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Tone, Mood, & Style—The Feel of Fiction

April 19, 2013 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified April 20, 2013

Each piece of fiction, each section of text, has a particular feel. The feel of a story or scene is primarily achieved through three elements—tone, mood, and style. And while you may hear the words used almost interchangeably, they are different. They are achieved differently and they create different effects.

We’ll take a look at all three.

Tone in fiction is the attitude of the narrator or viewpoint character toward story events and other characters
. In a story with first-person POV, tone can also be the narrator’s attitude toward the reader.

In non-fiction, tone is the writer’s attitude toward subject matter and reader. So the writer might come across as a know-it-all or a blowhard or as humble or solicitous.

We’re all familiar with a mother’s words to her mouthy son—Don’t you take that tone with me, young man.

What does the mother mean by tone here? She’s talking about his sassy or smart-alecky attitude. The child’s words and actions and facial expressions convey an attitude his mother doesn’t approve of.

Examples of tone you might find in fiction are strident, uncaring, sassy, bossy, unconcerned, or flip. Remember that these refer to the narrator’s (viewpoint character’s) attitude.

A scene’s or story’s tone, expressed through the narrator’s attitude, could as easily be one of fearlessness or fearfulness, disbelief or detachment, or maybe unconcern or snarkiness or arrogance. Whatever attitude the narrator can take on, the scene or story can take on.

Tone is achieved through word choice (diction), sentence construction and word order (syntax), and by what the viewpoint character focuses on. Tone is created or altered by the way the viewpoint character/narrator treats the story problem and other characters, and by the way he responds to the events surrounding him. Tone can be manipulated by changing what the narrator focuses on and through his changing reactions to what is going on in the story as well as by changing the words used for his thoughts, action, and dialogue.

The tone of a scene can also be affected by manipulation of the sense elements. So what the viewpoint character smells and how those odors affect him influence tone. The menace of unrelenting footsteps on wooden stairs in the middle of the night or the hurried thud of footsteps down a dark alley would contribute to a tone different from the one created by the sounds of a toddler running down the hall to meet his daddy at the door. The viewpoint character’s perception of and reaction to sights, sounds, odors, touch, and taste add to tone.

What’s absent from a story can affect tone almost as strongly as what is present. Exclude the narrator’s attitude toward someone he loves if you want to portray him as distant and unfeeling; add in this attitude when it’s time to reveal this facet of his personality. When you give him a scene with his love interest, it can have a tone far different from those in other scenes featuring the same character.

He might notice his lover’s soft skin or the colors she uses or her smile, things he doesn’t notice or comment on in other scenes. Keeping a tender attitude far from him in scenes when he’s away from his lover will reveal much of who he is and perhaps how much he relies on her to humanize him.

Reactions and Demeanor
How does the narrator or viewpoint character come across? How does he respond to story events and revelations?

Is he desperate, upbeat, dismissive? Is he clueless or callous or indifferent?

To create a tone that works, word choices have to match the character and the moment. So if a character is desperate, his actions, thoughts, and words should reflect that desperation. What he thinks about should reveal his desperation. Tone should be consistent until something happens to change the narrator’s perceptions and responses.

If a scene seems off in a way that you can’t pinpoint or fix through changes in plot or character or dialogue, if it simply feels wrong or off, check to see if you’ve been consistent with tone (with mood as well). If you’ve inadvertently set up opposing tones within a scene, it will feel not quite right, maybe as if it’s out of focus or, more likely, as if a sheet of glass had shattered and the pieces were off kilter just a hair.

Note: If an event occurs that affects the viewpoint character, he should have a response and respond according to his character. When a viewpoint character doesn’t respond, it’s as if the event did not take place. But when the character reacts, his response and his attitude not only show what he’s feeling and identify what’s important to him, but also affect the reader’s response and feelings.

Purposes of Tone
Use tone, the viewpoint character’s attitude, in every scene to deepen the reader’s connections to the events of that scene and to the character.

Reveal character personality and motivation through tone; a person’s response, including the level and duration of the response, tells a lot about that person. The attitude a person takes on is one of his major responses to events and stimuli. Use it to reveal your characters.

A scene that’s light on tone markers or that has a mixed tone will either hold readers at a distance or have them confused, neither of which is ideal when you want to draw a reader deep into story.

