What Is Tone in Literature?

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“Don’t take that tone with me!” is a familiar phrase to anyone who has parents. Creating tone in speech is easy, but it’s much more difficult to create in writing. Even writing e-mail messages requires a certain level of tone accuracy to convey the right message. The question is, though, how does one do this with grace and precision?  

What Is Tone?  

In writing, tone is the character of the atmosphere the writer wishes to convey to the readers. Tone can be obvious or subtle and is almost always intentional. It reveals the author’s attitude toward the subject, the audience, or both, and a reader can typically identify the tone right away (at least if the writer created tone effectively!). The tone is found in the writer’s descriptions of the setting, the characters, and word choices. 

Identifying Tone

A reader can sense a piece’s tone before even picking up a book just by looking at the cover art; however, we’re all taught not to judge books by their covers. Covers aside, readers should be able to sense a text’s tone within the first few pages and maybe within the first few paragraphs. There are as many ways to present tone as there are varieties of tone.

Literary Tone Using Light
Word choice is a major contributor to tone.

Word choice is the most efficient way to create and identify tone. Remember that every word written is chosen for a reason by the author; this will help one read even more closely and carefully. Below are a few first lines from books and plays; is the tone identifiable just from the first line? 

“Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary . . .” –Edgar Allan Poe, “The Raven” (1845)

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” –Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice (1813) 

“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” –George Orwell, 1984 (1949) 
“If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.” —J. D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye (1951)

Each of these pieces introduces a unique tone from start. An effective poem, story, essay, or e-mail will always set the tone in the first sentence or two. If the tone is undetectable in the first few lines, it probably isn’t effective and won’t draw in the reader right away.

Creating Tone

As a writer, creating tone in any piece is vitally important to that piece’s success. In these examples, each of those writers was able to set the tone in just one sentence. Whether that tone is dark, tense, sarcastic, confusion, or joy, the reader must be able to detect the tone right away.

Dark and Fearful Literary Tones
An author may present a dark and fearful tone.

As mentioned earlier, word choice is the most effective way to create tone. Using uncommon adjectives and unconventional word pairings in the first sentences will draw in the reader. Take this example from William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury: “Through the fence, between the curling flower spaces, I could see them hitting.” This line opens the novel and creates a tone of curiosity: who is the narrator, why is he or she looking through the fence, and who is hitting? This line also creates a bit of confusion, which prepares the reader for a state of confusion while reading the rest of the novel.

Not all writers want to create that same confusion or curiosity. Albert Camus’s novel The Stranger begins with a simple line that immediately evokes a tone of depression and sadness: “Mother died today.” The reader knows right away that this novel is not going to be happy or joyful or peaceful.

Other writers prefer a more descriptive opening, like Sylvia Plath in her novel The Bell Jar: “It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.” The words “queer” and “sultry” sound odd together, but that’s exactly what Plath is trying to do. She creates an air of mystery throughout the sentence: what is a queer, sultry summer; who electrocuted the Rosenbergs and why; what is she doing in New York, and why doesn’t she know? 

Maintaining Tone

The first line may be important, but maintaining that tone throughout the piece is equally important. Using the same techniques for creating tone in the beginning, continue to incorporate unique, descriptive adjectives and uncommon word combinations in each and every sentence written. If the reader loses that tone set initially, the piece will then lose the reader.

Tension can be one of the most difficult tones to create and maintain. When writing a scene where characters are conflicted or confronted, stream of consciousness and quick action descriptions will keep the reader turning page after page.

Think of creating tone as the background music in a movie: watchers know that when the creepy music starts playing, the characters are in trouble. The Jaws theme is probably the best tension-creating method seen in any movie. When writing tones of tension, think of the Jaws theme: it starts out slow and increases as the danger approaches.

The key to maintaining tone is treating every sentence in the piece just like the first sentence. Careful word choice, sentence variety, and odd word combinations will keep the tone throughout the piece. 

Closing with the Desired Tone

The closing of the narrative or piece of writing also must invoke tone, whether it is similar or different from the first line. The final line is just as important as the first as it is the last part that readers will read and remember.

Literary Tone at the End of a Story
The closing tone is frequently the most memorable.

Take the last line of The Great Gatsby. Narrator Nick Caraway says “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” This line is one of the most effective closing lines in all of literature. The theme of disillusionment is clear here: the characters of this book try quite literally to live in the past, disenchanted with their present. This line is so poignant that it marks the grave of F. Scott Fitzgerald, the book’s author. Imagine the last line of your book becomes your epitaph! 


No matter what style of writing used, tone is immensely important for keeping readers hooked but also for interpretation of themes and underlying messages. If the writer wants to portray a theme of death not being the end of life, a dreary, dark tone might not be the way to go. If the writer is sending an e-mail to his or her project team about the importance of teamwork and collaboration, singling out certain members isn’t going to portray that message. Create, maintain, and close with the desired tone to reflect the message being portrayed, and readers won’t be able to put it down or forget it long after they’ve finished!

Post by Online English Editor.  

Online English Editor provides editing and proofreading services to academics, students and professionals.