How to analyze tone in literature

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Doresa holds a Ph.D. in Communication Studies.

How Words and Language Convey a Message

When it comes to writing, there is only so much punctuation can do to set the tone . It becomes the actual words we use that let people know exactly what we mean. There are also times when you have to convey a message beyond mere words to the reader. There are certain tools that we can use to bring our voice to the piece as well. To demonstrate, let’s follow our new friend, Kayla, as she deals with various suitors that have asked for her hand in marriage via love letter. While she will be letting some of the guys down, let’s see if we can figure out how she really feels about them through the words that she uses.

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  • 0:46 Word Choice
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Word Choice

The words that we use can set the tone for our essay. For example, if Kayla has been sent a note asking for her hand in marriage, she must pay particular attention to how she responds. Suitor 1 may be a bit of a jerk, and Kayla wants to make it clear she isn’t interested. We might see her response as something like this:

‘No way, you big jerk!’

Even without the exclamation point, we can pretty much understand Kayla is not only saying ‘No,’ but also ‘No chance, and don’t come back Jack!’

Suitor 2 might also have no chance at marriage with Kayla, but she wants to let him off easily. She may respond a bit more gently but still be clear:

‘Thank you so much for the wonderful proposal, but unfortunately I can’t accept. I have given my heart to another.’

Here, while Kayla is kind, she also made it clear that Suitor 2 shouldn’t ask for her hand again.

Now Suitor 3 is a bit tricky. While he doesn’t come in first for the man of Kayla’s dreams, he is a close second. So, while she has to let this suitor down, she also wants to let him down in a way that leaves the door open for the future. Her response might read something like this:

‘Thank you so much for this proposal. If this were a different time, maybe my heart would allow me to say yes. However, at this time, I can’t accept. Perhaps in the future the timing will be right for both of us.’

So, while the answer was no for now, Kayla did leave the door open with Suitor 3, letting him know not to completely give up hope.

Now, let’s move on to Suitor 4. This lucky chap just happened to be the right guy at the right time. Kayla can give a short, sweet and to-the-point response:

Oftentimes, when we are writing an affirmative response, writing something that isn’t controversial or writing something with which our audience is likely to agree, we can be a bit more brief.

Language

When we speak of language in terms of tone, this can be considered the words we use to surround important information. For instance, sometimes we might make statements such as ‘The following information is critical.’ This alerts the reader that he or she should pay particularly close attention to what follows.

So, our highly sought-after Kayla might have informed Suitor 3 to pay close attention to what she was writing by starting with ‘Pay close attention to what I am about to write.’ This would have set him up for understanding that he was about to read something that would require thought, give him things to ponder and maybe even have a hidden message or two. He would’ve understood she wanted him to go beyond her ‘No’ and dig a bit deeper into her response.

Another aspect of language can be the punctuation that we use. Adding a question mark (?) lets the reader know we are preparing for a response from them. There is some work on their end that needs to take place before we move on to the next sentence. Adding a period (.) lets the reader know our thought is complete, and our statement was definite. Adding an exclamation point (!) lets the reader know there is strong emphasis with our statement. We didn’t just say it; we really, really meant it!

Lesson Summary

To conclude, word choice and language allow us to set the tone for our essay. We go beyond words to allow the reader to also understand the mood and emotions we are trying to convey in our writing. When writing, we don’t have the advantage of facial expression, volume and body language to enhance the reader’s understanding of exactly how to read our words. So, without these things, we must use the tools that we have. This includes:

  • The words that we use
  • The breadth or depth we go through to make our point
  • The words we use to proceed or follow main statements
  • Punctuation , like question marks and exclamation points, to express reader input or excitement

Using these tools, we move beyond simple words on a page and allow for our voice, feelings and mood to be added to the piece as well. It brings us, and the reader, that much closer together with our original intent for the piece.

Lesson Objective

After watching this lesson, you should be able to implement how word choice and language set the tone for our essay through written tools.

After teaching students how to write for an audience and with a purpose, how to effectively evaluate point of view, and how to maintain personal voice, I felt good about myself. I called my dad and told him what a smart son he had. Then I realized my students had no idea how to effectively use tone in writing. In shock, I called my dad, advised him to uninvite me to Thanksgiving dinner, and cancelled the appointment with my spiritual advisor. I was way too stressed.

