How to Use Tone in Writing—Plus Definitions & Examples of Tone in Literature

In visual art, tone refers to the shade, hue, and quality of a given color. For musicians, tone describes the character of a sound. Linguistics designates some languages, like Mandarin and Cantonese, as tonal languages. Writers mean something different when they refer to a tone. In literature, the tone of a piece of writing reflects the attitude of the author or narrator. 

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the word tone comes from the Latin tonus and the Greek word tonos, meaning, “vocal pitch, raising of voice, accent, key in music.” It makes sense that a word describing the pitch of the voice evolved in the English language to describe, in relation to literature, the authorial voice. 

Musicians evaluate tonal value by looking at the timbre, modulation, inflection, and duration of a musical sound. You might use subtle social and auditory cues to determine that someone has a nervous tone of voice. In contrast, a reader uses a different set of criteria to understand an author’s tone. Variations in tone can be expressed through choice of words, formatting choices, and even the punctuation the author uses.

When you write, it’s important to think about the tone that you want to communicate. For example, you may choose to adopt an informal or formal tone, or a serious or sentimental tone, depending on what you’re writing. 

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What Is Literary Tone?

When you read a book or an article, you probably pick up on subtle clues that let you know more about the author’s attitude towards their subject. Since we do this automatically, it can be challenging to explain why we form certain impressions. 

A discussion of literary devices, or “tools” in an author’s toolbox, may make it easier to explain how you deduced the author’s attitude.

Literary devices may include:

  • Dialogue
  • Diction
  • Characterization
  • Imagery
  • Syntax
  • Setting
  • Structure
  • Dramatic irony
  • Foreshadowing
  • Humor
  • Rhythm 

Each writer makes choices, and it’s the accumulation of those choices that create the overall tone. In a longer work, such as a novel, the tone may change over the course of the story. For a shorter piece of writing, such as an email, the tone is more likely to remain consistent throughout the message. In either case, you can look to the denotation and connotation of the words to help you pinpoint the tone of a text.

For example, official documents with acronyms, professional jargon, and terse greetings could convey a brusque, hurried tone. Casual forms of speech, emojis, and tons of exclamation marks might communicate an informal tone. Circumstances dictate the appropriate tone, and the same sentiment that makes sense in one setting may come across as cold or unfriendly in another. 

How Is Mood Different?

Unlike tone, the mood describes the feelings of the reader. When you talk about tone, you’re looking at the writer’s or narrator’s attitude, not the reader’s experience. 

Here’s one way to remember the difference: typically, only the reader experiences suspense. So, a book is more likely to have a suspenseful mood than a suspenseful tone. A suspenseful mood could be built by using the following literary devices: a dark and stormy setting, eerie foreshadowing, and a spooky motif (recurring image). It’s quite common for mystery or horror novels to have a suspenseful mood. 

If you wanted to compose something with a suspenseful tone, you would normally need to do that through the character of the narrator. As the author, you would be unlikely to feel suspense about the outcome of the plot, so you would need to create a character who doesn’t know what’s going to happen next. 

I can’t stand worrying like this, not knowing what’s going to happen to you. Are you going to be alright?! The uncertainty is killing me! 

You might use repetition, word choice, and syntax to indicate that the narrator feels a sense of urgency and fear. 

When you try to identify the tone of a piece of writing, you should always be looking at the author’s attitude, or the narrator’s. The attitude of the other characters will not have a major impact on the tone. Often, the reader’s feelings, a character’s point-of-view, and the author’s attitude can all be different, so it’s important to remember that the tone describes your interpretation of the author’s (or perhaps the narrator’s) point of view. 

The Function of Tone

It can be helpful to think about your tone as you write—especially since tone has an influence on how people will respond to your message. You’ve probably heard the term “tone-deaf,” which means clueless or insensitive. Particularly in correspondence, you should always revise what you’ve written to make sure that it conveys your intended tone. If you want to sound cheerful, but you write a note with a sarcastic tone, you’re probably missing the mark. 

In fiction, tone helps to establish the style, voice, and genre. From the tone, readers often make assumptions about the thoughts and presuppositions of the author. Two readers may not agree about a novel’s tone, but their interpretations will likely influence how much they enjoy a work of fiction. 

Examples in Literature

Below, we’ve included two examples from short stories, along with brief analyses.

A deliberate lack of finish, enhanced by skillful installation, gave the surface a rough, forgotten quality; sliding weights on the inside, carefully adjusted, anchored the great, vari-shaped mass at a number of points. Now we have a flood of original ideas in all media, works of singular beauty as well as significant milestones in the history of inflation, but at that moment there was only this balloon, concrete particular, hanging there.

These two sentences from Donald Barthelme’s “The Balloon” communicate a reflective tone. The complicated syntax and technical word choice resolve into a single, simple image: “…only this balloon, concrete particular, hanging there.” This leaves the reader to imagine Barthelme (or the narrator) observing the balloon with intensity.

But even yet I refrained and kept still. I scarcely breathed. I held the lantern motionless. I tried how steadily I could maintain the ray upon the eve. Meantime the hellish tattoo of the heart increased. It grew quicker and quicker, and louder and louder every instant.

In “A Tell-Tale Heart” by Edgar Allan Poe, the author uses repetition, rhythm, and short, suspenseful sentences to build a sense of anxiety. When you read the line, “I scarcely breathed,” you can probably imagine the narrator’s muscles tensing, as he listens to the steady sound of the beating heart. The narrator is agitated and nervous, so you could describe the tone as tense. Interpreting Poe’s own feelings about the subject matter is a bit more complicated. You may sense overtones of melancholy, fascination, or even morbid dread. 

Describing an Author’s Tone

You can use some of the following adjectives to describe an author’s tone:

  • Conversational tone
  • Nervous tone
  • Casual tone
  • Formal tone
  • Sentimental tone
  • Passionate tone
  • Welcoming tone
  • Worried tone
  • Angry tone
  • Frustrated tone
  • Official tone
  • Businesslike tone
  • Optimistic tone
  • Sincere tone
  • Serious tone

There are many more categories than we could possibly list. Plus, an author may adopt more than one tone within a piece of writing. The combinations are truly infinite. 

The same way two people might hang up after a conference call and describe the tone of the meeting differently, two people may have different interpretations of tone in a work of literature. As long as you are able to provide textual evidence for your interpretation, you can debate another reader with due vigor. Even if you offer contrasting ideas, you could both be right! After all, different passages in a piece of writing may contain divergent tones. 


  1. 22 Essential Literary Devices and How to Use Them In Your Writing – 2021 | MasterClass
  2. Difference Between Tone and Mood in Literature | YourDictionary
  3. The Balloon | The New Yorker
  4. Tone | The Poetry Foundation
  5. Sino-Tibetan languages | Linguistic characteristics
  6. The Project Gutenberg eBook of The Works of Edgar Allan Poe, Volume 2, by Edgar Allan Poe