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Have you ever said an innocent word to someone, only to be told: “Don’t take that tone with me”? If so, then congratulations. You’re a writer.

When talking to other people, we sometimes have to be careful to guard our tone or manage our mood. We want to be polite, after all. But in writing, tools like tone and mood and voice become our friends. These tools allow us to employ context and subtext to shape the feeling the reader gets from our work. Whether you want these readers laughing or on the edge of their seats, it often comes down to how you use one of these three tools.

Unfortunately, these literary devices can also be tough to distinguish from each other. What is tone? What does it look like when you’re “writing mood”? How do you delineate tone vs. voice? Let’s learn each one, explore some examples, and then find out how you can incorporate them into your writing.

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What Is Tone?

In 1971, Coca-Cola embraced the peace and love movement with a commercial that sang: “I’d like to buy the world a Coke.” This wasn’t a story, or a novel, yet it displayed just how important it is to strike the tone you want. For Coca-Cola, that meant turning Coke into a symbol of peace, love, and understanding. Whether you’re writing a slogan, a blog post, or a mystery novel, it’s important to grab tone by the horns and never let go.

Examples of Tone in Writing

Julia Elliott’s short story Hellion, opens with some of the following lines:

The next day was one of those blazing summer mornings: sky blue as a pilot light and birds going full throttle, opening their golden beaks and warbling, Glory Be.

A lesser writer might have described the morning in as boring a way possible: blue. Instead, Elliott’s morning is “sky blue as a pilot light” with “birds going full throttle.” You’ll find that many of the best tone examples use these creative beats to establish a unique voice or setting.

The sail was patched with flour sacks and, furled, it looked like the flag of permanent defeat.

Taken from one of the first pages of Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, this sentence uses a simile to create the forlorn image of flour sack patching and establish the lonely, failing tone of its protagonist. Right away, we know this is an old man who hasn’t caught a good fish in a long while. Tone examples like this demonstrate how quickly you can “set tone” without needing to write 50 pages of detailed exposition.

How to Use Tone

Before you learn how to write tone, remember this: Tone is food coloring. A few drops in a glass of water are all you need to change the entire hue. 

Whether you’re writing fiction or starting a blog post, set the tone early. In fact, writing tone is more potent the sooner it appears. Hemingway uses the “patched with flour sacks” description once, then moves on to the scene. 

What Is Mood?

We often describe mood in similar ways to tone. We “set the mood” just as often as we “set the tone.” So what distinguishes tone vs. mood? Simple: Mood is the collection of everything you use to establish a feeling or atmosphere.

Examples of Mood in Writing

Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,

Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore—

Edgar Allan Poe’s poem The Raven might be one of the most famous examples of evocative mood in literature. The setting? “Bleak December.” The lighting? “Each dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor.” Though the narrative tone of The Raven is still a little vague—we only find out scant details of the narrator’s life—the mood does all of the talking. 

It’s a masterclass in “art direction,” and through these details we know the narrator must be haunted over his memories of his “lost Lenore.”

Who’s there?

Shakespeare’s most famous tragedy, Hamlet, begins with this innocuous question. The tone can be simple and straightforward. Yet Shakespeare begins Hamlet by evoking mood. The setting: outside a castle. The circumstances: Hamlet’s father’s ghost has been visiting.

As Shakespeare shows us, not all great mood examples rely on evocative imagery. You can let the circumstances of your story set the mood.

Writing Mood with Skill

How can you tell someone else is in a mood? It’s not always something they say. Maybe they come home, slam the door shut, and collapse onto the couch in a huff. There’s no dialogue there—but the mood is clear. A bad day at work.

Mood in writing often works the same. Remember that standard old writing advice: show, don’t tell. Show the reader the mood of the piece by choosing details that help readers piece together your puzzle. 

Don’t show your main character has a troubled marriage by having them tell the reader “I’m in a troubled marriage.” But if your narrator says, “That dolt Bob left his egg yolks scummed to his dirty plates again,” we have a mood that hints at the marriage frustrations underneath.

What Is Voice?

When you have tone and mood, your writing will come to life. But there’s one element still missing: voice. You can think of voice as tone specifically applied to one person or narrator. Voice in writing is most often either the flavor or style in which the story progresses.

Examples of Voice in Writing

If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.

So begins J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, one of the most famous voice examples in all of literature. In this novel, the story begins firmly in the mind of Holden Caulfield, its angsty narrator. Notice there’s no information here. It’s not a dark and stormy night. Salinger is using voice effectively, but we don’t know anything about Holden Caulfield yet. Even so, the use of voice has us assuming all sorts of things about the narrator.

What if you want to know how to write voice in third person? Here’s how you do it. 

Archie scrabbling up the stairs, as usual cursing and blinding, wilting under the weight of boxes that Clara could carry two, three at a time without effort; Clara taking a break, squinting in the warm May sunshine, trying to get her bearings. She peeled down to a little purple vest and leaned against her front gate. What kind of a place was this? That was the thing, you see, you couldn’t be sure.

This selection from White Teeth by Zadie Smith isn’t in first person. But notice how the limited point of view still “sinks in” to Clara’s head. The sentence “What kind of a place was this?” evokes Clara’s thoughts. Zadie Smith effectively layers action and details with Clara’s personal voice. 

Notice the vividness of the writing; despite telling the story from a third-person perspective, we can’t help but feel we know Clara.

Tone vs. Mood and Tone vs. Voice

Mood and voice are distinct enough, but tone seems to occupy the middle ground. How do you distinguish tone from mood or voice?

  • Tone vs. Mood: The mood of your work is the overall atmosphere you set. The tone can help create mood, sure, but mood will also encompass everything from the setting to the way you describe the way a door knocks.
  • Tone vs. Voice: What distinguishes tone from voice is its unique point of view. For instance, an author can have a “narrative voice” that establishes a gritty tone for a novel. But the key distinction here is the element of who. You can set a consistent tone in a novel but tell it from two characters’ perspectives, establishing two unique voices with different goals.

Finding Your Writing Voice

The overall “flavor” of your work is said to be the writer’s voice. But as a writing technique, voice is more like a precision instrument. You can use it to distinguish one character from another. For example, you might write from the voices of an angsty teen and her overbearing mother. 

The way you use all three of these techniques to set the atmosphere of your work will be unique to you. How you use them will ultimately determine how effectively you express yourself. Think of them as the secret sauce that makes your writing taste different from all the rest.

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