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122 Tone Words to Set the Mood in Your Story

Posted by Hayley Milliman | Mar 2, 2019 12:00:00 PM

General Education

 

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In writing, an author’s tone is his or her general attitude or feelings about the work’s subject matter and audience. Tone words are used to help express that attitude.

In this article, we’ll talk about what tone words are, analyze their use in several examples, and give a list of tone words with definitions that you can use in your writing.

 

What Are Tone Words?

Authors convey tone through diction (word choice), viewpoint, and syntax. Tone words are specific words that help express an author’s attitude about the subject matter.

Words typically have a positive, negative, or neutral connotation. Tone words help authors show whether they feel positively, negatively, or neutrally about what they’re writing about.

Here are some examples of tone words in action:

  • The proposal is so absurd that it can’t possibly be taken seriously.

The tone word “absurd” indicates that the writer finds the proposal ridiculous or silly.

  • The politician’s speech was eloquent.

The tone word “eloquent” has a positive connotation, which indicates that the author found the speech articulate and persuasive.

 

Tone vs Voice

Many writers confuse tone and voice or use the two terms interchangeably. In fact, they’re very different.

As we’ve already discussed, tone indicates an author or character’s attitude towards a certain topic or situation. In nonfiction, tone words indicate what the author thinks. In fiction, tone words can help to set the mood, showing whether a particular situation or interaction is tense, happy, sad, etc.

Voice, on the other hand, refers to the overall personality of a work. An author’s voice may be sarcastic, informative, friendly, or something else entirely.

You can remember the difference this way: tone changes all the time. Voice refers to the character that a piece has throughout. Tone can change from sentence to sentence, while voice stays consistent.

Here’s an example:

In a young adult novel, the author has a casual voice. She doesn’t use a particularly complex vocabulary and her writing is very approachable. Within the story, the character experiences conflict and triumph. In the scenes where there is conflict, the tone words indicate tension. In the scenes where there is triumph, tone words indicate joy.

The author’s overall type of word choice and approach to writing will remain the same throughout the work, but the specific words she uses will change as she describes different situations.

Put another way: voice is how readers recognize you, the author, in your work. Voice is personal to each author and lasts throughout a piece. Tone words, on the other hand, indicate the author's (or character's) reactions to or opinions of events that are happening. As different events happen, the tone shifts.

 

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How to Find the Right Tone for Your Work

To find the right tone for your work, you need to consider your audience and message.

Start by asking yourself these three questions:

  1. Who am I writing this piece for?
  2. What am I trying to tell my reader?
  3. How do I want my reader to feel?

Your audience will dictate the types of words you choose. If you’re writing for an academic audience, you may use more complicated language than if you’re writing for kids. You also want to consider what you're telling your reader. Do you want them to walk away with a positive or negative opinion of what you're presenting? How do you want them to feel about the information you're giving?

These questions will help you decide what words to use in your work.

 

Tone Word Example Analysis

Let’s take a look at two examples of tone words in classic literature.

 

A Clean, Well-Lighted Place by Ernest Hemingway

“It was very late and everyone had left the cafe except an old man who sat in the shadow the leaves of the tree made against the electric light. In the day time the street was dusty, but at night the dew settled the dust and the old man liked to sit late because he was deaf and now at night it was quiet and he felt the difference.”

This excerpt demonstrates a calm, peaceful tone. Words like “settled” and “quiet” indicate the old man is relaxed and feeling safe.

 

The Tell-Tale Heart by Edgar Allen Poe

“I gasped for breath, and yet the officers heard it not. I talked more quickly, more vehemently but the noise steadily increased. I arose and argued about trifles, in a high key and with violent gesticulations; but the noise steadily increased. Why WOULD they not be gone? I paced the floor to and fro with heavy strides, as if excited to fury by the observations of the men, but the noise steadily increased. O God! What COULD I do? I foamed -- I raved -- I swore!”

This passage from The Tell-Tale Heart indicates a nervous, anxious tone. The phrases “violent gesticulations” and “heavy strides” display the rising action and contribute to the feeling of intensity.

 

The Ultimate List of Tone Words

These tone words will help establish the tone in your work.

