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In Literature, What Is Tone?

By Alicia Sparks
Updated May 23, 2024
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The tone of a piece of literature is a literary technique employed by the writer to convey attitude to his readers. This attitude might be toward his subjects, his readers, or both. Writers can set tones to both fiction and nonfiction works, and the attitudes communicated will be representative of the author, narrator, or characters, depending on the nature of the work. Writers can use numerous elements to create a wide range of tones, including formal or informal, humorous or sober, and personal or distant. Although the tone of a work can help convey the mood, writers and readers must understand that tones and moods are not the same thing.

Diction, or word choice, might be the most easily recognizable tool for setting the tone of a literary work, but a writer can use a variety of other literary techniques. For example, a writer might arrange his words in a specific way to achieve a certain affect, a practice or study known as syntax. He also might use imagery, which is a way of using words to appeal to any or all of the readers’ senses and often includes the use of metaphors and similes. Writers will often manipulate details, either including them or omitting them, to achieve certain tones. Each of these techniques can keep the tone the same throughout the work, or change or evolve it, which is sometimes the case.

Tone can be found in nearly every type of literature. When fiction works such as novels, novellas, plays, and short stories communicate tones, these tones usually are the attitudes of the works’ narrators or characters. Likewise, when nonfiction pieces like magazine articles, memoirs and biographies, and documentaries convey tones, the attitudes generally are those of the author. Keep in mind that these are not concrete rules, though. The tones of novels could express the attitude of the author, just as the tones of documentaries could express the attitudes of the subjects.

Perhaps the writing that most recognizably utilizes the literary technique of tone is poetry. This might be because poems are designed to convey emotions and feelings. Poets use the technique to help their readers better grasp those emotions and feelings. Just as with other fiction and nonfiction pieces, the tones of poems can be the attitudes of the writers or the attitudes of a narrator or subject.

It is important to understand that the tone and the mood of a piece of literature are not the same thing. Writers and readers should not use these words interchangeably. When a person describes the mood of a work, he mostly is describing the emotions or feelings the work gave him after reading it. Therefore, mood is more of a literary term, whereas tone is an actual literary technique. Writers can use the technique of creating tones to help them create moods.

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Discussion Comments

By RocketLanch8 — On May 06, 2014

Sometimes when I read a series of books, like Harry Potter, I'll notice a change of tone in each volume. The first book may feel brighter and happier because the characters haven't really faced any challenges yet. The last book may be a lot darker in tone, because the characters have been through a lot of emotional times and have experienced losses.

By AnswerMan — On May 05, 2014

As a writer, I find it difficult to explain "tone" as far as my own work is concerned. I know beforehand whether the story will have a happy, bittersweet or sad ending, but all I can do is hope the reader picks up subtle clues along the way. I find that word choices have a lot to do with setting the tone. If the overall mood or tone of the story is somber or sad, I might use phrases like "She struggled to push aside the splintered old door...". The verbs and the adjectives all suggest a heaviness of tone.

If the overall mood of the story is positive, I might just use a different set of words: "She used all of her strength to break through that heavy wooden door.." It's the same situation as before, but the tone is more of a positive determination, not a struggle.

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