In literature and scriptwriting, the tone of a literary work expresses the writer's attitude toward or feelings about the subject matter and audience.
Depending upon the personality of the writer and the effect the writer wants to create, the work can be formal or informal, sober or whimsical, assertive or pleading, straightforward or sly. In determining the attitude, mood, or tone of an author, examine the specific diction used. Is the author using adjectives to describe the subject? If so, are they words like fragrant, tranquil, magnanimous—words with positive connotations? Or are they words like fetid, ruffled, stingy—words with negative connotations?
When we speak, our tone of voice conveys our mood—frustrated, cheerful, critical, gloomy, or angry. When we write, our images and descriptive phrases get our feelings across—guarded optimism, unqualified enthusiasm, objective indifference, resignation, or dissatisfaction. Some other examples of literary tone are: airy, comic, condescending, facetious, funny, heavy, intimate, ironic, light, playful, sad, serious, sinister, solemn, somber, and threatening.
Tone and mood are not the same, although they are frequently confused. The mood of a piece of literature is the feeling or atmosphere created by the work, or, said slightly differently, how the work makes the reader feel. The mood is produced most effectively through the use of setting, theme, voice, and tone, while the tone is how the author feels about something.
All pieces of literature, even official documents and technical documents, have some sort of tone. Authors create tone through the use of various other literary elements, such as diction or word choice; syntax, the grammatical arrangement of words in a text for effect; imagery, or vivid appeals to the senses; details, facts that are included or omitted; and figurative language, the comparison of seemingly unrelated things for sub-textual purposes.
While now used to discuss literature, the term tone was originally applied solely to music. This appropriated word has come to represent attitudes and feelings a speaker (in poetry), a narrator (in fiction), or an author (in non-literary prose) has towards the subject, situation, and/or the intended audience. It is important to recognize that the speaker or narrator is not to be confused with the author and that the attitudes and feelings of the speaker or narrator should not be confused with those of the author. In general, the tone of a piece only refers to the attitude of the author if writing is non-literary in nature.
In many cases, the tone of a work may change and shift as the speaker or narrator’s perspective on a particular subject alters throughout the piece.
Official and technical documentation tends to employ a formal tone throughout the piece.