What Is a Narrative Tone?

In fiction and narrative essays, the narrator uses certain language to reveal his attitude about the subject matter. Tone is commonly confused with mood, the emotion the author seeks to instill in the reader. However, tone is actually a device used to establish mood, the author's use of his own emotion to transfer those feelings to readers. Tone is created in numerous ways in narrative writing, including figurative language, point of view and word choice.

Describing Tone

Whether you are analyzing a work of literature or writing your own narrative, knowing how to describe the piece's attitude will help you understand the emotion it conveys to readers. Tone can be identified using words that describe emotions or mental states. For example, words describing a positive tone might be "joyful," "enthusiastic" or "hopeful." Words such as "somber," "bitter" and "scornful" might describe a negative tone. Tone may also be neutral in documents like research papers, in which the purpose is to be "informative" and "questioning" more than present your own feelings.

Figurative Language

Figurative language, phrases that compare two unlike things, is one clue to identifying tone. The two most common figurative devices are similes, which compare things using the words "like" or "as," and metaphors, which compare items directly without these words. The choice of comparisons can indicate the attitude of a speaker. For example, if a narrator says, "I needed another trip to the mall like I needed my nails ripped out," he has an obviously bitter attitude about going. However, if he said going to the mall was "a vacation," it would communicate a more positive tone through metaphor.


Diction is the author's choice of words. Word choice affects tone by way of connotation, the positive and negative emotional associations readers have with words. For example, a narrator could say he lives in a "trailer park" or that he lives in a "mobile home community." Both are correct, but one carries a more positive association that the other. The words a narrator uses to describe his environment, job, possessions and relationships can reveal a lot about his general attitude toward the subject.

Point of View

Ultimately, the speaker's emotional distance from a topic will affect the tone of a piece. This is especially true with narrative essays, in which authors write about significant life events that changed them. By the end of the essay, readers will have a clear idea of what their present day attitudes are toward their experiences, even if that attitude was different in the past. An author writing about the death of a grandmother might use a somber tone to describe losing her, but an ultimately grateful tone as he looks back on happy memories of what she taught him.

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