Tone can change over the course of a story, as the viewpoint character grows or changes, but every scene should have a tone, a feel, that’s generated by the attitude of the viewpoint character, and that could hold fairly steady for much of the story. That is, until events start shaking up the character.

A story as a whole will also have a tone, a particular feel.

Use tone to differentiate scenes between viewpoint characters. So while Irving’s attitude is whiney, Pete’s can be overbearing. Use word choices and the unique events and story elements that each character focuses on to play up the different tones.

A long list of tones (attitude), but by no means an exhaustive one—































































Mood is what the reader feels while reading a scene or story. It’s not the reader’s emotions, but the atmosphere (the vibe) of a scene or story. It’s what the reader reads or feels or notices. Not all readers would necessarily report the same mood from a scene, although the writer does hope to achieve a particular feel common to every reader.

Mood can be expressed in terms such as dark, light, rushed, suspenseful, heavy, lighthearted, chaotic, and laid-back.

The mood of each scene can differ from that of the scene before, but you will want some consistency. Yet, as the story approaches the climax, the intensity levels should change. Readers should feel that story events are coming to a head. While there should be several points in your story at which the mood darkens or grows more menacing or more comical, readers should feel a bigger change as the story heads to its conclusion. (This feel of events rushing toward a conclusion can also be directed by pace, by a reduced emphasis on general setting details, by to-the-point dialogue, and several other factors. Mood is just one element that pulls the reader toward the story’s end.)

I typically suggest that writers examine their manuscripts around the two-thirds mark. If the feel of the story doesn’t change somewhere near this point, do some rewriting. You can make gradual changes to mood or you could change the level in large steps, but do make changes, both to indicate that the high point is indeed approaching and so readers can feel the shift.

Keep in mind that mood has to change for a reason and that something must happen even to provoke an intensity change. Something must be different to make sense of any mood change, whether the change is from mood to mood or level to level.

This change can be a physical event or a character’s sudden recognition of the meaning of an earlier event or another character’s remark.

If you’ve got several story threads or subplots featuring different viewpoint characters, the mood could switch each time you move from one subplot to the other.

While using strongly different moods is a marvelous way to differentiate story threads and the scenes of different viewpoint characters, do be aware that readers have to adjust each time you change. The adjustment might be smooth or jarring, and either kind of change could work for the story, but don’t forget that it may be difficult for readers to adapt to a new mood at the turn of a page. If they’re caught up in your fiction (and manipulating mood is a great way to keep them involved), they may not want to leave the dark scenes featuring your antagonist for a relatively lighter scene featuring the main character’s sidekick. Use what you know of human nature and your own feelings toward such changes to decide how and when to introduce scenes of different moods.

While both mood and tone can change over the course of story, tone is the more consistent element. Since it’s the attitude of the narrator, tone won’t change as often as mood can.

A list of moods (atmosphere)




















Style is the third element used for creating or changing the feel of a story or scene, though it’s a bit different from tone and mood because it’s used to affect and create the other two elements.

Style as we’re defining it here is the way the writer uses words to create not only the events of story, but their feel as well. A writer’s style is evident in his use of diction—word choices—and syntax—word order and sentence construction. A style is the writer’s method to create mood and tone, the feel of fiction. Style is also dependent on subject matter, what a write might explore and what he’d never write about. For example, one writer might never feature a pedophile in a story, another might write one as a heinous monster, and yet another might write one as a tortured soul.

One writer might feature children in his works, another cowboys, and another serial killers or detectives or archaeologists. Some writers write only about paranormal beings while others write only of humans.

One writer might focus on contemporary events while others might think only of imagined scenarios. Some writers might look to the past and others to the future.

Genre too can play a part in style. Genre can affect word choice, subject matter, setting requirements and taboos, and the style of a story’s ending (happily ever after or tear-fest or death of a major character).

Note: Non-fiction writers have their own styles as well. And it may be easier to identify a writer’s style in a magazine article or other piece of writing than it is in fiction. For example, if the writer of a magazine or blog article is patronizing, readers notice right away.

Every writer’s style is peculiar to him, yet he can alter that style to create the effects needed for a scene or any other piece of writing.

If he needs a scholarly style, he’ll choose words and sentence rhythms to create such a style. If he wants to sound like an aw-shucks country boy, he’ll choose words to convey that feel.

