What is tone in literature?

what is tone in literature

Tone: How someone expresses a feeling or attitude. In everyday interactions, we us speech and body language. Writers use different tricks.

Whereas literary critics tend to use the word ‘tone’, writers tend to talk a lot about ‘voice’. These concepts are similar, but voice suggests a personality whereas tone refers to the emotion or vibe the reader/audience gets from the work.



‘Tone’ describes the attitude of the author, narrator or speaker towards the subject matter or audience.

Mode of narration and all aspects of language do the heavy-lifting in conveying tone. (See below.)


‘Mood’ describes the general atmosphere or feeling that a work of literature evokes in the reader. A contemporary colloquial equivalent is ‘vibe’, which has equally broad usage.

Various aspects of storytelling contribute to mood, e.g. pacing. Fast pacing may result in a frenetic, hurried mood. Slow pacing may feel languorous and relaxing, or stultifyingly dull.

See: Talking About Story Pacing

  • Symbolism, motifs, figurative language and imagery (or lack thereof) are also important in establishing mood.
  • The setting is important in setting up the mood. Does this story take place in a recognisable setting (home/school/mall) or in some kind of fairytale world? How realistic is it?
  • Tone and Mood are not mutually exclusive. The narrator sets up the mood. But when we talk about mood we are removing the influence of the narrator from our conversation. Mood is about how we, the audience, feel during the storytelling experience. Tone is about the narrator’s attitude towards us, or towards their subject matter (which of course transfers over to us).


Tone conveys emotion or attitude (from the narrator towards the narrator’s subjects or towards the narrator’s implied reader). Each of these words implies an interaction between two or more people:

  • formal
  • informal
  • serious
  • ironic
  • humorous
  • sarcastic
  • critical
  • reverent
  • respectful
  • grateful
  • exuberant
  • inquisitive
  • angry
  • curious
  • grateful
  • intimate
  • nervous

There is much cross-over between adjectives to describe tone and adjectives to describe mood, but here are some examples of how we might describe the mood of a work of literature:

  • relaxed
  • ominous
  • serene
  • exhilarating
  • suspenseful
  • celebratory
  • fun
  • lively
  • sombre
  • terrifying
  • horrifying
  • suspenseful


Notice the crossover between ‘tone’ and ‘mood’. English tends to be idiosyncratic. For instance, although ‘dark’ and ‘light’ properly describe ‘mood’, the phrase ‘dark tone’ or ‘light tone’ is standard and common usage.

  • There’s a confessional tone to Mansfield’s stories. We all have a public, private and secret self. (How To Write Like Katherine Mansfield)
  • As you read “The Garden Party”, notice how Laura’s emotions keep changing. Mansfield shows this by shifting her tone of voice. Laura is having difficulty playing the highly gendered role of hostess, with its prescribed rules, mostly unspoken. To learn how to be a good hostess in high society, Laura tries mimicking her mother. (“The Garden Party” by Katherine Mansfield analysis)
  • In the noir film above, the first person point of view serves several purposes and one of those purposes is to add a comic (as well as comical) tone. The ‘kapow’ type voiceovers add to this humorous tone. (Describing noir.)
  • [In naturalism] the subject is neither idealised nor flattered. The tone is generally pessimistic. (A description of ‘naturalism‘ in literature.)
  • Middle-aged people, such as parents and teachers, are often preoccupied and uncomprehending. Their interaction with the child characters is practical: they make rules, set tasks and pack lunches. When children and parents (or teachers) speak to each other, the tone is detached and cool. (A description of adult-child dynamics in certain children’s literature)
  • In Sweden, a critic has coined the notion of idyllophobia, a fear of presenting the world of childhood as idyllic. Children’s and juvenile literature becomes more and more violent, not necessarily in actual depictions of violence, but in the general attitude toward the essence of childhood. The narrative strategies which writers use, most often the autodiegetic unreliable young narrator, amplify the tone of the novels as uncertain, insecure and chaotic. (Social Issues in Realistic Fiction)
  • It’s not that easy to pinpoint what a thriller is, because a lot of descriptions focus on the tone. But this doesn’t help writers much with plotting. (Writing Thriller)
  • Boss Baby was adapted for screen by Michael McCullers, who also gave us Austin Powers and Mr Peabody and Sherman. This will give you some idea of the tone. (Boss Baby by Marla Frazee Picture Book Analysis)
  • The following short film, based on the picture book, shows that when it comes to writing about hard stuff for kids, it’s about the treatment rather than the subject matter. The short film is far darker than the tone of the picture book. (Death in Children’s Literature)


    In literature, tone creates a particular mood or atmosphere in a work, and it can be conveyed through various literary devices, such as word choice, sentence structure, and figurative language.

    Various aspects of storytelling contributes to the overall tone.


    Tone comes from the narrator’s attitude to their listener. The narrator is not the author, but the ‘voice’ telling the story. The voice can be consonant or dissonant — the same as or different from — the character(s) in the story.

    How does this voice seem to regard you, as a reader? Does the voice treat you as an equal, an inferior? Does it trust you to keep a secret, or is it not telling you the whole truth? (An unreliable narrator.)

    Do you feel you’re reading the journals of a professor, on the assumption you are also a professor? In this case, the tone will feel formal and academic.

    Do you feel the narrator has sent you a private letter, trusting you to do the right thing with newfound information? If so, the tone will feel confessional and intimate.

    Is the narrator speaking to themselves or to someone else?

    Remember, tone in literature comes out of an implied relationship between narrator and audience.


    A narrator may seem to deliberately highlight he humour of a situation. The voice may “unwittingly” encourage readers to laugh at them. At the other end of the curve, a story may be completely devoid of humour, aiming instead for terror or horror or suspense.

    • Sentence structure and length: Short sentences may convey that the voice is impatient; long sentences with big words may lend a pretentious tone, which gives you the impression the voice thinks they’re better than you.
    • Vocabulary choice: If the narrator uses a lot of slang words, this will imply trust and intimacy. If the narrator uses formal language, this sets up a formal, detached tone. But a narrator who trusts you to understand a whole lot of niche jargon sets up a different kind of intimacy, trusting you know what they are talking about owing to shared experience.

    Any of these factors can function ironically. For example, a narrator may be telling you a really slow story. But because of a ticking clock device, the reader is terrified a bomb will go off before this character has finished speaking. The narrator’s languorous tone is at odds with the reader’s stress, creating dramatic irony.

    • A pretentious tone may illuminate a stupid character (Mr Collins in Pride and Prejudice).
    • An everyday event written in the tone of a horror novel creates genre parody because of the ironic distance between subject matter and horripilation.


    “Tone policing” is when a person in a dominant group scolds someone from a marginalised group for pointing out inequality and injustice. Rather than address the complaint, the member of the dominant group will feel justified in dismissing the content of the complaint because the packaging of the complaint was insufficiently ‘nice’ or ‘polite’ or ‘subservient’.