I had work to do. I had to devise a lesson plan that helped students use tone in writing. Here’s what I came up with.

Getting Started

  • Write the following definition of tone on the board (courtesy of Susan Geye, Mini Lessons For Revision, a true inspiration): “Tone is a particular way of expressing feelings or attitudes that will influence how the reader feels about the characters, events, and outcomes. Speakers show tone more easily than writers because they can use voice tone, gesture, and facial expressions. A writer must use words alone.”
  • Show sample passages. I recommend two to three from familiar pieces of literature with similar themes. If you wish to cut and paste, try these: How to Organize a Hot Dog Eating Contest and Unforgettable Independence Day Celebrations.

Procedures

  • Assign students in to groups of 3-4.
  • Give each group a card with one of the following tone words written on it: sadness, courage, tension, sympathy, love, happiness, pride, sarcastic, excitement, hate, fear, anxiety. Encourage thesaurus use.
  • Invite each group to write a description of a dog walking in the park, conveying the attitude on the card. They may not use the word written on the card in their description.
  • When writing is complete, instruct students to determine which tools were used to show tone in writing.
  • Instruct each group to read the description.
  • Instruct class members to guess the tone.
  • Instruct successful writers to share their tools with the class.
  • If using this lesson for revision, invite students to read through their rough draft and ask: Did you demonstrate tone in your writing? How do you know? What tone did you convey?
  • Instruct students to highlight at least one passage to rewrite in order to enhance the effectiveness of their tone in writing.
  • Share rewrites with the class.

This post is part of the series: Lesson Plans: Fine Tune Your Writing Focus

Writing that lacks focus confuses readers. Student writing lacks focus because they rarely have a purpose, do not know how to make a point, and write to an imaginary, non-existent audience. End their pointless meanderings with these simple lesson plans.

Setting is an important part of any story or poem because it explains where and when the events take place. The setting helps create the mood and set the tone for the literary piece. You can analyze the setting by examining the surrounding environment, background, historical place in time and geographic location. Use specific examples from the story or poem to support your analysis.

Locate the Main Setting

Locate the primary place and time period where the majority of the action occurs. Some stories take place in a variety of settings and span different time periods, but there’s usually one location and time period where the most significant scenes and the bulk of the action occurs. For example, in “Holes” by Louis Sachar, the primary setting is the present-day Texas desert at a juvenile detention center for boys. Though the story includes scenes from the late 19th and 20th centuries, the primary setting is the fictional boys’ camp in Green Lake, Texas. Similarly, even though its characters visit other locations and reference other time periods, the primary setting in “Twilight” by Stephenie Meyer is the present-day small, rainy town of Forks, Washington.

Evaluate the Mood

Examine the importance of the setting. The setting provides a backdrop for the characters’ involvement in the world around them and creates the mood for the story or poem. It’s an essential part of understanding and interpreting the meaning or message of the story. In “Holes,” the desert setting creates a dry and isolated backdrop that supports the story’s mood; the teenagers at the camp often feel lonely, hopeless and abandoned. In “Twilight,” the cold, damp, Washington forest establishes the mood for the conflict between cold-blooded vampires and their adversaries.

Assess the Atmosphere

Consider the immediate surroundings, including the geographical location and the date, and how they affect the overall atmosphere of the story or poem. For example, “The Scarlet Letter” by Nathaniel Hawthorne takes place in the 1630s in Boston when the Puritans looked harshly upon any form of sin — especially adultery. The strictly religious town setting establishes a sense of law and order, creating a stuffy atmosphere with little room for flaws in human nature. The setting sets the stage for the conflicts and resolutions in the story.

Examine the Details

Pay close attention to detailed descriptions of the setting, such as weather, the natural surroundings or the inside of a house or a room. These details provide clues as to the emotional condition of the characters. For example, in “The Old Man and the Sea,” Ernest Hemingway describes the sea by saying, “She is kind and very beautiful. But she can be so cruel.” This description helps readers understand the protagonist’s love-hate relationship with the sea and with his favorite pastime — fishing. It also reveals the protagonist’s state of mind; he’s conflicted and troubled by uncontrollable circumstances in his life.