Tone Word
Meaning
Abashed
ashamed or embarrassed; also, disconcerted
Absurd
ridiculous; silly.
Accusatory
a tone of accusation; to accuse of a crime or offense
Admonishing
cautioning, reproving or scolding; especially in a mild and good-willed manner; reminding.
Adoring
to regard with esteem, love, and respect; honor
Amused
pleasurably entertained, occupied, or diverted.
Apathetic
having or showing little or no emotion; indifferent or unresponsive.
Benevolent
characterized by or expressing goodwill or kindly feelings.
Bewildered
completely puzzled or confused; perplexed.
Biting
sarcastic, having a biting or sarcastic tone.
Bitter
characterized by intense antagonism or hostility.
Blunt
abrupt in manner; obtuse.
Bold
not hesitating or fearful in the face of danger or rebuff; courageous and daring.
Brusque
abrupt in manner; blunt; rough.
Calm
free from excitement or passion; tranquil.
Candid
frank; outspoken
Cheery
in good spirits.
Churlish
critical or harsh in a mean-spirited way.
Comic
funny; humorous.
Commanding
imposing; having an air of superiority.
Conceited
having an excessively favorable opinion of one’s self or abilities.
Contentious
argumentative, quarrelsome.
Curt
rudely brief in speech or abrupt
Desperate
having an urgent need, desire.
Detached
impartial or objective; disinterested; unbiased/ not concerned; aloof.
Diabolic
devilish; fiendish; outrageously wicked.
Disbelieving
to have no belief in; refuse or reject belief in.
Disdainful
expressing contempt or disdain.
Disgusted
to excite nausea or loathing in. To offend the taste or moral sense of.
Disrespectful
showing a lack of respect; rude and discourteous.
Disturbed
marked by symptoms of mental illness.
Doubtful
uncertain outcome or result.
Dramatic
of or pertaining to drama; excessively confrontational.
Dreary
causing sadness or gloom.
Earnest
serious in intention or sincerely zealous.
Ebullient
overflowing with enthusiasm, or excitement; high-spirited.
Ecstatic
in a state of ecstasy; rapturous.
Effusive
unreserved or unduly demonstrative.
Egotistical
vain; boastful; indifferent to the well-being of others; selfish.
Elated
very happy or proud; jubilant; in high spirits.
Embarrassed
to feel self-conscious or ill at ease.
Enraged
to make extremely angry; put into a rage; infuriate.
Enthusiastic
excited; energetic
Evasive
ambiguous; cryptic; unclear
Excited
emotionally aroused; stirred
Facetious
inappropriate; flippant
Flippant
superficial; glib; shallow; thoughtless; frivolous
Forceful
powerful; energetic; confident; assertive
Formal
respectful; stilted; factual; following accepted styles/rules
Frank
honest; direct; plain; matter-of-fact
Frustrated
annoyed; discouraged
Gentle
kind; considerate; mild; soft
Ghoulish
delighting in the revolting or the loathsome
Grim
serious; gloomy; depressing; lacking humour;macabre
Gullible
naïve; innocent; ignorant
Hard
unfeeling; hard-hearted; unyielding
Humble
deferential; modest
Humorous
amusing; entertaining; playful
Hypercritical
unreasonably critical; hair splitting; nitpicking
Impartial
unbiased; neutral; objective
Impassioned
filled with emotion; ardent
Imploring
pleading; begging
Impressionable
trusting; child-like
Inane
silly; foolish; stupid; nonsensical
Incensed
enraged
Incredulous
disbelieving; unconvinced; questioning; suspicious
Indignant
annoyed; angry; dissatisfied
Informative
instructive; factual; educational
Inspirational
encouraging; reassuring
Intense
earnest; passionate; concentrated; deeply felt
Intimate
familiar; informal; confidential; confessional
Ironic
the opposite of what is meant
Irreverent
lacking respect for things that are generally taken seriously
Jaded
bored; having had too much of the same thing; lack enthusiasm
Joyful
positive; optimistic; cheerful; elated
Judgmental
critical; finding fault; disparaging
Light-Hearted
carefree; relaxed; chatty; humorous
Loving
affectionate; showing intense, deep concern
Macabre
gruesome; horrifying; frightening
Malicious
desiring to harm others or to see others suffer; ill-willed; spiteful
Mean-Spirited
inconsiderate; unsympathetic
Mocking
scornful; ridiculing; making fun of someone
Mourning
grieving; lamenting; woeful
Naïve
innocent; unsophisticated; immature
Narcissistic
self-admiring; selfish; boastful; self-pitying
Nasty
unpleasant; unkind; disagreeable; abusive
Negative
unhappy, pessimistic
Nostalgic
thinking about the past; wishing for something from the past
Objective
without prejudice; without discrimination; fair; based on fact
Optimistic
hopeful; cheerful
Outraged
angered and resentful; furious; extremely angered
Outspoken
frank; candid; spoken without reserve
Pathetic
expressing pity, sympathy, tenderness
Patronizing
condescending; scornful; pompous
Pensive
reflective; introspective; philosophical; contemplative
Persuasive
convincing; eloquent; influential; plausible
Pessimistic
seeing the negative side of things
Philosophical
theoretical; analytical; rational; logical
Playful
full of fun and good spirits; humorous; jesting
Pragmatic
realistic; sensible
Pretentious
affected; artificial; grandiose; rhetorical; flashy
Regretful
apologetic; remorseful
Resentful
aggrieved; offended; displeased; bitter
Resigned
accepting; unhappy
Restrained
controlled; quiet; unemotional
Reverent
showing deep respect and esteem
Righteous
morally right and just; guiltless; pious; god-fearing
Scathing
critical; stinging; unsparing; harsh
Scornful
expressing contempt or derision; scathing; dismissive
Sentimental
thinking about feelings, especially when remembering the past
Sincere
honest; truthful; earnest
Solemn
not funny; in earnest; serious
Thoughtful
reflective; serious; absorbed
Tolerant
open-minded; charitable; patient; sympathetic; lenient
Tragic
disastrous; calamitous
Unassuming
modest; self-effacing; restrained
Uneasy
worried; uncomfortable; edgy; nervous
Virtuous
lawful; righteous; moral; upstanding
Whimsical
quaint; playful; mischievous; offbeat
Witty
clever; quick-witted; entertaining
Wonder
awe-struck; admiring; fascinating
Worried
anxious; stressed; fearful

 

Tone Words: Final Thoughts

Tone words help you convey your attitude towards a subject. Tone can change throughout your work as you talk about different topics.

There are thousands of tone words you can use to express your attitude in your work.

 

What’s Next?

Reading The Great Gatsby for class or even just for fun? Then you'll definitely want to check out our expert guides on the biggest themes in this classic book, from love and relationships to money and materialism.

Got questions about Arthur Miller's The Crucible? Read our in-depth articles to learn about the most important themes in this play and to get a complete rundown of all the characters.

For more information on your favorite works of literature, take a look at our collection of high-quality book guides!

  

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Hayley Milliman
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