How to Analyze Tone in Literature

Three Parts:Identifying Tone in LiteratureAnalyzing Tone through Diction, Imagery, Details, Language and Syntax (DIDLS)Writing About Tone in an Essay

Your teacher walks into the classroom one day and asks you to analyze tone in a literary passage. Or, you're reading the review of a recently published novel and wonder what the critic means when he comments about "the author's mastery in crafting different kinds of tones in her prose". What is tone in literature? Tone refers to the author's attitude (as narrator) toward the subject, characters or events of a story.[1] The author reveals tone through word choice. Once you're clear about what tone is, you can analyze it by looking for specific elements within a literary work.

Part 1
Identifying Tone in Literature

  1. Image titled Analyze Tone in Literature Step 1
    Think of your own use of tone. In everyday speech, you'll use a very different tone when speaking to an old friend or a person you barely know. Your tone can change based on the message you want to convey, for instance whether you're mad at someone or happy to see them after a long time.
    • Thinking of examples of how you can convey the same message with different kinds of tones will make you understand how authors also choose one tone over many others for a specific reason. Consider the many ways you can ask a friend why she didn't reply to your calls:
      • "Why the hell didn't you pick up the phone all afternoon?"
      • "Is everything okay? I called you many times this afternoon"
      • "Were you on a special mission to the moon this afternoon?"
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    Familiarize with different kinds of tones. There is a wide variety on tones you might encounter in a literary work: a passage could be humorous, solemn, pompous, gloomy, suspenseful. In fact, there can be as many tones as human emotions.[2] Getting to know a few will create an expectation in you as a reader and prompt you to look for changes in tone or specific elements that contribute to the tone of a passage.
    • Here is an example of how the famous opening line of Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway could be rewritten with different tones
      • Original line (plain): Mrs Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.[3]
      • Solemn: 'I shall buy the flowers myself', Mrs Dalloway announced as she realized nobody else would attend the task.
      • Suspenseful: Mrs Dalloway knew what she had to do. She could no longer leave it unattended. Only one thing was missing, and nobody could help. She had to buy flowers.
      • Sarcastic: Whenever Mrs Dalloway felt her life was in need of a thrill, she couldn't think of anything better to do than heading to where she would have gone anyway on an uneventful morning. However, that particular day her will was enough to convince her that her trip to the florist was a novel exploration.
    • Remember that a longer piece of fiction, like a novel, is very unlikely to have only one single tone throughout. As a matter of fact, authors usually change their tone for each scene or passage to keep the reader interested and create a sense of rhythm in their work.[4]
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    Consider the impact of tone on readers. Tone greatly influences your own reception of a literary work as a reader, and more generally the mood, themes and messages that the work can convey.
    • You may generally like novels set during the American Civil War, but have very different opinions about them based on their tone.[5] You might think Stephen Crane's intimate and thoughtful tone in "The Red Badge of Courage" is a little boring and prefer Margaret Mitchell's "Gone with the Wind" for its solemn and sentimental tone.
    • If you find a book or passage boring, think whether this is due to the lack of a specific tone. For instance, there is a huge difference in tone in saying "So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past" (The Great Gatsby's closing line) and "We keep being pulled back to our past like boats sailing against the current."[6] The first sentence's solemn and nostalgic tone captures the reader's attention before closing the book for the last time; the second's lack of a specific tone makes it a dull ending.
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    Understand the difference between tone and mood. Tone refers to how the author, narrator or speaker feels or conveys information about the subject, while mood refers to how the reader is made to feel about the subject by the author. Although the two are tightly connected, mood has more to do with the reader's response to the author's use of a certain tone. Both tone and mood depend on the author's ability to evoke feelings through a skillful use of words, so the two are often understandably confused.[7]
    • For example, a scene describing the first encounter between two old friends after many years will probably use a tone of intimacy to convey the close bond between them. The mood will likely be nostalgic to trigger readers' emotional response and make them feel connected to the characters' experience.
    • A good way of spotting the difference between tone and mood is thinking about a story's setting. The setting is one of the most common devices used by authors to create mood: an abandoned cabin in the woods and a busy city street evoke very different feelings. In film, music and cinematography are often used along with setting to create mood: a horror movie and a romantic comedy will have very different soundtracks and lighting to trigger different responses in an audience.[8]
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    Link the mood to its tone when a literary passage triggers in you. Because tone and mood are tightly linked to one another, you can start from the latter, which is your own emotional response to a passage, and work your way back to the author's choices to analyze tone.
    • For instance, if you were moved to tears by a short story, check how the use of words managed to create such emotional response. How did adjectives and verbs contribute to this effect? Did shorter sentences have a stronger impact on you as a reader?
    • If you think a chapter of a novel was meant to provoke a feeling of fear in you as a reader but didn't really affect you, you can still look for how the author attempted to create a sense of fear and ask yourself why this didn't work. This is a very good way of thinking about a literary work in critical terms.
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    Look for specific elements, known as DIDLS. DIDLS is an acronym of five elements that you should pay attention to to analyze tone: diction, imagery, details, language and sentence structure (syntax). Examining each one at a time will make it much easier for you to understand how the author (or narrating voice) crafted a specific tone, what mood this is meant to provoke and how it is linked to the work's themes.
    • The practice of paying close attention to specific elements in a literary passage is known as close reading. The starting assumption is that larger techniques, like tone, and subjects, like themes, are best understood by first looking for details and then piecing them together to get the bigger picture.

