How to Use Tone In Your Story

Writers use literary devices, like foreshadowing and symbolism, to create an atmosphere in their stories. It’s a feeling or attitude or expression they want their readers to pay special attention to. But what is tone and how can you use it in your story?

What is tone?

Tone can be formal or informal. It can be direct or abstract. Everything depends on the writers and the style in which they choose to tell the story.

Think of it like this. When we speak, our facial expressions and timbre of voice often convey our mood or attitude. It gives the receiver the full picture of how we feel about whatever topic we’re discussing.

But when writing, we must rely on images and descriptive phrases to get our feelings across. This is why many new writers have “I feel” sentences because they’re trying to get an emotion across that they aren’t yet able to write poetically.

Tone versus mood

The mood is the accumulation of tone, voice, setting, and theme; while the tone is determined by the author or speaker and about how they feel about something. Mood is more closely related to the atmosphere, or an overall feel the author creates for the reader.

Tone is just one component of a book’s Mood.

All pieces of literature, whether it be a technical handbook or fantastical saga, has tone. Authors and writers extend it into everything they write through their word choices and the imagery they elect to insert into their writing.

It isn’t escapable because you’re reading a dry piece of writing. That’s simply the tone its author chose to embed into the document.

Example from The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Nick Carraway, the narrator of The Great Gatsby, changes tone throughout the novel. Simpler put, he changes the way he sees things throughout the story. In the beginning, he’s disillusioned by the glam and glitz of the upper class. At times he admires Jay Gatsby and Tom and Daisy Buchanan. But at other times, he scorns their carelessness and ignorant confusion. By the end of the summer, Nick’s tone over their company changed dramatically and it wasn’t admiration in his voice any longer.

In all forms of writing, tone is used to communicate, which is why it must be purposeful and, while it can change throughout the story, must remain consistent. On a line-by-line, paragraph-by-paragraph basis, it should stay consistent.

Throughout this, the writer must carefully choose their words to match the tone to the correct scene and story. All in all, there are two main things to consider.

Choose your book’s narrator wisely.

Your book’s narrator effectively determines the tone of your story. If your narrator is dreary and unhappy, then your story will likely be gloomy and use darker imagery than a narrator with a happier disposition.

The amazing thing about being the author is that we get to choose who that narrator is. We get to decide through which lens to tell our story, because we determine who the narrator or main protagonist will be. If we want a happier tone, then we can choose that. If we want something darker, we can write that, too.

To craft the right tone for your story, choose the right narrator for the job. It’s about what the author wants to say in the story and the attitude they wish to show throughout the story, but it’s also about who is saying it.

Especially in fiction. You won’t have facial expressions to get your point across. You’ll have to rely on imagery and description and details. But how those things are viewed will change depending on the narrator.

Readers detect tone through style and diction.

While it may shift throughout a story, as with our example above, its both the reader’s job to detect the author’s implied tone and the author’s job to keep it clear throughout the story. If it is geared to change, again, as with our example above, then the story should reflect and explain the tonal shift.

Like we mentioned above, tone is often discerned through details and description and how the author chooses to convey information. Or how the viewpoint character(s) see things in the world around them.

Tone isn’t just the icing on the cake; it’s a necessary facet of writing, and you’re exercising tone whether you mean to or not. Every piece of writing has it. Your job as the author is to express it for your story.