After teaching students how to write for an audience and with a purpose, how to effectively evaluate point of view, and how to maintain personal voice, I felt good about myself. I called my dad and told him what a smart son he had. Then I realized my students had no idea how to effectively use tone in writing. In shock, I called my dad, advised him to uninvite me to Thanksgiving dinner, and cancelled the appointment with my spiritual advisor. I was way too stressed.

I had work to do. I had to devise a lesson plan that helped students use tone in writing. Here’s what I came up with.

Getting Started

  • Write the following definition of tone on the board (courtesy of Susan Geye, Mini Lessons For Revision, a true inspiration): “Tone is a particular way of expressing feelings or attitudes that will influence how the reader feels about the characters, events, and outcomes. Speakers show tone more easily than writers because they can use voice tone, gesture, and facial expressions. A writer must use words alone.”
  • Show sample passages. I recommend two to three from familiar pieces of literature with similar themes. If you wish to cut and paste, try these: How to Organize a Hot Dog Eating Contest and Unforgettable Independence Day Celebrations.

Procedures

  • Assign students in to groups of 3-4.
  • Give each group a card with one of the following tone words written on it: sadness, courage, tension, sympathy, love, happiness, pride, sarcastic, excitement, hate, fear, anxiety. Encourage thesaurus use.
  • Invite each group to write a description of a dog walking in the park, conveying the attitude on the card. They may not use the word written on the card in their description.
  • When writing is complete, instruct students to determine which tools were used to show tone in writing.
  • Instruct each group to read the description.
  • Instruct class members to guess the tone.
  • Instruct successful writers to share their tools with the class.
  • If using this lesson for revision, invite students to read through their rough draft and ask: Did you demonstrate tone in your writing? How do you know? What tone did you convey?
  • Instruct students to highlight at least one passage to rewrite in order to enhance the effectiveness of their tone in writing.
  • Share rewrites with the class.

This post is part of the series: Lesson Plans: Fine Tune Your Writing Focus

Writing that lacks focus confuses readers. Student writing lacks focus because they rarely have a purpose, do not know how to make a point, and write to an imaginary, non-existent audience. End their pointless meanderings with these simple lesson plans.

NADINE SMITH

CLASS

Tone refers to the attitude of a writer toward the subject he is writing about. A writer can convey his attitude directly, by stating his opinion, or indirectly, through his choice of vocabulary and stylistic elements. As an essay writer, your job consists of investigating the purpose or significance of the author’s tone.

Explore this article

  • Every Text Contains an Emotion
  • Every Emotion Has a Reason
  • Every Solid Thesis Requires Proof
  • Every Essay Follows a Structure

1 Every Text Contains an Emotion

Relationships, love, politics, a person, the past or life in general can all serve as subjects a writer could maintain an attitude or opinion toward, conveyed through diction, punctuation, sentence structure or other technical or poetic elements. Key to determining the tone of a text is discerning the writer’s emotion, which could include humor, seriousness, sarcasm, cheerfulness, anger and much more, whether in fiction or nonfiction. Even a business brochure conveys a formal, professional tone of voice; sincerity, solemnity and frankness count as emotions too. A sales flier might present product prices enthusiastically, with hyperbolic expressions such as “Can’t be beat” or “Hurry in before it’s too late,” followed by multiple exclamation marks.

2 Every Emotion Has a Reason

Once you’ve determined the writer’s attitude or approach to the theme or subject matter, you must also establish its significance. In other words, you need to convince your reader why the tone of this text is important to the rest of the text, or what point the writer is trying to convey, whether deliberately or inadvertently, through the tone. For example, in the Victorian comedy novel “Cranford,” the narrator speaks of the village of Cranford in both a humorous and affectionate tone, noting that the people of Cranford have their own little quirky beliefs and “isms” — such as “sour-grapeism “– but also endearingly describing Cranford as leaving people feeling “peaceful and satisfied.” Humor, which exposes the silly, artificial customs of class that Cranford clings to, and affection, which sees the benefits of these customs, work together to ironically demonstrate how superficial societal rules can build genuine, loving community. This argument about how tone — in this case, humor and affection — functions in a novel constitutes a sound, debatable thesis.

