Key Difference Between Tone And Mood: Why They’re Important In Stories

When you think about the books that set your heart aflutter, they all have one thing in common: they make you feel.

A good book can make you feel any number of emotions, all of which compel you to keep reading. You know you’ve found a talented author when the reader feels what the characters feel.

But how do you define that feeling? Is it tone, or is it mood? What is the difference between tone and mood? How do they work together?

Difference Between Tone and Mood

Tone: How the Author Feels

The tone is technically more difficult to understand between tone and mood because there is a level of inference that must be used.

The idea of tone is simple: it’s how the author feels about what they are writing. The author’s attitude is what’s important when speaking about tone in a literary work.

So how does one determine what the author felt when they wrote? Things like word choice, sentence structure, literary elements, figurative language, context clues, and literary devices all work together to create the author’s tone.

Let’s take a look at a classic piece of literature with a clear tone as an example: The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton. For anyone who hasn’t read the book, it follows Newland Archer as he tries and fails to follow his love while traversing the upper crust of New York society in the late 1800s.

Edith Wharton was a member of the said upper crust, and it comes through not only in the details but also in her tone. See, she’s very critical of the society in which she is writing and very condescending towards their actions.

How do we know this? She uses blatant irony throughout the text. The characters’ actions are entirely at odds with what they’re saying and the default values we all feel.

Difference Between Tone and Mood, tone vs mood

Mood: How You Feel

The mood is how the story makes the reader feel. It’s the overall feeling created by the literary work.

To confuse the matter further, the author uses the same literary devices that they use to create tone as they do to create the mood. This could be a descriptive scene such as someone with their arms crossed or the sentence structures themselves.

In The Age of Innocence, the emotion evoked is one of nostalgia. The reader has never lived in 1870’s New York (at least, not today’s readers), so why should they feel nostalgia for a life they never lived?

Easy: the author wants them to. The mood is created by the author, just as the tone is, but it’s meant to influence the reader.

Related: What is the Difference Between Fiction and Nonfiction Writing

How the Character’s Mood and the Mood of the Story Differs (Sometimes)

Let’s imagine a short story, one about, say, a raven. Actually, let’s look at “The Raven” by Edgar Allen Poe as an example. 

In “The Raven,” the narrator is lamenting the death of his beloved in a dark room when a knock on the door and then the window distract him. At the window is a raven who says the word, “Nevermore.”

Now, this is where it can be seen easily that the mood for the reader and the mood for the character are different. 

As a reader, you’re creeped out. Someone is knocking on your door, but no one is there, and then a talking raven appears, sounding vaguely ominous? Clearly, this is the setting for a horror movie. There’s a firm line that has been crossed into the land of the unsettling.

But the narrator doesn’t feel the fear we feel for him. He draws up a chair, ignores the unsettling atmosphere, and eagerly awaits the raven’s next words. 

There’s a clear difference between what the reader feels and what the character feels because it was written that way.

An Example of Tone and Mood

Let’s take a look at a few sentences written just for this article. Here we’ll look at a familiar scene, a mom watching her son go off to school for the first time.

“My crossed arms gave the impression I was ready for my son to go to school, but in reality, I was barely holding myself together. How did they get so old so quickly? Soon my little boy wouldn’t be my little boy anymore. He’d be a man. And then what would I have? Memories of a time I could carry him on my shoulders.”

Words like ‘holding myself together’ and ‘memories of a time’ work together to create a mood for the reader, one of sadness for the mother who is losing her son to the grown-up world.

But the tone is one of growth. The differences between the two moods are subtle but there. The mom is growing just as much as her son is. It’s not something that is said. It’s something that is observed and inferred.

Why Do We Want Tone and Mood?

We care about tone and mood because a neutral tone is no fun at all. As readers, we want to feel things – not just happy things, but deep feelings that are invoked by the author’s talent.

It’s clear why we want to understand mood – it’s how we’re made to feel. But why do we care about tone? Does how the author feels really matter when we already know how we feel?

The answer is a resounding ‘of course’! Why? By connecting with the tone of the piece, you’re actually connecting with the author, and you can understand what they are trying to say.

Are the curtains blue because the author likes the color or because they’re trying to convey deep sadness? You don’t know if you don’t look at the tone of the piece.

Every literary work has the author’s tone worked into it; you just have to look for it. You’re only reaching the surface-level understanding if you don’t look out for the tone as well. Beginning today, try to connect to the tone as well as the mood to reach a deeper understanding of what you’re reading or writing.