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How to Identify Tone in Short Fiction

Definition of Tone

First, what exactly do we mean by an author's tone in a work of fiction? One definition provided by Weiner and Bauzerman (1995) is "the attitude a writer takes toward his subject." Just as speakers may convey a particular message by their voice tone, writers convey messages by the tone they use in their writing. Writers may take a subject and write about it in a humorous tone, or they may write about the same subject with a sarcastic tone. If authors say one thing but mean another, they may be using an ironic tone. If they are angry about their subject, that anger is often revealed in the writing. Tone can change from anger to sarcasm to irony to humor---all within the space of a few words, and the meaning of those words can change in an instant with a switch in the writer's tone. Therefore, the author's tone is an essential element for the reader to identify as it can affect the entire meaning of the story.

Tone in Spoken Conversation

How many times have you been in the middle of a conversation with a friend or co-worker when you suddenly became aware of their voice tone? Maybe they appeared exuberant and unusually happy about something. Their facial expressions and voice tone gave clear indications about their feelings and attitude. On the other hand, you may remember a time when the other person in a conversation withdrew and became quiet. Then, when they finally spoke, their tone indicated clear resentment or outright anger. If you remember such occurrences, you probably realize that one's tone of voice can change the meaning of the words. For example, "Have a good day," spoken in a clear, forthright, pleasant tone brings forth happy, positive responses in the listeners. On the other hand, "Have a good day," spoken in a sarcastic tone, suggests quite the opposite.

A speaker's tone of voice is usually easy to discern in spoken conversation. One reason it's easier for us to pick up on tone in conversation is that we can read the facial expressions of the other person. But an author's tone in a story or novel, is not always as clear to the reader. Missing the tone can cause confusion to the reader. In fact, a lack of understanding of tone can cause the reader to miss key points and completely misunderstand the author's main ideas. However, readers can learn to discern an author's tone in a story just as easily as listeners pick up a speaker's voice tone. Good writers usually leave clues for readers regarding tone and other story elements. One just has to watch for these hints. Most importantly, readers need to remember that tone, style, plot, mood, and even characters are interwoven together, and these elements work together to form a unified story. Teachers who teach tone and other story elements effectively can point out these tidbits of information so that students can pick up on the author's tone quickly.


Explicit Instruction: Tone for All Levels

In a recent conversation with a former teaching colleague about the short story analysis, I was surprised to hear her say, "I never talk about tone to my classes. I understand this element, but I have no idea as to how to get it across to students." Because this instructor is an excellent teacher, one that students and teachers alike admire because of her expertise in the classroom, I barely concealed my surprise.

After pondering this conversation for several days, I realized that my in-depth understand of the process of teaching tone came about while teaching developmental reading classes in a community college. John Langan's Ten Steps to Improving College Reading Skills, 4th ed., provides considerable information for understanding tone with excellent examples for students and teachers to follow. Langan's text assumes that those in developmental reading need these lessons on tone and other story elements for better comprehension. The truth, however, is that most college freshmen, as well as middle and high school students, can benefit from explicit instruction on recognizing an author's tone. Middle and high school students are learning to develop skills for analyzing literature. These students can learn to analyze fiction and become proficient in their ability to identify the author's tone, as well as other elements. To learn the analysis process, however, explicit instruction in recognizing an author's tone is essential. The strategies described here work well with college freshmen, but they can easily be adapted for middle and high school students.

Example of Tone

The well-known playwright Oscar Wilde in his famous trial of the century in 1895 gave one of the best examples of the use of tone to convey meaning. Wilde's best friend was on trial for being a homosexual, and Wilde later spent two years in prison for this "crime." During the trial, the judge asked Wilde, "Are you trying to show contempt for this court?" Wilde retorted, "On the contrary, sir, I'm trying to conceal it."

Wilde's tone, which he conveyed with this comment, was far more effective than if he had said, "Yes, I am" (Weiner & Bazerman, 1995).

A Caveat

Do remember that all story elements are part of a unified whole. This hub regarding an author's tone should not suggest that tone or mood can be determined in isolation. In fact, identifying an author's tone might be one of the last elements students identify, after they have carefully studied characters, plot, style, and theme.

More Tips

An interesting tip discussed in "Wiki How to Do Anything" is to remember the letters DIDLS when analyzing literature for tone. These letters stand for diction, imagery, details, language, syntax (sentence structure). Diction in literature refers to the choice of words the author selects. Are the words formal or informal, concrete (tangible) or abstract (cannot be touched or physically seen or felt). Imagery refers to those words that appeal to our senses---the descriptive words the author uses to describe what the reader sees or feels. Details are those facts the author chooses to include. For example, does the author describe the house as having cheerful flowers? Or does the author discuss peeling paint and a run-down place? Those kinds of details give clues as to tone. Language choices---the connotations or suggestions that go beyond a dictionary definition---essential for the reader to pick up on what the words suggest. Finally, sentence structure gives readers clues as to what words the author wants to emphasize. For example, short sentences often provide more emphasis than longer ones. Often, the words at the end of the sentence carry more weight than those at the beginning. Word order is important. John brought flowers: This sentence emphasizes the importance of what John brought. On the other hand, The flowers were brought by John---suggests the importance of who brought the flowers--John.