The writer can use jargon, words readers are comfortable with, to help those readers feel at home with his approach or conclusions, even if he writes about a topic the readers disagree with. Or the writer might use uncommon words to make readers feel ignorant or out of place or to make himself (and what he writes) seem more valuable.

A writer might adopt a formal style, with few contractions, though I don’t recommend this for fiction. People of all eras and ages have used contractions, so it wouldn’t be unusual for almost any character to use them. And their use is simply easier on the reader, allowing him to move through the text without unnecessary pauses. (There are exceptions, of course.)

In one story, a writer might use a lot of verbals (verbs used as something other than a verb), including gerunds, participles, and infinitives. She might use a lot of absolute phrases or use none. She might use short sentences, long sentences, one-word paragraphs or five-page paragraphs. Whatever choices she makes that deal with word choice and how words are arranged in phrases, sentences, and paragraphs is the writer’s style.

If she never uses adverbs or adjectives, that’s a style choice. If she uses three or four every sentence, that’s also a style choice. (One I try to discourage in every situation unless a character would use them to excess or as a way to create a deliberately bad sentence.)

Other style choices—

Using the definite article the for every noun or never using it

Writing long, involved complex sentences (or not)

Including euphemisms in place of bold cuss words

Having a character cussing every other line or word

Using irony or sarcasm or a question and answer format

Using common workhorse words in place of elegant words, or doing the opposite

Accenting repetition in words or phrases or patterns

Favoring simile or metaphor

Using alliteration, onomatopoeia, rhyme, assonance and other typically poetic techniques

Choosing lush descriptions over sparse ones or vice versa

Accenting or highlighting one fiction element (dialogue, action, description, and so forth) over another

Going heavy (or light) on foreshadowing or flashbacks or back story

Each of these style decisions has an impact on both tone and mood, and using different combinations of them can create stories that feel wildly different from one another.

This is why a dozen writers could begin with the same premise and write unique stories that sound nothing alike—that feel nothing alike.

Style, tone, and mood combine to make your stories your own, something no one else could create. And if you changed the tone or mood of multiple scenes or of a story as a whole, you’d create a new story quite unlike the original.

This is one reason paying attention to mood and tone are important—including the wrong elements, wrong in terms of what you’re trying to achieve, means the story won’t turn out the way you intend it to. Yes, you can make changes (or you might like what you ended up with better than what you’d wanted in the first place and decide to keep it), but if you plan ahead, learn a bit about how to establish and manipulate tone and mood, you wouldn’t have to try to figure out where the story went off-track after the fact.

A list of styles



















Overly familiar











Note: Some of the words that reflect style could also reflect tone; some mood words could describe a writer’s style. Whatever tone, mood, and style you decide on for your stories, realize that those elements contribute to the story’s feel.


Recognize that even if you don’t purposely create tone and mood, they are still created for your stories and scenes. They may be muddled and the cause of weak responses to your fiction, but they’re there, in the story. Make a point to purposely work tone and mood to the story’s advantage by your style choices. And once you’re ready to rewrite and edit, check each scene for mood and tone. Make sure you’re not sending mixed signals about either.

Bring all the elements together to work for your stories.

Write captivating, cohesive fiction.


The very quick list—

Tone—viewpoint character’s attitude

Mood—atmosphere felt by the reader

Style—word choices and word arrangements made by the writer



Tags: , ,     Posted in: Craft & Style, Definitions

27 Responses to “Tone, Mood, & Style—The Feel of Fiction”

    • lil says:

      this was very very helpful

      • Karen Klein says:

        Question: Does the author’s tone toward a character need to be a word that describes a trait of the character (depressed) or, for example, can it also be a word that describes how the character is treated by others (mistreated) or are both descriptors appropriate (depending on one’s analytical focus). I am thinking that both are appropriate as both can be proven to influence the reader’s perspective a the character.

        • Karen, I’m sorry—I’m not sure I understand what you’re getting at. I think I’m hung up on “the author’s tone toward a character.”

          We typically shouldn’t be able to read the author’s attitude (tone) toward a character. A character’s traits or emotions, such as calm or depressed, should be revealed by what he does, what he says, how he carries himself, and how others respond to him. Thus a writer’s word choices and focus create the character’s personality.

          The words the author uses to describe his character’s actions and thoughts—and the words he puts into the character’s mouth—then reflect the character’s attitude toward other characters and the events of the story.

