What Is Tone? Definition, Usage, and Literary Examples

Tone Definition


In literature, tone (TOWhn) is the attitude a writer expresses toward the subject of their text. Because readers can’t hear a character’s tone of voice in writing, it is conveyed through the author’s diction.


Examples of Tone


Every spoken and written communication has a tone, and there are endless possibilities. Here are some examples, using the premise of going to a carnival.

  • Neutral: “We are going to eat hot dogs and cotton candy and ride the Ferris Wheel tonight.”
  • Excited: “I couldn’t wait to go to the carnival, smell the hot dogs, taste the cotton candy, and feel the exhilaration of riding the Ferris Wheel!”
  • Dark: “I’d rather kill myself than be caught dead at a carnival.”
  • Nostalgic: “I’ll always remember the smell of hot dogs and cotton candy at our local carnival. I was scared of the Ferris Wheel, but I always rode it to keep my brother company.”
  • Formal: “We are to attend a carnival this evening and consume both fried meat and spun sugar. We may experience the large circular contraption for entertainment.”


How Tone Is Conveyed


Because writing can’t provide verbal cues, tone is conveyed through the author’s diction and syntax, as well as context.


An author can create tone through diction: the vocabulary and writing style (i.e., the level of formality) used in their work. For example, colloquialisms, idioms, and vernacular convey an informal tone, which often leads readers to feel a personal connection to the story. On the other hand, writers will rely heavily on imagery and figurative language to create a more formal tone.

Take these two descriptions of a dying tree in the winter.

  • “The tree’s leaves dropped like flies. It was done for.”
  • “The frail tree branches bore no signs of life or color on their spindly, finger-like tips.”

The first example is informal, its tone conveyed through idioms (“dropped like flies” and “done for”). In the second sentence, the author is more formal, and there’s a creepy tone created by describing the branches as spindly fingers.


Related to diction, the complexity of sentences (their syntax) also conveys tone. Consider the sentences from earlier. The informal example uses short, simple sentences to get the idea across. The formal example is more complex as it uses a single sentence to describe several aspects of the tree’s appearance.


This plays a significant role in tone, as recent events in a character’s life, or the direction of the conversation they’re having, help the reader interpret the tone of dialogue. To aid the reader, writers will include dialogue tags and descriptions of the character’s actions.

For example, to convey annoyance, the character may cut off the other speaker, and the writer might describe the character’s response as curt or describe their demeanor as frustrated or angry. Or, when genuinely forgiving someone, the character may gently pat the speaker’s hand or speak softly.


Tone’s Relation to Subject Matter


Choosing the proper tone for a written work is essential to its success. When looking for a job, an applicant wouldn’t use an informal tone in their cover letter; they would strive to communicate with a professional tone. A personal email to a friend, on the other hand, can be as informal as the writer wants.

In Kristin Hannah’s novel The Nightingale, two women fight for their freedom and their lives in occupied France during World War II. Hannah alternates between serious, dejected, and worried tones throughout the story to portray the main characters’ emotions when their lives are in danger and their families are being torn apart. It would’ve been inappropriate to use an amused, lighthearted, or playful tone to describe the suffering of the characters, as it would’ve diminished the pain of the war and its effect on people’s lives.

On the other hand, William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, with its complicated love triangle, love potions, and fairies, has a witty, comical tone. If it was written in an apathetic or world-weary tone, it would have changed the entire mood of the play, rendering it confusing rather than amusing.


Verbal and Aural Tone


Unlike tone in writing, tone in verbal communication is more easily discerned through a variety of factors, including facial expression, voice register, emphasis, and pace.

For example, if someone was giving a eulogy at their friend’s funeral, their tone would most likely be serious and sad, and that would be expressed through a low voice, slow speech, and melancholic facial expressions. A valedictorian’s graduation speech, on the other hand, would be inspiring, hopeful, and positive, indicated by their high voice, fast-paced speech, and smiling face.

Tone can also be expressed aurally, typically through music. The score a director chooses for a movie helps create the tone of a filmed scene. A slight change in the music can completely alter the message. This video takes a clip from the Pirates of the Caribbean movie and applies different scores to alter its tone.


Tone vs. Mood


Think of tone as the cause and mood as the effect. The tone creates the mood, which is how the work makes the reader feel. These concepts can be at odds or be the same, depending on how the writer wants the reader to feel. For example, if someone wrote a sappy love poem with a passionate, loving tone, they most likely want the reader to feel that passion and love. Thus, the tone and mood are analogous. If an author describes a war scene with calm indifference, rather than calming the reader, the tone paradoxically enhances the distress and horror a writer might feel.


Examples of Tone in Literature


1. Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre

Jane is told she will be sent away from her home because of her master Mr. Rochester’s impending marriage. She quickly grows distressed at the thought of never seeing him again. He asks why she’s so upset, and she responds:

Do you think I can stay to become nothing to you? Do you think I am an automaton? — a machine without feelings? and can bear to have my morsel of bread snatched from my lips, and my drop of living water dashed from my cup? Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain, and little, I am soulless and heartless? You think wrong! — I have as much soul as you — and full as much heart! And if God had gifted me with some beauty and much wealth, I should have made it as hard for you to leave me, as it is now for me to leave you. [bold for emphasis]

Brontë is creating a passionate tone with Jane’s dialogue. She could have written taken instead of snatched, or removed rather than dashed; her word choice shows the intensity of Jane’s feelings. There’s also a hint of a defensive and hurt tone when Jane asks if Mr. Rochester thinks she is soulless and heartless.

2. Erin Morgenstern, Night Circus

In this scene, Tara Burgess has recently died, and her twin sister Laine, circus friends, and non-circus friends are gathered for her funeral:

An occasional tear rolls down Laine Burgess’s cheek, but she greets each mourner with a smile and thanks them for attending. She makes jokes that Tara might have quipped were she not inside the polished-wood coffin […] There are countless roses. Red roses, white roses, pink roses. There is even a single black rose amongst the blossoms, though no one knows its origin.

Despite the fact that Morgenstern is describing a funeral, she has an accepting, rather than mournful, tone. She doesn’t use dark adjectives to describe the scene; instead, she focuses on the color of the flowers and the jokes Laine makes to keep it from being a somber occasion.

3. Douglas Adams, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

Missiles are headed toward their spaceship, so protagonist Arthur engages the Improbability Drive to escape impending doom. It lives up to its name when curious, improbable things occur, such as the missiles turning into a bowl of petunias and a whale appearing out of nowhere.

Another thing that got forgotten was that against all probability a sperm whale had suddenly been called into existence several miles above the surface of an alien planet.
[…] This is a complete record of its thought from the moment it began its life till the moment it ended it.
Ah…! What’s happening? it thought.
[…] And wow! Hey! What’s this thing suddenly coming toward me very fast? Very, very fast. So big and flat and round, it needs a big wide-sounding name like…ow…ound…round…ground! That’s it! That’s a good name—ground!
I wonder if it will be friends with me?

This scene has a neutral, formal tone; because the content is comical, the delivery comes off like spoken dry humor. Adams describes an absurd situation of a whale appearing in space and acts like nothing is wrong, giving the scene a comedic and humorous mood.


Further Resources on Tone


Writers Write provides 155 examples of words that describe tone in literature.

Get tips on perfecting your writing tone with this Writer’s Digest article.

For auditory learners, here is a video that explains tone and mood.


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