Theme vs. Mood: What Is the Difference?

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Here’s the difference between theme and mood:

Theme is the underlying message or meaning that an author or artist wants to communicate through his work.

Whereas mood is a literary tool that writers or artists use to evoke an emotional response from their audience.

If you want to know all about the differences between theme and mood, then you’re in the right place.

Let’s dive deeper into it!

Theme vs. Mood: What Is the Difference? (+ Examples)

What Is the Difference Between Theme and Mood?

Beautiful young woman lying on lawn with a book

Theme and mood do have some similarities, but they are ultimately very different.

While both theme and mood represent elements the author is trying to convey, the theme is the message or meaning whereas the mood is the emotional impact of the piece.

Both theme and mood are instrumental to understanding a work of fiction and its intended impact.

So we’ll be going over a breakdown of what they are, how they’re used, and how they affect each other.

What Is Theme?

Woman reading a book sitting in a park alone

The theme is the underlying message that the work is trying to communicate.

In other words, theme is the ultimate goal that the story itself is trying to accomplish.

Note that this does not mean it automatically represents the goal of the characters or possibly even the narrator.

Satire is a perfect example of the exact opposite.

Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal, for example, is unsurprisingly not trying to convince the reader that eating babies is actually a good idea.

It uses the shock factor of its satirical proposals to communicate deeper messages about the injustices of society.

Other times a theme may be much more transparent, however.

Old horror stories about wicked creatures in the woods blatantly portray an unsafe forest in order to convince children to stay out of the forest at night.

Does Every Work Need a Theme?

Guitar, basket and bouquet of flowers, vintage mood

Whether every work needs a theme or not, pretty much every piece you ever write will inevitably end up with a theme.

This is because, if no explicit theme is present, then the theme will emerge organically from the events and dialogue of the story itself.

Let’s say your only goal is to write a romance novel and that you have no big, bold aspirations about what the theme should be.

Well, does love prevail in your story or doesn’t it?

Does the good upstanding guy get the girl or does she leave him for the bad boy?

These seemingly trivial decisions about events in your narrative can create meaning.

If the couple ultimately walks toward the sunset together, despite all of the odds being against them, then your work ends up communicating that “love finds a way.”

Conversely, if it proves to be impossible for them to be together, despite being madly in love, then you might end up with a theme like “love isn’t always enough to make a relationship work.”

When you don’t assign meaning to your work by your own hand, others will assign meaning on your behalf.

How Is Theme Used?

Lonesome woman writing her thoughts at sunset.

While theme can emerge organically, you can also make conscious decisions to control the theme and convey a specific message.

If you choose the theme itself as your starting point, then the process is relatively easy to understand.

You simply choose the message you want to convey and then think about what narratives best fit the message.

Let’s say you want the reader to believe that environmental efforts need to improve across the board.

Your theme might be the importance of going green.

What types of characters would be impacted by environmental efforts?

Perhaps your protagonist’s daughter died of lung disease due to air pollution.

What settings would help to convey the message?

A town that was once well known for its beautiful foliage, pristine waters, and local fauna is now a barren industrialized wasteland with sludgy rivers and blackened skies.

So now we have the beginnings of a story.

One grief-stricken father sets out in a hopeless battle against the corporations that control the small town he once loved, desperately trying to show his community and his country the damages that a lack of environmental awareness can lead to.

Maybe he wins an important court case or the people of the town band together to boycott the companies and run them out of town.

Perhaps the CEO of the worst of the offending companies seems insurmountable until one of his most trusted advisors finds out that their own son now has lung cancer due to their negligence, shifting the tides considerably.

Theme can inform every element of a story and can potentially be the starting point that your narrative is born from.

What Is Mood?

Attractive brunette woman looking pensive by the ocean.

Whereas a theme is a message or meaning that is being conveyed, the mood is the emotional impact of the piece.

If our story about an environmental activist is confident and portrays him as a character who always has an upper hand due to his education and abilities, then it might end up with a triumphant mood.

Conversely, if the story focuses heavily on his struggles with grief and the setbacks that he faces as he goes head-to-head with forces larger than himself, then the mood might be oppressive and dark.

Mood has an intricate relationship with tone, so we’ll be briefly going over that relationship as well.

Mood and Tone

Inspired writer creating her novel in the cafe

Tone is typically seen as the biggest driving force of mood in fiction. The tone is how the author feels while the mood is how the reader feels.

Because emotions are typically expected to be reciprocated, tone is very often the driving force behind mood.

If the author’s choice of words is relaxed and polite, then this calming tone may spill over to the reader, giving the entire work a relaxed mood.

It should be noted that mood and tone are not necessarily synonymous, though.

While they do often reflect each other, it is possible for them to differ.

The narrator might be purposely written to be arrogant and prideful, but hilariously incompetent.

This could lead to a victorious tone contrasted with a comical mood.

How Do Theme and Mood Interact?

Lonely woman leaves footprints in the snow while walking towards the sunset.

Since theme and mood are both defined by conveyance and will naturally be present throughout the entirety of a narrative, it’s only natural that the two will interact with each other in meaningful ways.

For the most part, the mood has more influence on the theme than the theme does on the mood.

Cycling back to our environmentalist, a triumphant mood might help to support an argument that justice always wins, and that change is inevitable.

These then become themes in and of themselves.

On the flip side, a hesitant and oppressive mood might support an argument that change is always going to be difficult and gradual.

All elements of a story can be analyzed and interpreted by the reader to draw themes from, and mood is no exception.

Reversing the dynamic, theme rarely has a direct impact on mood of a finished work.

Theme is the culmination of all of the elements in a narrative, though, so it could be argued that it affects everything to some extent, including mood.

This does depend on perspective, though.

If you believe that the theme emerged organically from the work, as is often the case, then it’s not fair to say that it’s the cause of other elements.

But if the entire work was devoted to the theme from the get-go, then the mood may have been the direct result of the author choosing a tone that suits his or her intended theme.

It’s important to note that these big far-reaching terms like theme, mood, tone, and motif tend to be far more subjective and up for interpretation than simple techniques like simile and metaphor.

Often, the work’s final meanings and impacts depend entirely on who exactly is reading it.

One person might find a sentence funny while another person finds it disheartening.

You can take steps to guide your readers in a certain direction, but they have just as much control over what your work ‘means’ as the writer does.