"What is the Difference Between Tone and Mood?": A Literary Guide for English Students and Teachers



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What is the Difference between Mood and Tone? Transcript (English and Spanish Subtitles Available in Video, Click HERE for Spanish Transcript)

By Lucia Stone and Marcos Norris, Oregon State University Instructors of English Literature

14 November 2022

Mood and Tone: What’s the Difference?

Two ways in which authors communicate with readers is by the use of mood and tone. Although both techniques can elicit particular emotions central to understanding a story, the terms are easily confused.

Mood in literature is firmly rooted in the locale or setting of the story that reveals the subject. The physical atmosphere is built scene by scene to create a sense of time, place and reality. Is the world depicted familiar to the reader in its contemporary realism or is it fantastic and reminiscent of the distant past? How does everything look, smell and feel? And, most importantly, what does each scene reveal about the subject at hand? These are some of the questions we can ask to delve deeper into the mood emphasized in each sequence of an unfolding story.

Tone, on the other hand, is less sensual play and more the attitude of the characters toward the subject at hand. It is strongly related to the narrator’s point of view, delivered most reliably through choice of words, either explicitly or implicitly. Tone certainly contributes to the mood of a story, but it is less about creating emotional resonance within the readers and more about communicating the narrator’s thoughts or state of mind.

Here is another way of understanding the difference between mood and tone: mood shows the subject of the story while tone tells the reader what the characters think of that subject.

To illustrate, let’s look at two examples from literature from different eras that share similar themes, Dracula by Bram Stoker and Interview with a Vampire by Anne Rice. Vampire literature is a genre in which mood and tone are almost as important as plot and story, so the characters in each novel become conduits for communicating a unique other-worldly atmosphere that can only exist through their perceptions.

Dracula is an epistolary novel in which the narration is delivered through a series of journal entries. The mood is set as the scene unfolds with the protagonist Jonathan Harker’s travel from London, England to the Carpathian mountains in Transylvania during the late nineteenth century. The mood first affected is one of disorientation, with the physical contrast drawn sharply between Western and Eastern Europe by the reference to the literal bridges over the Danube leading eastward. Later, the contrast is accentuated as we follow the narrator further into this unfamiliar realm by reading about his first meal, “paprika hendl,” a dish drawn to be distinct, presumably, from food familiar to the English palette at that time. As in the opening, the mood continues to be shown with sight and taste, with the imagery directed toward an unfamiliar scene–and the subject of the novel.

To foreshadow the horror to come, the mood is punctuated with the narrator’s attitude about that subject. The tone is one of apprehension and fear as the narrator explicitly tells us about his first night sleeping in a foreign hotel: “I did not sleep well…There was a dog howling all night under my window” and “ I had to drink up all the water” by the bedside, but “was still very thirsty”  from the strong, unfamiliar seasoning in the food served the night before. In this case, the protagonist’s tone matches the mood. However, sometimes tone and mood are at odds with one another.

Interview with a Vampire begins quite literally with the viewpoint of the protagonist, the vampire himself, who languidly opens the novel with, “I see…,” while preparing himself for an interview with a young journalist. His attitude, or tone, is one of quiet ease. His tone matches the mood, which is set by a rather unexotic backdrop of a cityscape through the window of an ordinary hotel room. The dialogue bounces between vampire and journalist, monster and human, while the mood of prosaic reality is revealed in the simple details of a chair, table and recording device. The tonal horror necessary for the tension to unfold, then, is projected by the very different attitude of the journalist toward the scene: the readers are told that the interviewer “shuddered” and “recoiled” with “cold sweat running down the side of his face” as he watched the vampire before turning on the recorder to begin the interview. In other words, reason meets emotion in this clash between tone and mood. A sharp contrast is drawn between the attitude of the two protagonists toward the scene, and the audience is sucked right in.

For the student of literature, such moments of tension are exciting and revelatory. But it cannot happen without the skillful manipulation of tone and mood using techniques such as word choice, point of view and dialogue to create that perfect alternate reality. Mood shows the particular scenes that direct us toward the subject of a story, but tone tells what each character actually thinks of that subject.  Both are necessary devices to make a world come alive on the page or on the screen.

Want to cite this?

MLA Citation: Stone, Lucia and Marcos Norris. "What is the Difference between Mood and Tone?" Oregon State Guide to English Literary Terms, 14 Nov. 2022, Oregon State University, https://liberalarts.oregonstate.edu/wlf/what-difference-between-mood-and-tone-definitions-and-examples. Accessed [insert date].

Further Resources for Teachers

Check out the following classroom lesson on mood and tone in Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery," which was written by our talented graduate students!

Interested in more video lessons? View the full series:

The Oregon State Guide to English Literary Terms