“Watch your tone!”
If you ever heard this as a child, then you probably know that someone—most likely a parent or teacher—felt that you were “talking back” or had an “attitude.” Maybe your words—or, more precisely, your tone—came off as disrespectful or arrogant.
Little changes in the way we say things can radically change our tones, and therefore the way people perceive our words.
But writing isn’t much different—through your choice of words, point of view, and other factors, you can influence the tone and mood of your text.
What is Tone?
In writing, tone refers to the attitude or overall character of a piece. It’s often reflective of the speaker’s attitude or feelings toward a subject.
Mood, on the other hand, refers to the effect a piece of writing has on the reader. A story’s tone can often help build its mood.
There are hundreds of ways to convey one single idea—how you choose to do it is your personal choice, and it will reflect the overall tone of your writing.
Tone can be described by just about every adjective under the sun. Some examples include:
For more adjectives that can describe tone, download our list of 101 words to describe tone.
Purpose of Tone
Tone has the power to influence your readers’ emotions, as well as the way they perceive your characters and story.
The tone you choose will help set the mood for your work, but you don’t have to stick with just one for your entire story.
Tone can change in an instant, or gradually transition. It’s up to you how your story will be conveyed and perceived.
How to Create Tone
Tone can be conveyed using several tools, but among the most effective are:
- Point of view
- Level of formality
Diction refers to the writer’s word choice, which helps to define their style and build the piece’s tone. Syntax, meanwhile, refers to the way a sentence is structured.
Ernest Hemingway, for example, was known for his short, declarative sentences, which helped to build the more direct, simple tone that characterizes his writing.
A story’s point of view can also influence its tone, because choosing a narrator is ultimately making a choice about how your story will be told and the voice that will tell it.
When writing, you should also match your level of formality with your intended audience and the subject matter. If you’re writing an expository piece, for example, and you want your work to be taken seriously, you should employ a more serious tone.
Examples of Tone in Literature
From A Clean, Well-Lighted Place by Ernest Hemingway
“It was late and everyone had left the café except an old man who sat in the shadow the leaves of the tree made against the electric light. In the daytime the street was dusty; but at night the dew settled the dust and the old man liked to sit late because he was deaf and now at night it was quiet and he felt the difference.”
In this excerpt, the tone is peaceful. It reflects the solitude of the old man, but doesn’t feel sad or lonely.
From The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams:
“I didn’t go to the moon, I went much further—for time is the longest distance between two places.”
The tone here can be described as nostalgic, because the speaker seems to be longing for another time.
From Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut:
“They saw Billy and the rest moving down there. The planes sprayed them with machine gun bullets but the bullets missed. Then they saw some other people moving down by the riverside. They hit some of them. So it goes.”
The tone in most of Slaughterhouse-Five can be described as deadpan or unemotional. As the speaker recalls gruesome scenes of senseless violence and death, he describes the horrors of war very matter-of-factly. As a result, the reader is left to feel the anger and disgust that is left out of the tone.
Watch Your Tone
The tone of your writing plays a key role in how it will be interpreted by readers.
By paying careful attention to your word choice, syntax, and diction, you can achieve your desired tone and make your writing more effective.
What are your favorite examples of tone in literature? Share them in the comments below!