The Difference Between “Tone” And “Mood”

What is the tone of your novel?  What is the mood of your story?

What is the difference??

Succinctly put, the author’s attitude towards a subject or audience in literature is called the tone, and the general feeling or atmosphere that a piece of writing creates within the reader is the mood.  Tone and mood are often confused, so now would be a good time to make sure you understand the difference between the two.

I don’t know about you, but I can easily write a descriptive scene of a mom growing more and more angry with her kid.  (Let’s just say I’ve had plenty ‘research’ into this subject…)  I would describe the mom with her arms crossed and her mouth in a firm line. She’d tap her foot with impatience and yell to her kid, ‘Get downstairs. Right. Now.’

In my scene, my attitude toward the mom character reflects her anger and impatience with her child. In literature, tone is conveyed through the author’s use of language, including word choice, phrasing and sentence structures. Tone is in the details that are included or omitted in the text.

Notice that I chose to describe the mom with crossed arms and a mouth in a firm line, to show she is angry. We might learn later that the mom character has beautiful brown eyes, but including that detail in this scene wouldn’t have served my purpose in showing her frustration.

If tone is the author’s attitude toward a subject, then mood is how we are made to feel as readers, or the emotion evoked by the author. So, while it’s clear from my portrayal that the subject, a mom, is angry (tone), the reader might feel I’m describing a familiar scene and maybe chuckle in recognition (mood).

Both tone and mood are implied by the author’s use of words, so it’s easy to see how they come to be used interchangeably.  Charles Dickens doesn’t come out and say that the tone of the book Great Expectations is X and the mood is Y, nor does his attitude toward Pip and his changing fortunes stay the same through the entire 490-page novel.

Make sense?  If you need further help, check out this handy venn diagram showing the differences:

Share some examples of the tone and mood of your work-in-progress below.  Let’s talk about it more!

Writing Craft

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