What is “Tone” in Story-Telling?

This post come about as a result of a suggestion by Mark Landen, a regular contributor to this blog, that I say something about tone in story-telling, and its impact on narrative elements such as theme and plot.

First, a brief definition: By “tone” (or the slightly more imprecise, “mood”), I mean the moral, ethical, and aesthetic attitude the writer/narrator adopts towards her material in narrating it. Tone can be satirical, comic, serious, or tragic. It is no coincidence that a description of tone corresponds to the overarching genre in story-telling; it is genre, more that setting, plot, or theme, that determines a story’s tone by inflecting the aforementioned elements. Hence, a similar setting in a musical such as The Rocky Horror Picture Show or a classical horror such as Frankenstein’s Monster (Boris Karloff) can produce a disparate mood of levity and dread respectively, precisely because it is modulated by a difference in genre.


Does tone help to determine the theme of a story? The short answer is: not necessarily. If we take theme to be the (moral) lesson delivered at the end of the story as a result of the final conflict between the protagonist and antagonist, then it is clear that a musical or a comefy can produce as viable, serious, and independent a theme as drama, or tragedy. In this sense, theme tends to be a universal and etherial ordering element, floating above the specific textural concerns of genre.


What about plot? Here again, at the most quintessential level, tonal elements are not fashioned by plot itself, but by genre: The exploration of the going-on at Frankenstein’s castle, for example, may receive a traditional horror treatment, or may be rendered comedic or satirical, as in a musical, giving rise to a different emotional experience. Again, it is genre, not plot, that creates the tonality of the story.

In Summary

Although tone is deeply rooted in the generic demands of the tale, it is inflected by the writer’s moral, ethical, and aesthetic attitude towards her story and her method of narrating it.

If you’ve enjoyed this post or have a suggestion for a future one, kindly leave a comment and let’s get chatting.

I post every Monday.

5 thoughts on “What is “Tone” in Story-Telling?

  1. Ada

    Hello! Thanks for this post. I just wonder how you can say that the tone is tragic. (Like in Oedipus at Colonus? Please enlighten me more.)

    1. Stavros Halvatzis Post author

      Hi Ada. Thanks for the request. The answer must include genre in that genre informs many of the narrative aspects of the story, but I might do that in a separate post as it probably deserves some space.

  2. Pingback: Top Picks Thursday 01-05-2012 « The Author Chronicles

  3. Stavros Halvatzis Post author

    Thanks for the comment Mark. I suppose it depends on whether you’re a seat-of- your-pants writer or someone who meticulously plans out his first draft. If you’re the latter, by deciding on the genre in the first instance, you are, to a large extent, deciding on the tone of your novel. Here, of course, a study of generic elements in works one admires is helpful — is the tone serious, tragic, and humorless, as in Frankenstein’s Monster, or is it light, humorous and satirical as in Gullever’s Travels? And so on and so forth.

  4. Mark Landen

    Thanks for posting this, Stavros. I’m still mulling over how to properly craft tone in a novel. Perhaps it boils down to a seemingly simple question: Does the author choose tone for their story, or does the story choose it for you?

    Thanks again


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