The tone in a story can be joyful, serious, humorous, sad, threatening, formal, informal, pessimistic, and optimistic. Your tone in writing will be reflective of your mood as you are writing.
Tone in Writing
Tone in writing is not really any different than the tone of your voice. You know that sometimes it is not “what” you say, but “how” you say it.
It is the same with writing. Every adjective and adverb you use, your sentence structure, and the imagery you use will show your tone. The definition of “tone” is the way the author expresses his attitude through his writing.
The tone can change very quickly, or may remain the same throughout the story. Tone is expressed by your use of syntax, your point of view, your diction, and the level of formality in your writing.
Examples of tone in a story include just about any adjective you can imagine:
Conveying Tone in a Story
Tone in writing is conveyed by both the choices of words and the narrator of the story.
Consider the tone of The School by Donald Barthelme. Here, words like "death" and "depressing" set a negative or unhappy tone:
And the trees all died. They were orange trees. I don’t know why they died, they just died. Something wrong with the soil possibly or maybe the stuff we got from the nursery wasn’t the best. We complained about it. So we’ve got thirty kids there, each kid had his or her own little tree to plant and we’ve got these thirty dead trees. All these kids looking at these little brown sticks, it was depressing.
In contrast, in Charlotte's Web, although the book is sad, the tone is one of peace and acceptance:
But I feel peaceful. Your success in the ring this morning was, to a small degree, my success. Your future is assured. You will live, secure and safe, Wilbur. Nothing can harm you now. These autumn days will shorten and grow cold. The leaves will shake loose from the trees and fall. Christmas will come, and the snows of winter. You will live to enjoy the beauty of the frozen world, for you mean a great deal to Zuckerman and he will not harm you, ever. Winter will pass, the days will lengthen, the ice will melt in the pasture pond. The song sparrow will return and sing, the frogs will awake, the warm wind will blow again. All these sights and sounds and smells will be yours to enjoy, Wilbur—this lovely world, these precious days…”
In A River Runs Through It, loss is also addressed with a kind of acceptance. The tone here is a bit wistful, yet peaceful and moving towards acceptance nonetheless.
This was the last fish we were ever to see Paul catch. My father and I talked about this moment several times later, and whatever our other feelings, we always felt it fitting that, when we saw him catch his last fish, we never saw the fish but only the artistry of the fisherman.
Choosing Words for Tone
In the following excerpt from Edgar Allen Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart, notice the insane, nervous, and guilty tones.
It was A LOW, DULL, QUICK SOUND -- MUCH SUCH A SOUND AS A WATCH MAKES WHEN ENVELOPED IN COTTON. I gasped for breath, and yet the officers heard it not. I talked more quickly, more vehemently but the noise steadily increased. I arose and argued about trifles, in a high key and with violent gesticulations; but the noise steadily increased. Why WOULD they not be gone? I paced the floor to and fro with heavy strides, as if excited to fury by the observations of the men, but the noise steadily increased. O God! What COULD I do? I foamed -- I raved -- I swore! I swung the chair upon which I had been sitting, and grated it upon the boards, but the noise arose over all and continually increased. It grew louder -- louder -- louder!
In Hemingway’s A Clean, Well-Lighted Place the tone is calm and peaceful.
It was very late and everyone had left the cafe except an old man who sat in the shadow the leaves of the tree made against the electric light. In the day time the street was dusty, but at night the dew settled the dust and the old man liked to sit late because he was deaf and now at night it was quiet and he felt the difference.
Finally, in A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens, the tone could be said to be mysterious, secretive, ominous, or evil.
There was a steaming mist in all the hollows, and it had roamed in its forlornness up the hill, like an evil spirit, seeking rest and finding none. A clammy and intensely cold mist, it made its slow way through the air in ripples that visibly followed and overspread one another, as the waves of an unwholesome sea might do. It was dense enough to shut out everything from the light of the coach-lamps but these its own workings, and a few yards of road; and the reek of the labouring horses steamed into it, as if they had made it all.
Formal and Casual Tones
An example of a casual tone is:
The way I look at it, someone needs to start doing something about disease. What’s the big deal? People are dying. But the average person doesn’t think twice about it until it affects them. Or someone they know.
A formal tone is shown in this example:
There was a delay in the start of the project, attributable to circumstances beyond the control of all relevant parties. Progress came to a standstill, and no one was prepared to undertake the assessment of the problem and determination of the solution.
There are as many examples of tone in a story as there are stars in the sky. Any adjective you can think of can be the tone in a story.
Do you have a good example to share? Add your example here.comments powered by
Examples of Tone in a Story
By YourDictionaryThe tone in a story can be joyful, serious, humorous, sad, threatening, formal, informal, pessimistic, and optimistic. Your tone in writing will be reflective of your mood as you are writing.
What is tone?
Tone refers to an author’s use of words and writing style to convey his or her attitude towards a topic. Tone is often defined as what the author feels about the subject. What the reader feels is known as the mood.