3 Every Solid Thesis Requires Proof

To prove such a thesis, an essay writer needs to carefully comb through the novel “Cranford” to find examples where seemingly artificial customs actually demonstrate or produce community. Precise definitions of terms, such as “community” and “custom,” help strengthen an essay’s persuasiveness by adding clarity, hindering any objections a reader may have. Each example from the text that illustrates themes, such as custom and community, must also include a discussion of their relation to the dominant tone or tones of the text, in this case humor and affection. Readers should be able to maintain a continuous understanding of the connection between the role of tone (as declared in the thesis) and the specific evidence presented subsequently.

4 Every Essay Follows a Structure

As with a typical essay, the evidence for the thesis should follow in the body paragraphs of the essay. The standard number of major proofs, or premises, of an essay is three, and each usually requires one paragraph or more. The thesis about tone belongs in the introductory paragraph, and definitions about relevant terms or any introductory discussion of the importance or definition of tone belong here as well. In the case of an essay about “Cranford,” some observations about the surprising findings regarding the positive outcomes of societal customs might effect an interesting conclusion.

Unless they understand words such as ‘symbolize’ and ‘connote,’ it’s difficult for students to analyze literature well.

I remember my first experience teaching analysis to high schoolers. After briefly explaining how analysis differed from summary, I asked my students to analyze the carousel scene at the end of The Catcher in the Rye. While they took several minutes to read over their annotations, I eagerly waited for their brilliant discussion of this poignant moment, knowing that I’d hear at least one student make the connection between Holden’s fixation with the carousel and his fear of growing up; perhaps one student might even cleverly conclude that the carousel, in its predictable and circular movement, offers Holden an escape from the linear inevitability of life.

Instead, I received answers like this: “Holden clearly enjoys listening to Phoebe’s ride on the carousel. This shows he’s close to his sister.” Many students still simply summarized what they’d read. Where had my lesson gone wrong? It wasn’t until much later in the year that I realized that students couldn’t tell me what the language was doing because I hadn’t explained to them what language could do.

A Unique Challenge

In his book Clueless in Academe: How Schooling Obscures the Life of the Mind, literary critic Gerald Graff argues that literary analysis poses a unique challenge to students because they don’t encounter the vocabulary they need to talk about texts in the actual literature we ask them to analyze.

This problem is practically unique to the English classroom. In other subjects, course texts include all the essential vocabulary that students might need to write about a particular subject. Students in science read about mitosis, hypotheses, and inertia. Students in social studies learn about barter, constitutional monarchies, and plate tectonics. But in English classes, we may go over random vocabulary lists or quiz students about words they might encounter in a given story, but we don’t often stop and think about the words they need to talk about literature.

While we teach students literary language (simile, metaphor, foreshadow, etc.), teaching them about literary devices doesn’t give them the vocabulary to analyze those devices; students in English class are often asked to write and talk in the academic dark. Writing is already an elusive process, but compounding the inherent difficulties of writing with the unique challenge of writing about literature only sets up students to see the process—as Graff figuratively puts it—as some sort of magic trick: While fun to watch, it is best left to the professionals. By showing students the kind of language literary critics use to make their arguments, we can demystify the ostensibly impossible task of literary analysis, elucidating how scholars carefully examine an author’s diction and explain what that language is doing in a literary work.

When I set about generating a list of words that students might find helpful when analyzing a text, I had to get meta. I ultimately came up with a list of words that I often find myself using to discuss literature. The first list I give students each year generally includes the following words:

  • juxtapose
  • evoke
  • underscore
  • elicit
  • symbolize
  • convey
  • connote
  • allude to

To ease students into analysis, I begin by having them analyze forms they’re more comfortable with: artwork, songs, etc. What do the blues in Picasso’s The Old Guitarist evoke? What does a particular ad accomplish in juxtaposing dark and light? How does Adele convey a particular tone in this song? As I introduce these terms, I generally use templates:

  • This artist’s use of _____ evokes _____.
  • The repetition of _____ underscores _____.
  • In juxtaposing _____ and _____ to_____, .

