What’s the Difference Between Tone vs. Mood?

barefoot woman walking wet trail

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes

As writers, we’re given numerous choices for expressing our stories. Whether we’re crafting fantasy, memoir, or fiction, we become the rulers of our creative landscapes by dictating structure, style, and content. These choices ultimately make readers think. Importantly, they also evoke emotions. We have tone and mood to thank for this, but what’s the difference between these two literary elements? Can you describe the distinction between tone vs. mood?

What is tone?

Defining tone is almost like being asked to describe the taste of water. We know it when we write it, or feel it when reading, yet the exact nature of it is elusive. One of my favorite examples of tone masters is Stephen King. Why? Because the tone of his work is ominous. Chilling. Mysterious.

Through grim imagery, specific dark words, and bizarre character traits, King spares no literary mercy in amplifying tone. He once shared, “I try to create sympathy for my characters, then turn the monsters loose.” The audience is left to feel the sinister echoes of his intentional creation of tone.

Words set the tone

If you want to observe tone, start paying attention to word choice. Words such as fluffy, sweet, or angelic create a different tone than words like ominous, dreary, or suspicious. The way words are selected, wrangled, and orchestrated contributes to tone as intention. I, as a writer, intend for you, as a reader, to head on an overall designated pathway for how I want words received.

Tone can change, scene to scene, chapter to chapter — one may be hopeful, while the next may be fearful — however, most books ascribe to an overall tone as a body of work. Some books have an adventurous tone, (think Lord of the Rings), while others convey pessimism or fear (think Lord of the Flies).

Perhaps tone can be described as a book’s overall essence or spirit. Imagine how you’d describe the outlooks of friends you have. Some are more formal, serious, or pessimistic, while others might be described as carefree, joyful, or hopeful.

What is mood?

The essence of mood complements and contrasts the tone. Mood offers fleeting moments of insight into a character’s perspective or unfolding circumstance. Mood might inhabit a single line, paragraph, or dialogue exchange between characters. As readers, we might sense the tension, or hope, or despair by how the writers infuses mood onto the page.

Judy Blume, one of the most beloved authors of my growing years, was truly able to capture a sense of mood in her characters. Blume wrote about coming-of-age adolescence, and through her character’s struggles and confusion, she was able to infuse moods of angst, hope, and frustration. I always knew how her characters felt and what they struggled with.

Author J.K. Rowling offers compelling mood shifts and swings in her ever-popular Harry Potter books. Elements of friendship, morality, fear, wonder, magic, and perseverance carry us along worlds of love and loss. Rowling brilliantly orchestrates moods by way of character conflicts and struggles, both internal and external. No matter where we are in a Harry Potter book, we have an overall feeling or mood from what the story reveals.

How do you set the mood?

Moods change and shift as stories unfold. It takes us from place to place, experience to experience, so we move through time and experience as readers. As a writer, there are lots of ways to convey mood. By revealing a character’s interior thoughts, by illustrating external reactions, through elevating scenery, or by magnifying themes.

As an example of elevating scenery, having a character walk along a white sandy beach, near a turquoise ocean, water glistening on the horizon, offers an uplifted mood. Another character walking barefoot along a country road beside a scorched field still smoldering from bomb remnants creates an entirely different mood.

How does mood affect storytelling?

Words like barefoot, scorched, and smoldering are key to the mood. I didn’t mention barefoot beside the sandy beach; it might be implied. However, using barefoot along the country road, out of context, beside a smoldering field, creates an entirely different implication.

Expressing themes, or main ideas, can support mood, just as mood can support themes. Using the examples above, if I wanted to showcase a theme of life after divorce, or how women in middle age search for self-awareness, the beach scene could beautifully support that theme. If I wanted to showcase a theme of survival, or trauma from war, the mood delivered from the image of the scorched field would do the trick.

Understanding tone in storytelling

When you think about how you want your book to feel for readers, reflect on the essence you want to convey. Is your story ultimately hopeful? Are you looking to create an upbeat or happy perspective on a certain topic? Do you want readers to feel a certain way?

six months to publishingTone provides a backdrop or spirit of intention that creates the overarching texture of the experience. Word choices, sentence structure, character traits, and descriptions of subtle, yet substantial, details all help paint a picture of meaning. Also, using an active vs. passive voice can help convey different things in your literary work.

Mood, on the other hand, might be described as how you choose to move characters through time, space, learning, growth, or relationships. Circumstances, scenes, dialog, and plot points add to the texture and movement of mood.

Observe your reactions, thoughts, or feelings when you’re reading a book that evokes emotion. Are you rooting for the bad guy? Are you relating to a loss? Are you finding yourself dreaming of imaginary worlds where wizards seek to cast magic spells for the greater good? Chances are you’re swept up by the mood or tone. See if you can identify how, and exactly what elements the author has applied. I bet that if navigating mood or tone is something you believe will fortify your writing, you’ll be able to apply a trick or two the next time you write.

Have you set the tone? Let’s get to publishing!

Once you’ve got a handle on tone vs mood in your story, let’s get it the hands of your readers. Check out BookBaby’s self-publishing packages or call 1-877-961-6878 and talk to a publishing specialist today.

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  1. Tone is much more than a simple choice of words. As my dad would say whenever I made a snarky remark as a kid, “it’s not what you but how you say it.” Eg tone conveys attitude which in turn sets the mood whether humorous, serious, sarcastic, mysterious, incredulous, etc. through narrative or dialog. Just sayin.


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