Encouraging readers to Feel Things is one of the greatest aspirations of writing. When crafted well, a book can make us feel hope, fear, despair, indignation, or joy. And one of the best literary devices to achieve that is tone—the overall emotional sound of your novel.
But what is tone, exactly, and how do we incorporate it into our work? Let’s look at what writing tone means and how you can find the right one for your story, along with some helpful examples of tone in literature.
What is tone in writing?
Tone in writing is the overall mood or attitude conveyed by the narrator’s word choice in a story. A narrator’s tone can be formal or informal, positive or negative, lighthearted or dramatic. By using the right tone, you can convey moments of tension, relief, or anticipation to your readers and make them feel more invested in your story.
In general, your story will have an overall author’s tone that supports the theme (we’ll talk about theme more below), but each individual scene will also have a distinctive tone depending on what’s happening in the plot.
Why is tone important in a story?
Tone helps engage with your target audience and elicit a particular feeling and emotion in the reader. In business writing, a more formal tone can help you present an organized, confident attitude. In storytelling, a casual or playful tone can help you bring your reader closer to your characters. Because the reader can’t see the writer’s facial expression or body language when they’re conveying an idea, the author’s word choice and writing style is essential.
You can also choose a certain tone to help underline your story’s theme. For example, a tragedy might favor a melancholy and introspective tone, while a romantic comedy might favor cheerful and humorous tones. By mindfully choosing the right tone for your story, you can gently encourage the reader to feel and experience your story in a certain way.
What’s the difference between tone and mood?
Tone and mood are closely related, but they’re not quite the same thing. In writing, tone reveals the narrator’s attitude as conveyed by their specific word choice. For instance, you could show your characters attending a party and have the tone be excited, depressed, sarcastic, frightened, or hopeful. These communicate the way the narrator feels about the situation.
Mood is the overall feeling of the scene or story as a whole. Tone plays a large role in conveying the mood of a scene, but you can also enhance a story’s mood with setting and sensory imagery. For example, you could use your party’s setting to explore the sights, sounds, smells, and sensations your characters are experiencing. Does the red light falling on the door look like “fallen petals” or “a smear of blood”? How an author describes the same image in different ways will enhance the overall mood of your book.
To recap: tone specifically refers to the choice of language; mood refers to the overall feeling of the entire scene. We’ll look at some examples of tone below.
What’s the difference between tone and theme?
We’ve talked a bit about how tone influences theme—but what exactly is the difference?
Theme is the overall message behind your story. It might be something like “love conquers all,” or “violence only leads to more violence.” Everything in your narrative, including mood and tone, support this underlying message.
If your theme is “love conquers all,” your tone might be optimistic, hopeful, or inspirational. If your theme is “violence only leads to more violence,” your theme might be pessimistic or persuasive.
Types of tone you might see in a story
Any adjective you can apply to someone’s voice can be used to describe tone. Think about how your best friend’s voice might sound when they tell you about their weekend. Cheerful? Humorous? What about when an authority figure tells you you’ve done something wrong? Do they sound formal, arrogant, or pessimistic?
The type of relationship you want to have with your reader, and the type of relationship your characters have with each other, will inform the different tones you use throughout your narrative. Here are some of the most common tone words you’ll see across literature:
I can’t wait to get to the party!
This party is going to be a disaster.
This party could change everything for me.
We’re going to have a great time, and absolutely nothing will go wrong.
I remember the parties of my younger days. Things were simpler then…
I hope they realize how lucky they are to have me on their guest list.
Being included tonight is an incredible honor.
But what if I make a fool of myself and nobody likes me?
It’s not a party, it’s a poolside bacchanal.
It’s just something to do, I guess.
I need to make this party count.
Don’t worry, a fun night out is exactly what you need.
Sometimes, all it takes is one magical night to turn your life around.
Which tones do you recognize from your own writing style?
Examples of tone in literature
Some of your favorite books probably use tones that stay with you for a long time, even if you don’t consciously recognize it. Let’s look at some effective examples of tone in literature.
1. Remarkably Bright Creatures, by Shelby Van Pelt
Even the short journey back to my tank saps my strength. I am weakening by the day. Still carrying the heavy ring, I slip into my den and rest, as I will need stamina for my next trip. The last one.
The tone in this scene is fearful, pessimistic, and determined. The narrator—in this case an ageing octopus—uses a more formal tone that conveys his intelligence and old age. Keywords like “strength,” “weakening,” and “stamina” convey how deeply rooted in the body this moment is. The writer chose mostly short sentences and simple language to illustrate how much effort each moment takes.
2. Anansi Boys, by Neil Gaiman
He sang of names and words, of the building blocks beneath the real, the worlds that make worlds, the truths beneath the way things are; he sang of appropriate ends and just conclusions for those who would have hurt him and his.
He sang the world.
It was a good song, and it was his song. Sometimes it had words, and sometimes it didn’t have any words at all.
The tone in this scene is full of hope. The author uses a mix of longer sentences and shorter sentences to create a varied, engaging rhythm. Unlike the previous example, this scene uses tones that are optimistic and inspirational to give the novel a happy ending.
3. “Stopping By Woods On a Snowy Evening” by Robert Frost
The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
Robert Frost uses a touching and melancholy tone in one of his most famous poems. The tone is deeply reverential, as the speaker treats the forest a little like a temple. However, he needs to fulfill his life’s goals before he can lay down and rest.
Ways to convey tone in your writing
Now that we know more about what tone means in literature, here’s the big question: how can we master tone in our own work?
Tone in writing comes down to the author’s word choice. Let’s look at a few things to keep in mind while you’re incorporating tone into your story.
Diction refers to the specific choice of words that you use in a sentence. You can convey the same idea in different ways by adjusting the diction of your writing. For example, “How is everyone doing today?” and “’Sup y’all?” mean exactly the same thing—but the diction is different.
You can use diction to give your writing a more casual tone and make the reader feel like they can relate to the storyteller. You can also vary your diction to juxtapose one character’s tone against another, or juxtapose your main character’s dialogue against the overall tone of the story.
Syntax refers to sentence structure, or the way your words are assembled together. In the two prose examples we looked at above, you’ll notice that writers used a blend of long and short sentences with different kinds of punctuation.
In general, formal, pessimistic, or melancholy tones will use longer and more complex sentences while a cheerful or informal tone will favour shorter, snappier sentences. If your scene is starting to feel like a bit of a downer, try breaking up the sentence structure. If your scene is skimming over its potential thematic depth, try experimenting with more descriptive sentences.
Certain word choices carry inherent tones right into your narrative. In Remarkably Bright Creatures, we looked at how the author chose particular words that suited the tone she wanted to convey.
Try brainstorming a list of words that fit the tone of your narrative. For example, a hopeful tone might be associated with words like bright, forward, future, inspire, rise, overcome, morning, new, and so forth. Keep this list to one side (you might find yourself adding to it as you go), and watch out for places you might be able to incorporate your “tone” words into your writing.
An exercise for exploring creative writing tone
To experiment with tone, try writing a short scene between two people. It can be a piece of flash fiction, a vignette about two strangers, or even an existing scene from a work in progress. Then, choose three contrasting tones from the list we gave you above (or come up with new ones of your own!). For example, three contrasting tones might be cheerful, desperate, and inspirational.
Now, see if you can subtly adjust the word choices in your scene to convey it in three different ways. Can you make the same events sound cheerful and desperate with a few well-placed keywords? You might be surprised at what you discover about your characters, conflict and world by adjusting the tone of your story.