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Mood vs. Tone
by Vicki Hinze
What is the difference
between tone and mood?
Tone typically refers to
the emotional atmosphere the writer establishes and
maintains through the entire novel. One of the
easiest ways to peg the tone is to identify the book's
genre, or if it doesn't have a genre, the overall feel of
For example--(remember that I use my own works in
examples whenever possible to avoid having to get
permissions; it's quicker)--LADY LIBERTY is a
novel. It has a romantic element, a mystery
element, and, further defining it: spy, intrigue,
espionage, thriller, and techno-thriller elements.
I'm using it as an example
because MOST books have a combination of genre-specific
elements. The key to the novel's tone is in the
balance of those elements. Which element dominates
the novel? Answer that, and you'll nail your book's
In LADY LIBERTY, the suspense is the dominant
element. The reason the combination of genres works
is because every other element supports and relies on the
suspense. You can't separate the suspense from any
of the other elements without leaving a hole, if you
will, in the book. Think of it as subsidiary
interdependence. Any one non-dominate element in
the book disappears and the dominate element in the book
has a gap.
That gap can be in logic, motivation, character
(establishing, maintaining, or growth), or even in
setting. Whatever it is, it'll leave the book with
a foundation missing one of its corners, which means it
won't be able to support the weight of the novel
A lot of writers get into trouble by constructing the
novel with multiple dominating elements.
(Example: suspense and romance elements.) The
challenge comes in when the writer gives equal weight to
both elements. When that happens, neither element
can carry the weight it needs to carry; it can't because
it's diffused by the other dominate element. So the
reader's attention, interest, and absorption in the story
is diffused, torn between the two elements. To correct
this, make one element dominant, and make the other
element secondary and dependent on the dominant element.
In LADY LIBERTY, the dominant element is the
suspense. Will Sybil and Jonathan get the briefcase
back to D.C. in time to stop the first-strike launch of a
Peacekeeper missile that will start World War III?
The secondary element is a romance between Jonathan and
Sybil. If they fail in their quest to get to D.C.,
they--and a lot of other people--are going to die.
There won't be a romance because they won't
survive. See the dependence?
As you are writing, ask yourself how you are reacting
emotionally to the work as a whole. Is the book
serious, lighthearted, mysterious, gripping, funny?
That is the tone of the book.
While experts vary--some use the terms tone, mood, and
style interchangeably--the difference I best relate to is
that tone references the book as a whole while mood
references the characters' (and thus the readers')
emotional reactions to the events occurring in the scenes
of the book, and the emotions aroused in the
characters/readers by the overall book.
The mood of the book might be dark when the tone
isn't. I'm thinking of the honeymoon story with
Gilda Radner (Saturday Nite Live) and Gene Wilder
Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory fame) in the haunted
mansion. I apologize, but the name of the film
escapes me at the moment. Maybe, HAUNTED
HONEYMOON, or something like that. Anyway, I'm
sure you remember the movie. The point is the mood
in that movie is deliberately dark and spooky. But
the tone is comedy.
The mood shifts and changes from scene to scene to mirror
the emotional mood of the point of view character in that
scene. (Occasionally a stark contrast is used for
impact, but generally, you want the external mood
[situation and setting] to mirror the internal mood of
the point of view character. It is through this
venue that the writer incites the reader to react to
novel events as the writer wants the reader to act to
Remember, everything in any scene is filtered through the
point of view character's senses, perceptions, and
current emotional status. That is the way it's
related to the reader. (This holds true, even if
the point of view character is a narrator not actually
present in the scene. Still, the reader experiences
the story through the narrator's perceptions and what
that narrator chooses to relate, and chooses not to
relate. How much weight or importance that
character places on what is being relayed.)
An "imagine" example this time.
Imagine yourself standing before a Christmas tree.
The lights are lit. It's Christmas Eve. The
family is all home. It's warm and fuzzy and you're
sipping a little eggnog, staring into the lights dreaming
and thinking sometimes life is just so good.
Now imagine yourself in that same setting. Only
there is no family. You came home from work and
your spouse had taken the kids and left you a note.
They're not coming back.
Same setting, and you might drink eggnog and stare into
the lights but you won't likely be dreaming. More
likely you'll be dazed, shocked, and wondering what
happened. Then you'll be angry. I seriously
doubt you're going to be thinking life is good.
More likely, you're going to be thinking sometimes life
You intensely dislike your family and you're glad they're
gone. Then you might feel relieved and dreaming of
a bright future without them, and thinking life is really
It dawns on you that you're going to lose half your
assets and income to child support for the next decade or
so and you're going to have to sell the house and move
into a dumpy apartment and maybe your family wasn't so
bad after all, and from now on you won't know whether
they're good or bad because you won't know where they
are. You won't see the kids graduate from high
school, get married. There'll be no more Christmas
dinners with everyone gathered around and you'll die old
Those are extreme examples but I wanted to show you how
the mood changes not
only scene-to-scene but within the scene. It
happens as a direct result of what is happening to the
point of view character and his/her emotional state at
Now, notice, the tone didn't change. It stayed
consistent. The scene didn't change. The
concrete anchors (details noted in the scene) remained
constant. What altered was the character's emotional
reaction to them.
The mood of the scene was
altered internally, by the point of view character's
emotional mood at that moment.
Often to pack that extra
punch, the writer will take those same details and change
them to enhance the mood.
Example: In the "warm fuzzy" setting, the
character is staring at the lights, dreaming. In
the "family's left" setting, the writer might
have the character note that one of those lights--or one
string of those lights--have gone out. The light
being snuffed out is indicative of the character's
mood. Part of him/her has been snuffed out.
So s/he doesn't notice the gazillion bright lights.
S/he notices the absence of light. (Darkness
carries depressed/negative connotations.)
This is the difference in tone and mood. As I said,
some experts use the terms interchangeably, so watch for
that when you're studying craft and make sure you know
which they're really referencing so the difference
between them doesn't get jumbled in your mind.
© Copyright Vicki Hinze. All Rights
Dr. Vicki Hinze is an award-winning,
best-selling author who routinely shares her expertise at
national writers' conferences, online, and through her
writing guides. Her latest non-fiction book is ALL
ABOUT WRITING TO SELL, from Spilled Candy Books for
Writers. This 589-page ebook covers everything you need
to know about the craft of writing, the publishing
business, and the secrets to getting published. ALL
ABOUT WRITING TO SELL is available at www.SpilledCandy.com as a download or
Or you can visit Vicki's author site at www.vickihinze.com
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