Tip: Don’t confuse tone with voice. [Read How Do You Find Your Writing Voice?] Voice can be explained as the author’s personality expressed in writing. Tone = Attitude. Voice = Personality.
Tone (attitude) and voice (personality) create a writing style. You may not be able to alter your personality but you can adjust your attitude. This gives you ways to create writing that affects your audience’s mood. (Click here for examples of tone in a story.)
The mechanics of tone
Tone is conveyed through diction (choice and use of words and phrases), viewpoint, syntax (grammar; how you put words and phrases together), and level of formality. It is the way you express yourself in speech or writing.
How do you find the correct tone?
You can usually find a tone by asking these three questions:
- Why am I writing this?
- Who is my intended audience?
- What do I want the reader to learn, understand, or think about?
In formal writing, your tone should be clear, concise, confident, and courteous. The writing level should be sophisticated, but not pretentious.
In creative writing, your tone is more subjective, but you should always aim to communicate clearly. Genre sometimes determines the tone.
|Absurd||illogical; ridiculous; silly; implausible; foolish|
|Accusatory||suggesting someone has done something wrong, complaining|
|Acerbic||sharp; forthright; biting; hurtful; abrasive; severe|
|Admiring||approving; think highly of; respectful; praising|
|Aggressive||hostile; determined; forceful; argumentative|
|Aggrieved||indignant; annoyed; offended; disgruntled|
|Ambivalent||having mixed feelings; uncertain; in a dilemma; undecided|
|Amused||entertained; diverted; pleased|
|Angry||incensed or enraged; threatening or menacing|
|Animated||full of life or excitement; lively; spirited; impassioned; vibrant|
|Apathetic||showing little interest; lacking concern; indifferent; unemotional|
|Apologetic||full of regret; repentant; remorseful; acknowledging failure|
|Appreciative||grateful; thankful; showing pleasure; enthusiastic|
|Arrogant||pompous; disdainful; overbearing; condescending; vain; scoffing|
|Assertive||self-confident; strong-willed; authoritative; insistent|
|Awestruck||amazed, filled with wonder/awe; reverential|
|Belligerent||hostile; aggressive; combatant|
|Benevolent||sympathetic; tolerant; generous; caring; well meaning|
|Bitter||angry; acrimonious; antagonistic; spiteful; nasty|
|Callous||cruel disregard; unfeeling; uncaring; indifferent; ruthless|
|Candid||truthful, straightforward; honest; unreserved|
|Caustic||making biting, corrosive comments; critical|
|Cautionary||gives warning; raises awareness; reminding|
|Celebratory||praising; pay tribute to; glorify; honour|
|Chatty||informal; lively; conversational; familiar|
|Colloquial||familiar; everyday language; informal; colloquial; casual|
|Comic||humorous; witty; entertaining; diverting|
|Compassionate||sympathetic; empathetic; warm-hearted; tolerant; kind|
|Complex||having many varying characteristics; complicated|
|Compliant||agree or obey rules; acquiescent; flexible; submissive|
|Concerned||worried; anxious; apprehensive|
|Conciliatory||intended to placate or pacify; appeasing|
|Condescending||stooping to the level of one’s inferiors; patronising|
|Confused||unable to think clearly; bewildered; vague|
|Contemptuous||showing contempt; scornful; insolent; mocking|
|Critical||finding fault; disapproving; scathing; criticizing|
|Cruel||causing pain and suffering; unkind; spiteful; severe|
|Curious||wanting to find out more; inquisitive; questioning|
|Cynical||scornful of motives/virtues of others; mocking; sneering|
|Defensive||defending a position; shielding; guarding; watchful|
|Defiant||obstinate; argumentative; defiant; contentious|
|Depressing||sad, melancholic; discouraging; pessimistic|
|Derisive||snide; sarcastic; mocking; dismissive; scornful|
|Detached||aloof; objective; unfeeling; distant|
|Dignified||serious; respectful; formal; proper|
|Diplomatic||tactful; subtle; sensitive; thoughtful|
|Disapproving||displeased; critical; condemnatory|
|Disheartening||discouraging; demoralising; undermining; depressing|
|Disparaging||dismissive; critical; scornful|
|Disappointed||discouraged; unhappy because something has gone wrong|
|Dispassionate||impartial; indifferent; unsentimental; cold; unsympathetic|
|Distressing||heart-breaking; sad; troubling|
|Docile||compliant; submissive; deferential; accommodating|
|Earnest||showing deep sincerity or feeling; serious|
|Egotistical||self-absorbed; selfish; conceited; boastful|
|Empathetic||understanding; kind; sensitive|
|Evasive||ambiguous; cryptic; unclear|
|Excited||emotionally aroused; stirred|
|Farcical||ludicrous; absurd; mocking; humorous and highly improbable|
|Flippant||superficial; glib; shallow; thoughtless; frivolous|
|Forceful||powerful; energetic; confident; assertive|
|Formal||respectful; stilted; factual; following accepted styles/rules|