Anyone can analyze tone by looking for specific elements within the novel or short story. Literature teachers often recommend that you keep the letters DIDLS in mind when analyzing literature for tone. They stand for diction, imagery, details, language and sentence structure (syntax).

The Process: Identifying Tone

First, the reader must understand the definition of tone, a writer's attitude toward what he or she is writing. After looking at several examples of tone, the reader must fully understand the difference between mood and tone. The mood of a story is simply the emotion or feeling that the story conveys to the reader. Mood can be affected by the tone, the author's attitude, but it is a separate element of the story. Conversely, the tone usually affects the mood, but the two elements are distinctly separate ones. For example, in "A Rose for Emily," William Faulkner's tone is one of respect, particularly for the main character, Emily Grierson. Emily Grierson, a Mississippi lady of the Old South, cannot seem to adjust to the changes brought about by the changing times of the New South. In addition to a respectful tone, the reader may also see the tone as tragic, as Emily holds onto the body of Homer Barren for years after his death. It is important to note that different readers' ideas on tone may vary to some degree because each reader brings his or her experiences to the story. Generally though, students' ideas regarding tone will be similar.

In "A Rose for Emily," students should determine the difference between tone and mood. The mood is influenced by the tone, just as the tone is affected by the story's mood. The mood is one of nostalgia, at times regret, and possibly sadness, as readers sense Emily Grierson's desperation as she holds onto her father's body days after his death, and later Homer Barren's body lies in her attic for years after she poisons him. The readers may also experience feelings that cause them to disgust and dismay.

As students determine mood, tone, and other fiction elements, they might ask, "What in the text leads me to think that?" Literary theorist Rosenblatt emphasized the idea that reading involves "a reader and a text interacting in a particular time and circumstances, with both reader and text contributing to meaning" (1938/1976). Asking this question as students read can help them sort through the plot and have a deeper understanding of all story elements, including tone. John Langan's Ten Steps for Improving College Reading Skills, 4th ed., is the source for both lists. All of the words, with the exception of the term matter-of-fact reflect a feeling or judgment. For students who want to do a more in-depth analysis, the second list provides definitions along with the adjectives.

Words That Describe Tone

admiring curious playful

affectionate doubtful praising

amused encouraging respectful

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angry excited self-pitying

ashamed forgiving serious

calming frightened sorrowful

caring grateful sympathetic

cheerful humorous sympathetic

conceited insulting tragic

critical joyous warm

cruel loving worried

(from Langan 2004. Ten Steps to Improving College Reading Skills)


More Words That Describe Tone--With Meanings

ambivalent-- uncertain about a choice

arrogant-- full of self-importance; conceited

bewildered-- confused; puzzled

bitter-- angry; full of hate

compassionate-- deeply sympathetic

depressed-- very sad or discouraged

detached-- emotionally uninvolved

disbelieving-- unbelieving

distressed--suffering sorrow, misery, or pain

hypocritical-- false

impassioned-- filled with strong feeling

indignant-- angry about something; unfair or mean

instructive-- teaching

ironic-- meaning the opposite of what is expressed

lighthearted-- happy and carefree

matter-of-fact--- sticking to facts; unemotional

mocking-- making fun of and/or looking down upon

nostalgic-- longing for something or someone in the past

objective-- not influenced by feelings or personal prejudices

optimistic--looking on the bright side of things

pessimistic-- looking on the gloomy side of things

pleading-- begging

prideful-- full of pride or exaggerated self-esteem

remorseful-- guilty over a wrong one has done

revengeful-- wanting to hurt someone in return for an injury

sarcastic-- shard or wounding; ironic

scheming --tricky

scornful-- looking down on something or someone

self-mocking--- sentimental making fun of or looking down on oneself

solemn-- involved with serious concerns

straightforward-- direct and honest

superior-- looking down on others

tolerant-- respectful of other views and behavior; patient

uncertain-- doubting

(from Langan 2004. Ten Steps to Improving College Reading Skills).


The process of discovering an author's tone in fiction first involves reading the story to understand the plot and asking questions throughout the reading, "How does the author seem to think or feel about what is happening regarding the main character(s), and what in the story leads me to believe as I do?"

Using the adjectives in Table 1 and if necessary Table 2, decide which words accurately describe the author's tone. Some of these words may also describe mood, but remember mood is the feeling or emotion that the story invokes in the reader. Tone is the author's attitude toward what is happening in the story. Determine the difference between the two, and if necessary, define the mood of the story, realizing the difference between the two elements. Refer to my hub "Elements of the Short Story," and define the other elements of the story. Remember, each element, while a separate entity, cannot be separated from the other literary elements in the story.

Happy reading!


Nancy McLendon Scott (author) from Georgia on March 21, 2014:

thank you! I appreciate your thoughtful comment.....have been so busy lately; I hope to be able to read more hubs. I always enjoy your hubs, too.

Thanks again.

Dianna Mendez on March 20, 2014:

You covered this topic well. It's such an important part of writing with interest. Thanks fo the valuable information.

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