Part 2
Analyzing Tone through Diction, Imagery, Details, Language and Syntax (DIDLS)

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    Pay attention to diction. In speaking, diction refers to how words are pronounced. In literature, it refers to the words the author chooses to use, whether the words chosen are abstract or concrete, general or specific, and formal or informal.
    • Abstract words are words that can't be perceived with the senses, while concrete words are those that can be perceived and measured. For instance, the word "yellow" is concrete, but the word "pleasant" is abstract. Abstract words can "tell" a story and are used to quickly move through events, whereas concrete words "show" and place the reader in a scene along with the characters.
    • General words are vague, such as "car" or "cat." These are concrete words, but they can apply to any number of specific cars or cats, so the reader can imagine what he or she wants. In contrast, specific words such as "Siamese" and "Ferrari" restrict the reader to a specific image.
    • Formal words are long, technical or unusual, and will be used by authors who want the reader to see them or the character as highly educated or pompous. Informal words are those almost all readers will be familiar with, including contractions and slang, which more closely resemble the way most people speak.[9]
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    Look at the imagery. This is descriptive language that reveals what the author or character thinks and feels about what's happening. It can include similes, symbols or metaphors. [10]
    • An author that writes about a character swimming in a pond of warm water and describes it as being like a warm bath is suggesting that the pond is inviting, relaxing and soothing. An author that describes the same swim as simmering in a pot may want to suggest discomfort or a sense of foreboding.
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    Study the details. No author can include every fact about a character, a scene or an event in the story. Which details are included and which are omitted, or how deeply the author dwells on specific details, is an important indicator of tone.
    • One author may describe a house as having cheery flowers in the front yard, which suggests that the house is a happy home for happy occupants. Another author may not mention the flowers but talk about the peeling paint or dirty windows, suggesting that the house is a depressing place occupied by depressed people.
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    Examine language and word choices. The author will choose words according to their connotation. Connotation is the meaning a word beyond its literal definition: what images or feeling the word can evoke.[11] Thinking about the specific connotation of words and why these were picked over others will reveal to the reader the author's attitude toward the subject.
    • Referring to a dog as a pooch is affectionate, while to convey hate or fear of dogs the author may use the word "cur." A narrator that refers to children as "brats" has a different attitude toward children than one that calls them "rug rats".
    • Twilight and dusk are both defined as the period of time between sunset and full darkness, but they suggest different things. Dusk is more about darkness than light and may suggest that night is fast approaching, with all the frightening things that happen at night. In contrast, twilight may suggest that dawn, which represents a new start, is near or that the sun has just set, signaling the end of a difficult day.
    • An author may choose words strictly by their sound. Pleasant-sounding words suggest that the author is writing a story about pleasant things, whereas harsh sounding words suggest that the subject is also harsh or unpleasant. For instance, a wind chime may either be mellifluous (musical) or cacophonous (annoying).
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    Break down the sentence structure. What is technically referred to as "syntax" is the way individual sentences are constructed. The author varies his/her sentence structure to convey tone and trigger a different response in the readers.[12]
    • Word order in a sentence gives a hint about what part you should be paying closer attention to. Generally, the greatest emphasis is on the end of the sentence. "John brought flowers" emphasizes what John brought, while "The flowers were brought by John" emphasises who brought the flowers. By inverting the word order, the author makes who brought the flowers a surprise for the reader.
    • Short sentences are more intense and immediate while long sentences create a distance between the reader and the story. However, longer sentences spoken by characters suggest thoughtfulness while short sentence can be seen as flip or disrespectful.
    • Many authors will break the rules of syntax on purpose in order to achieve a desired effect. For instance an author may choose to place a noun before its adjectives (anastrophe) to add weight to the adjectives and make the sentence more dramatic. "The day, dark and dull" encourages the reader to pay extra attention to the unusual nature of the day.