As the year progresses, I add to this list of words to get students to generate more thoughtful interpretations (problematizes, complicates, reimagines, etc.), and as students become more comfortable using this language, I gradually release them from templates, asking them to break down dense literary passages without this scaffold.

While students undoubtedly start off misusing (and overusing) some of these terms, they eventually feel more comfortable incorporating this vocabulary into their responses. What’s more, they learn that they can use these terms in different subject areas. And years later, students tell me they still use these words in their classes and conversations to analyze whatever it is they’ve been asked to examine.

Ultimately, it’s not just that these words make students sound smarter; it’s that this language helps students make smarter points by helping them focus on what the language in a given text is doing.

At the end of the school year, students won’t have mastered analysis, but they’ll definitely be capable of providing more nuanced interpretations through this vocabulary. By the time students arrive at Simon’s famous confrontation with the pig’s head near the end of Golding’s Lord of the Flies, they’re equipped to analyze it. They observe the odd juxtaposition of good and evil delineated in the passage. They notice how Golding’s repeated use of violent and grotesque imagery underscores the pig’s sinister presence. After discussing these observations, students can pick up on what this scene symbolizes. Suddenly, it is obvious that the pig’s head on the stick embodies evil and that Simon—the only boy on the island who doesn’t succumb to savagery—is being tempted by the devil.

This close reading always elicits gasps, and it almost always generates comments that attest to the powerful reading we’ve done: “Man,” many students will say, “things just got deep.” And when students inevitably articulate how disturbed they are by what we—through a careful unpacking of Golding’s language—have just discovered, I always respond by pointing out the rich meaning we miss when we don’t think about what the language in a given passage is evoking, underscoring, and/or conveying.

How to analyze tone in literature

Juan Paz / EyeEm / Getty Images

  • M.A., English Literature, California State University – Sacramento
  • B.A., English, California State University – Sacramento

A theme is a central or underlying idea in literature, which may be stated directly or indirectly. All novels, stories, poems, and other literary works have at least one theme running through them. The writer may express insight about humanity or a worldview through a theme.

Subject Versus Theme

Don’t confuse the subject of a work with its theme:

  • The subject is a topic that acts as the foundation for a work of literature, such as marriage in 19th-century France.
  • A theme is an opinion the author expresses on the subject, for instance, the author’s dissatisfaction with the narrow confines of French bourgeois marriage during that period.

Major and Minor Themes

There can be major and minor themes in works of literature:

  • A major theme is an idea that a writer repeats in his work, making it the most significant idea in a literary work.
  • A minor theme, on the other hand, refers to an idea that appears in a work briefly and that may or may not give way to another minor theme.

Read and Analyze the Work

Before you attempt to identify the theme of a work, you must have read the work, and you should understand at least the basics of the plot, characterizations, and other literary elements. Spend some time thinking about the main subjects covered in work. Common subjects include coming of age, death and mourning, racism, beauty, heartbreak and betrayal, loss of innocence, and power and corruption.

Next, consider what the author’s view on these subjects might be. These views will point you toward the work’s themes. Here’s how to get started.

How to Identify Themes in a Published Work

  1. Note the plot of the work: Take a few moments to write down the main literary elements: plot, characterization, setting, tone, language style, etc. What were the conflicts in the work? What was the most important moment in the work? Does the author resolve the conflict? How did the work end?
  2. Identify the subject of the work: If you were to tell a friend what the work of literature was about, how would you describe that? What would you say is the topic?
  3. Who is the protagonist (the main character)? How does he or she change? Does the protagonist affect other characters? How does this character relate to others?
  4. Assess the author’s point of view: Finally, determine the author’s view toward the characters and the choices they make. What might be the author’s attitude toward the resolution of the main conflict? What message might the author be sending us? This message is the theme. You may find clues in the language used, in quotes from main characters, or in the final resolution of the conflicts.

Note that none of these elements (plot, subject, character, or point of view) constitute a theme in and of itself. But identifying them is an important first step in identifying a work’s major theme or themes.