Understanding Tone and Mood in a Reading Passage

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  • 0:02 Picture This
  • 0:57 Mood
  • 1:57 Tone
  • 3:19 Let's Practice
  • 4:37 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Katie Surber

Katie has a Master's degree in English and has taught college level classes for ten years.

Expert Contributor
Kaitlyn Danahy

Kate has a bachelor's degree in literature & creative writing from Gordon College. She taught high school literature in India and tutored in the US.

In this lesson, we will define the literary terms tone and mood. We will then discuss how to identify each of them, as well as how to identify them in small reading passages.

Picture This

It was a dark and stormy night. I sat alone in the old, dilapidated house staring out the window. The sky was black, the wind was loud, and the rain slammed against the broken windowpane. I shut my eyes, remembering my earlier visit, and I felt so embarrassed and angry. When I opened them, the lightning bolt flashed and lit up the room once more. I had to get out of the house; I had to hide. No one could know my horrible mistake. I opened the door, took a deep breath, and ran into the cold and rain.

What feelings did you have while listening to the previous story? What made you feel this way? What words did you hear that helped create this feeling? By answering these questions, you are on your way to defining the mood and tone. Mood and tone are important because they help create the meaning of a story.

What Is Mood?

Mood is the feeling you get while reading a story. This could be happiness, sadness, darkness, anger, suspicion, loneliness, or even excitement. You can think of mood as the atmosphere of the story.

To describe mood, you should think about the setting and the language used by the author. In the opening story, we saw the setting as dark and the weather angry. The narrator used language that created fear, such as cold and black.

The mood of a story can change how we identify the thesis and the characters. For example, if we read a short story about a lovable nanny, we would expect positive words like cheerful, loving, and caring. However, we could take that same idea of a nanny and make it more of a horror story by changing the atmosphere with aggravated, cold, and enraged. We have the same character, but the author's message and description is much different.

What Is Tone?

Tone is the author's attitude toward a subject. The tone can be identified by looking at word choices and phrases. Take time to look at the language. An author uses words to create meaning. For example, a dog described as a lovable puppy is positive, but one described as a fierce fighter is more frightening.

You should also decide if a word is abstract, concrete, general, or specific. It is important to note if an author is using a general word, like car, or a more specific word, like Ford Focus. An abstract word is one that may carry different meanings, such as pleasant, while a concrete word will show us the meaning.

Finally, look at the details of the story. Language is the first step to finding the tone, but the word choice is just as important. Look how an author describes the setting, a character, or an event. This description will help create the tone.

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Additional Activities

Tones and Mood

In this lesson, you learned about how to discover the tone and mood of a piece. In this exercise, you will put what you learned into practice by writing several scenes with a specific tone in mind. The scenes should not be overly long: aim for 50-100 words each.

Scene 1: A Good Mood

Prompt: your character woke up in a good mood this morning. Write about her getting ready.

For (a shorter-than-you-will-write) example: the sunlight streamed through the window, golden beams tickling her awake. Stirring, she remembered the excitement from last night. Butterflies fluttered in her stomach. She sniffed. The aroma of fresh-brewed coffee hit her nostrils.

Ask yourself: what is the tone of your scene? What is the mood? What abstract or concrete terms convey the tone or mood? For the example, the mood is optimistic and happy. Words such as "butterflies" and "fresh-brewed" are concrete terms indicating this; "excitement" is an abstract term conveying the same mood. The tone is positive, perhaps hopeful, eager to learn more about the character's day.

Scene 2: Don't Use That Tone of Voice!

Prompt: your character had a terrible day. He is upset with a family member.

A (short) example: He stomped into the house. His backpack hit the floor with a crash. Clenching his fists, fighting tears, he heard footsteps echoing behind him.

Again, what is the tone? What is the mood? What abstract/concrete terms convey these? For the example, "stomped and "crash" convey that the character is upset. The "tears" detail implies that the tone is sympathetic to the character. The detail about footsteps coming form "behind" the character add to a tense, ominous mood.

Scenes 1 and 2 Revisited

Now revisit the scenes you've written. Look at the tone and mood you identified for each, and answer the same prompts using the tone and mood of the other scene.

For the examples, the tone and mood from Scene 2 were identified as sympathetic and tense, respectively. The first prompt was about a character waking up in a good mood. Rewriting the first prompt with a sympathetic tone but a tense mood might read something like: she stirred in her bed. Sunlight cut through her window. She smiled, butterflies fluttering inside her, completely unaware of what lurked ahead of her that day.

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