman uses short sentences and crisp, approachable language to convey a stripped down attitude as the narrator takes a hard look at what his life has become.
Buttercup ran. She whirled and burst away and the tears came bitterly; she could not see, she stumbled, she slammed into a tree trunk, fell, rose, ran on; her shoulder throbbed from where the tree trunk hit her, and the pain was strong, but not enough to ease her shattered heart. Back to her room she fled, back to her pillow. Safe behind the locked door, she drenched the world with tears.
If this isn’t a #firstlovemood, I don’t know what is. Goldman’s character runs, whirls, bursts, stumbles, slams, throbs, shatters, flees, and drenches. The narrator uses the two settings to enhance the hopelessness of the scene along with vibrant, visceral language that convey a mood of chaotic, directionless heartbreak.
3 devices that enhance tone in your story
Whether you’re building the author’s tone or the characters’ tones, you’ll want to pay extra close attention to how you’re choosing to convey your ideas. Let’s break down what goes into the line-level choices of a story.
Diction means choosing the right word for a given context or situation. By varying your word choice slightly, you can give the same sentence a completely different meaning. For example, saying “do you have a sec?” means the same thing as “we need to talk,” but the tone of voice comes across differently. One uses a carefree, neutral tone while the other uses an ominous one.
This is a useful device when it comes to making your characters sound different from each other.
Syntax means structuring your sentence in a certain way. For example, longer, more complex sentences are often used in academic writing, while short, snappier sentences are used in more casual speech.
You can also adjust your syntax to help with the pacing of a scene; if it feels too rushed, try using longer sentences. If it’s starting to drag, try compressing the same ideas into shorter ones. Charles Dickens, a writer with a distinctive tone of voice, often used long, languid sentences in his work.
Context refers to the way words are used and what they’ve come to mean to us culturally. You can enhance the tone of your story by choosing words that elicit a certain feeling in the reader.
For example, words that carry a melancholy tone might be things like dark, gloom, rain, decay, wander, sigh, remembrance, and so forth. Try brainstorming words that you associate with the tone you’re trying to convey.
3 literary elements that heighten mood
Choosing the right mood is essential in making the reader feel immersed in your story. Here are some of the ways you can convey the right emotions on the page.
Setting is essential to heightening the mood of any literary work. If you’re writing a short story, you may only have one or two settings; in a novel, you’ll probably have several.
If you want a mood that’s tense, nervous, or excited, you might use a spooky setting like a dark room or a gothic manor. If you want to convey a mood that’s nostalgic, relaxed, or hopeful, you might set your story in a cozy bookshop, a field or farmland or a quaint countryside village.
As we saw above, theme and mood are intrinsically linked. When you want to capture a certain mood in your work, think about the theme you want to convey—what you want to make the reader feel after they close your book.
For instance, if you’re trying to write a book that has a humorous, uplifting mood, your theme might be something like “Laughter Is the Best Medicine.”
Dialogue and word choice can affect mood, too. This is where a character’s tone (rather than the author’s tone) comes into play. You can use the tone tips above to make your characters sound nervous, relaxed, or threatening to enhance the mood of your work. When your characters are feeling a certain mood, and those emotions come through in the way they talk to each other, the reader feels them too.
You can also check out more tips in our dedicated lesson on dialogue!
Tone and mood highlight the overall feeling of your story
Tone and mood are two subtle yet essential devices present in all literary works. By using them to craftily elicit the right feelings in your reader, you’ll ensure the book you’ve written is something that will stay with them forever.