All forms of writing, even the academic and journalistic, will have a tone of some sort. Sometimes the emotion in a work is not as obvious as it is in others, or the lack of emotion might reveal the tone. It could be unconcerned or objective, formal or informal, optimistic or pessimistic, or an informal tone. It could even be a tone of derision or contempt. Explore more possible tones below including those used in casual forms of speech and a more formal writing style.
The tone is a literary device that conveys the author’s attitude towards the subject they’re writing about. It might also reflect how they feel about the intended audience.
That could be a single, specific reader or a group of people. For example, a scorned lover writing a letter to someone who has betrayed them will have a different tone than a mother writing a letter to a beloved son. The tone influences how the reader interprets the subject, the narrator’s attitude, and which parts seem the most important. Readers must pay attention to the tone, especially when analyzing literary works.
How Do Writers Create Tone?
The creation of tone in a literary work is incredibly important. Here are a few ways that writers accomplish their desired tone:
- Word choice: for example, uses colloquial diction, slang words, formal language, or even inside jokes.
- Figurative language: the use of metaphors, similes, hyperbole, etc. These can help the reader understand how the speaker feels about something.
- Sentence structure: the length of sentences, whether they’re in passive or active voice, and the arrangement of other words, can influence how the reader thinks about the narrator/writer and then how they think about the subject.
- Punctuation: including periods, exclamation points, and the use of enjambment.
Common Examples of Tone
Examples of Tone in Literature
I am Trying to Break Your Heart by Kevin Young
In some cases, the tone is quite complicated, making it one of the most important features of a text. Take, for example, Kevin Young’s ‘I am Trying to Break Your Heart.’ Here are a few lines from the poem:
I want to wear
your smile on my sleeve
your heart like a horse
or its leg. Weeks of being
bucked off, then
all at once, you’re mine—
In this piece, the poet crafts a speaker how goes back and forth between hating, loving, and wanting to control his ex-lover. The poet’s attitude (or tone) can be summed up as passionate or devoted to his subject. No matter where he sends his speaker emotionally, he is invested in dealing with the situation emotionally.
The writer’s handling of the subject, meaning their depiction of it, should tell the reader something about them.
Read more Kevin Young poems.
“The Tell-Tale Heart” by Edgar Allan Poe
“The Tell-Tale Heart” is perhaps Poe’s most commonly studied short story. In it, readers can find numerous examples of tone. They help the reader understand how the narrator thinks about the old man and the murder he committed. Consider these lines from the passage in which he’s describing the old man’s eye
His eye was like the eye of a vulture, the eye of one of those terrible birds that watch and wait while an animal dies, and then fall upon the dead body and pull it to pieces to eat it. When the old man looked at me with his vulture eye a cold feeling went up and down my back; even my blood became cold. And so, I finally decided I had to kill the old man and close that eye forever!
In these lines, the self-pitying narrator uses words like “vulture,” “dead body,” “dies,” “cold feeling,” and “blood,” all of which add to a certain tone of disgust around the eye and the old man who has it. The narrator hates this person for the sole reason that he has a bad eye. The absurdity of this obsession becomes more and more real as the reader makes their way through the text. The poet’s melancholy, mourning, and lamenting tone are quite effective.
Explore Edgar Allan Poe’s poetry.
Tone or Mood?
One of the most commonly asked questions regarding tone is how it differs from the mood. They seem similar but actually have different roles to play. The mood is the atmosphere a written work creates and how the reader feels while engaged with the text. This differs from the point of view of the writer. The tone might be disgust, but the mood is fearful and haunting, such as in much of “The Tell-Tale Heart.” Robert Frost is one poet who is well-known for his use of tone and mood. In his poetry, readers can find examples of a peaceful tone as he discusses nature.
Readers might also want to look to some popular novels, like The Catcher in the Rye for examples of how different tones are used.
Function of Tone
The tone is at the root of all poetry. You might ask instead, why do people love poetry? It taps into the reader’s everyday lives, the divine, the sublime, and everything in-between and tries to put them into words. Without tones in poetry, the words on the page would be bland, meaningless, and perhaps even purposeless. If you have ever read a poem and felt something or thought the writer was feeling something while writing, well, that’s the tone doing its job.
There are many types of tones in poems. Three of the most common are: formal, friendly, and optimistic.
Analyze the writer’s attitude towards what they’re writing in the same way one might consider a friend’s attitude towards a subject. Consider the words they use and the punctuation.
The tone conveys the author’s attitude towards the subject they’re writing about.
Also known as a symphonic poem, a tone poem is a piece of orchestral music. It’s a single movement that is written to evoke the tone of a poem.
Understanding the tone is important because it helps the reader figure out the writer’s intentions.
Related Literary Terms
- Attitude: refers to the tone a writer takes on whatever they are writing. It can come through in a character’s intentions, histories, emotions, and actions.
- Bathos: a sudden, jolting change in the tone of a work. This could occur in a poem, play, story, or film.
- Mood: the feeling created by the writer for the reader. It is what happens within a reader because of the tone the writer used in the poem.
- Atmosphere: a literary technique that is concerned with the feeling readers get from the elements of a narrative.
- Connotation: the feeling a writer creates through their word choice. It’s the idea a specific word or set of words evokes.