Part 3
Writing About Tone in an Essay

  1. Image titled Analyze Tone in Literature Step 12
    Describe tone in detail. Use specific adjectives that illustrate which tone the narrator is using, such as 'melancholic', 'soothing', 'persuasive', 'inquisitive'. The more specific these words are, the more insightful your analysis will be. Use more than one adjective if you think this will make your description more accurate.[13]
    • For example, start a paragraph focusing on a text's tone by writing 'One of the most noticeable elements in the opening chapter of the novel is the narrator's use of a wistful and yet soothing tone...'
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    Provide evidence by quoting from the text. After describing the tone in detail, use a few quotations to back up your argument, explaining what in diction, syntax, imagery and so on contributes to such tone. All your claims in a literary essay must be supported by examples from the text.
    • For example, you can write 'The narrator ends The Great Gatsby on a melancholic note. Consider the closing line: "So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past". The 'boat' metaphor and the alliteration of the letter b also resonate in the broken syntax, evoking the ebb and flow of ocean tides. All these elements contribute to the creation of a distinctively nostalgic and yet epic tone."
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    Compare different tones in the same work. Because a longer piece of fiction is bound to have several tones within it, a complete analysis of it should acknowledge such variety and explain how tones interact with each other within the entire work.
    • Highlight whether there is a progressive change of tone through the work (for example growing from 'hopeful' to 'desolate'), or if different chapters correspond to different tones. Emphasize contrasts and how these affect the work as a whole (for example, what does it mean for a novel to swing between two very different tones, such as 'gloomy' and 'cheerful'?)
    • Link tone to your characters' analysis by evidencing how different tones correspond to different characters.
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    Explain how this affects the reading experience. You should always mention readership in your analysis of a literary text and suppose how the author wished to affect it by using a specific tone. In this case, you can either make a guess (for example, 'The narrator captures the reader's attention by quickly switching to a more suspenseful tone...'), or base your claims on how an audience receive the text ('The public was outraged by the novel's audacious and unapologetic tone...")
    • In the second case, make sure you support the claim by providing evidence either from contemporary texts (for example, quoting from a novel's reviews at the time it was published) or secondary literature (for example, a scholar writing about how a novel's tone was received by the public in an essay).
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    Link it to theme, mood, plot and style. Make sure your analysis of tone is always connected to the bigger picture. After all, tone is just a device to bring a reader's focus to more important subject matters, such as plot and underlying themes.
    • The Great Gatsby's closing line, for example, can be linked to how nostalgia is a theme of the whole novel and to Nick Carraway's role as an internal narrator, reminiscing about his youth.


  • The best authors often change their tone during the course of the story. Look for a change and ask yourself why the author's tone has changed.

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