          So, yes, if you’re asking if both the author’s description of a character and the actions and words of other characters can be used to influence the reader’s reaction to a character, that is the case. The writer will use everything to create a complete and complex character, one that a reader will respond to in some way.

          Am I close to what you had in mind?

  1. Paula Cappa says:

    This is really helpful. Thanks. I like the lists you’ve made. When I’m writing, I sometimes feel overwhelmed by characters and their expressions. These lists will help organize my thoughts and intentions and act as reminders as I write.

  2. Paula, I’m glad the info helps. I sat on this topic for over a year, I’m not sure why, but now seemed the time to cover it. Any tips for making our writing do what we want it to are helpful.

    Here’s to keeping your characters in line.

  3. Amazon Doc says:

    I just found your website. I’m not a writer, but I *am* very interested in editing. I have already found your posts to be incredibly helpful and easy to understand. I’m bookmarking you, and I’ll be sure to check back frequently.

    Thanks for providing this great resource!

  4. Welcome, Amazon Doc. I’m glad you can find a use for the articles. And I’m happy you found the site.

  5. Holly says:

    Hi Beth!

    This is a wonderful post. I really feel like it’s demystified a few things for me. It’s all well and good for readers to think that certain ‘feels’ in writing just flow through the pen, straight from the muse, but as I writer I like to pick things apart, to know what creates a certain feeling and how I can use that information on demand. This has explained some pretty intangible elements very clearly, so thanks! I definitely know what you mean about writing a scene that just feels wrong, and I’ve never considered checking for faults in the style/tone/mood, but from now on I’ll give that a go.

    I write in Scrivener, and after reading this I’ve added a few metadata fields (they appear at the side of each scene as I’m writing) so I can keep track of the tone, mood and style as I go and catch any inconsistencies.

  6. Holly, I’m glad you found something useful here. And making a note in Scrivener is great—sometimes the reminder is all that’s needed.

    While these fiction elements are sometimes mentioned as tools for writers, they’re often glossed over, so it’s good to know what they can do, how they can affect a scene or a large section of story. Just one more area to consider as we build stories.

  7. Zor says:

    Thank you for this post. I really find it helpful as an additional info in my discussion about literature. More power to you!

  8. Thanks very much.

    This material is highly essential and is of great help to me as a reader, also, as aspiring teacher someday.

    I really love analyzing such literary piece. Great works! Great help!

  9. I don’t think I’ve read a more succinct or descriptively accurate description of the writing process. I suppose effective writing is a marriage of thought and language expressed through the skillful use of words and symbols. The above essay on “Tone, Mood, and Style” is a superb example of good writing and exhibits an indispensable quality found in any well written work; that is the ability to organize ideas into an organic sequence that maximizes the intensity and impact of a story.
    I’ve been a musician for decades but if pressed I would say that language and its palette of unending color and tone is the ultimate vehicle for artistic expression.

    • Thank you, Michael. What a gracious compliment. I love this—” . . . an indispensable quality found in any well written work; that is the ability to organize ideas into an organic sequence that maximizes the intensity and impact of a story.” That is truly necessary for good writing.

      I agree that language is perfect for artistic expression, but music is right up there. When the listener or musician can be transported by music alone, without benefit of words, that’s acknowledging that music carries great power.

      Both music and language are highly satisfying.

      • I agree with you Beth. Both are very satisfying. I think the difference is that language is a highly conceptualized medium. That is to say that nearly every word triggers an associated idea or model, a prototype or example. If I hear the word “tree” I might think of the maple tree outside my window where I grew up. The word “dog” evokes an image of my dog and what he looks like specifically.

        When I hear the opening B minor chord to the slow movement of the Aranuez guitar concerto, I experience something that takes me to a place that words can’t describe. I love music with a passion that exceeds limits, but this world needs and needs desperately new definitions and a new understanding of what human experience should and can be. Language conveys ideas. Language is a portal into the human imagination. Music conveys its mystery.

      • Dear Beth, I’ve recently self-published via Lulu a work of fiction. I’m very pleased with it but am somewhat nonplussed as to how to increase the books exposure. Can you recommend a review site that might help? Your generous guidance has already been helpful and I thank you for advice. Michael Mckinney

  10. bernard says:

    wow this was quite explicit.have been writing scripts for a while and difficult to distinguish.thanks

  11. Julia says:

    Thank you for doing this post. It helped me a lot with a literature essay that I had to write.