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What Does Tone Mean in Literature?
In literary terms, tone typically refers to the mood implied by an author’s word choice and the way that the text can make a reader feel.
The tone an author uses in a piece of writing can evoke any number of emotions and perspectives. Tone can also span a wide array of textual styles, from terse to prosaic. Tone is what helps terrify the reader in Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart,” and it helps convey the point of view of an old man in “After Apple-Picking” by Robert Frost. Furthermore, certain attributes of your writing—including voice, inflection, cadence, mood, and style—are related to tone.
To understand how much tone affects a piece of literature, consider the difference between the novel The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger and the novella Apt Pupil by Stephen King. Both deal with teenage boys navigating a world of adults in big cities (New York and Los Angeles, respectively). What’s more, the main character of each tale has a breakdown during the course of the story. Yet the two literary works are completely different, due to their different types of tones. Salinger’s novel has a tone of vulnerability cloaked in cynicism, while King’s is far darker, portraying a descent into psychopathy.
Examples of Tone in Literature
To truly understand types of tone, you must experience them on the page. The way an author uses sentence structure, words, and literary devices all shape the overall mood of a piece. Sometimes tone reveals the attitude of a writer. Other times tone comes from an intentionally affected writing style and reveals little about the writer's attitude. Ultimately tone is less about what an author feels and more about how that author wants the reader to feel. What follows are contrasting tone examples.
1. Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick (1851)
Consider this excerpt from Moby-Dick by Herman Melville:
What of it, if some old hunks of a sea-captain orders me to get a broom and sweep down the decks? What does that indignity amount to, weighed, I mean, in the scales of the New Testament? Do you think the archangel Gabriel thinks anything the less of me, because I promptly and respectfully obey that old hunks in that particular instance? Who ain’t a slave? Tell me that. Well, then, however the old sea-captains may order me about—however they may thump and punch me about, I have the satisfaction of knowing that it is all right; that everybody else is one way or other served in much the same way— either in a physical or metaphysical point of view, that is; and so the universal thump is passed round, and all hands should rub each other’s shoulder- blades, and be content.
Moby-Dick has a hardscrabble tone befitting its setting: a whaling boat. The first-person narration contributes to this, as does the conversational style.
2. Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities (1859)
Contrast the prior Melville passage with this one from A Tale of Two Cities:
It was the year of Our Lord one thousand seven hundred and seventy-five. Spiritual revelations were conceded to England at that favoured period, as at this. Mrs. Southcott had recently attained her five-and-twentieth blessed birthday, of whom a prophetic private in the Life Guards had heralded the sublime appearance by announcing that arrangements were made for the swallowing up of London and Westminster.
The overall tone in Dickens’ writing style signifies a serious, ornate piece of literature. Dickens favors a level of formality and eschews casual everyday language; this results in a text that has a grand, formal tone befitting its cosmopolitan setting. Both authors use rich, evocative language—yet there is something less formal and regal about Melville’s text. This kind of tone befits the rough and tumble setting of a whaling boat at sea, while the more formal tone of the Dickens befits his cosmopolitan settings of London and Paris.
18 Examples of Tone Words in Writing
The function of tone in a piece of creative writing is much like the effect of your tone of voice when you speak or your body language around another person. Honing your prose tone depends on what effect you wish to achieve. What overall tone do you want to set? What feelings or mood do you want to evoke? What kind of language will best deliver the story you want to tell? If you’re drafting a novel, short story, or poem, you might consider your writing tone to be one or more of the following:
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