|Frank||honest; direct; plain; matter-of-fact|
|Gentle||kind; considerate; mild; soft|
|Ghoulish||delighting in the revolting or the loathsome|
|Grim||serious; gloomy; depressing; lacking humour;macabre|
|Gullible||naïve; innocent; ignorant|
|Hard||unfeeling; hard-hearted; unyielding|
|Humorous||amusing; entertaining; playful|
|Hypercritical||unreasonably critical; hair splitting; nitpicking|
|Impartial||unbiased; neutral; objective|
|Impassioned||filled with emotion; ardent|
|Inane||silly; foolish; stupid; nonsensical|
|Incredulous||disbelieving; unconvinced; questioning; suspicious|
|Indignant||annoyed; angry; dissatisfied|
|Informative||instructive; factual; educational|
|Intense||earnest; passionate; concentrated; deeply felt|
|Intimate||familiar; informal; confidential; confessional|
|Ironic||the opposite of what is meant|
|Irreverent||lacking respect for things that are generally taken seriously|
|Jaded||bored; having had too much of the same thing; lack enthusiasm|
|Joyful||positive; optimistic; cheerful; elated|
|Judgmental||critical; finding fault; disparaging|
|Light-Hearted||carefree; relaxed; chatty; humorous|
|Loving||affectionate; showing intense, deep concern|
|Macabre||gruesome; horrifying; frightening|
|Malicious||desiring to harm others or to see others suffer; ill-willed; spiteful|
|Mocking||scornful; ridiculing; making fun of someone|
|Mourning||grieving; lamenting; woeful|
|Naïve||innocent; unsophisticated; immature|
|Narcissistic||self-admiring; selfish; boastful; self-pitying|
|Nasty||unpleasant; unkind; disagreeable; abusive|
|Nostalgic||thinking about the past; wishing for something from the past|
|Objective||without prejudice; without discrimination; fair; based on fact|
|Obsequious||overly obedient and/or submissive; fawning; grovelling|
|Outraged||angered and resentful; furious; extremely angered|
|Outspoken||frank; candid; spoken without reserve|
|Pathetic||expressing pity, sympathy, tenderness|
|Patronising||condescending; scornful; pompous|
|Pensive||reflective; introspective; philosophical; contemplative|
|Persuasive||convincing; eloquent; influential; plausible|
|Pessimistic||seeing the negative side of things|
|Philosophical||theoretical; analytical; rational; logical|
|Playful||full of fun and good spirits; humorous; jesting|
|Pretentious||affected; artificial; grandiose; rhetorical; flashy|
|Resentful||aggrieved; offended; displeased; bitter|
|Restrained||controlled; quiet; unemotional|
|Reverent||showing deep respect and esteem|
|Righteous||morally right and just; guiltless; pious; god-fearing|
|Satirical||making fun to show a weakness; ridiculing; derisive|
|Sarcastic||scornful; mocking; ridiculing|
|Scathing||critical; stinging; unsparing; harsh|
|Scornful||expressing contempt or derision; scathing; dismissive|
|Sensationalistic||provocative; inaccurate; distasteful|
|Sentimental||thinking about feelings, especially when remembering the past|
|Sincere||honest; truthful; earnest|
|Sceptical||disbelieving; unconvinced; doubting|
|Solemn||not funny; in earnest; serious|
|Submissive||compliant; passive; accommodating; obedient|
|Sulking||bad-tempered; grumpy; resentful; sullen|
|Sympathetic||compassionate; understanding of how someone feels|
|Thoughtful||reflective; serious; absorbed|
|Tolerant||open-minded; charitable; patient; sympathetic; lenient|
|Unassuming||modest; self-effacing; restrained|
|Uneasy||worried; uncomfortable; edgy; nervous|
|Urgent||insistent; saying something must be done soon|
|Vindictive||vengeful; spiteful; bitter; unforgiving|
|Virtuous||lawful; righteous; moral; upstanding|
|Whimsical||quaint; playful; mischievous; offbeat|
|Witty||clever; quick-witted; entertaining|
|Wonder||awe-struck; admiring; fascinating|
|World-Weary||bored; cynical; tired|
|Worried||anxious; stressed; fearful|
|Wretched||miserable; despairing; sorrowful; distressed|
Helpful Tip:Finding the correct tone is a matter of practice. Try to write for different audiences. Even if you only want to write novels, it is an apprenticeship of sorts. Write press releases. Write opinion pieces. Write interviews. Write copy. Write a business plan.
The more you write, the better you will become at infusing your work with the nuances needed to create the perfect book. If you want to receive a daily prompt, click here to join our mailing list.
by Amanda Patterson
- 15 Questions Authors Should Ask Characters
- 6 Sub-Plots That Add Style To Your Story
- 7 Choices That Affect A Writer’s Style
- 5 Incredibly Simple Ways To Help Writers Show And Not Tell
- Cheat Sheets for Writing Body Language
If you want to learn how to write a book, join our Writers Write course in Johannesburg or sign up for our online course.
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- Posted on 27th June 2014
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Explore: Style, Tone, Voice, Writing Tips from Amanda Patterson