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Our voices can be playful, dour, cynical, or optimistic. The same thing goes for authors, and that's where tone comes in. Tone is an author's attitude—the emotions and feelings conveyed by the work of literature.
But don't confuse tone with style. Tone refers to attitude, while style refers to the techniques the author uses in writing. One book can be optimistic in tone and another pessimistic, but they could both be written in a stream-of-consciousness style. Or one book may be written in a sparse style and another in a rich, lush style, but they both could be nostalgic in tone.
How do writers create tone? With diction. We promise, Shmoopers—it's really that simple. When trying to figure out the tone of a text, just ask yourself what kind of words the author is using, and that's your answer.
Does the author say,
Marla leapt down the stairs, two at a time, flew into the living room, threw open the window, and basked in the glory of the freshly fallen snow.
Then Marla plodded downstairs to the living room, where she reluctantly opened the window to find that the sticky, freezing white stuff was falling from the sky for the first time that year. Ugh.
Well, which is it? The exact same thing happens in each of these sentences, but they have wildly different tones. Go figure. Lucky for you, every Shmoop literature learning guide has a section on tone to help you learn to suss it out for yourself.