Tone vs. Theme: What Is the Difference?

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Here’s the difference between a tone and a theme:

A theme is basically what the piece is trying to say, the main message, whereas tone reflects the narrator’s attitude.

Tone also has an intimate connection to mood.

If you want to learn all about the differences between tone and theme, then this article is for you.

Let’s jump right in!

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

What Is the Difference Between a Tone and a Theme?

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DefinitionExpresses the writer’s feelings or attitude toward the subjectThe main idea or the central message of a literary or artistic work
How it’s expressedThrough word choice or writing style that the writer employs to express his attitude toward the topic Can be felt or uncovered through concrete events as the story unfolds
ScopeHow did the author convey or articulate the message of the story?What is the story about? What is the moral or message of the story?
NatureCan be suspenseful, cheerful, sarcastic, funny, melancholic, and etc.Can be a powerful message or a conclusion that’s drawn from the author’s literary work.
SpecificityReflects the viewpoint or opinion of the writerHidden, abstract meaning that’s expressed using various elements such as the characters, setting, dialogue, the plot, etc.

Tone and theme are two of the core foundations of any ambitious written work, with each quality permeating the text from the first line to the last.

Here’s an overview of the key differences between tone and theme.

The theme is essentially the point being made by the piece, the main idea or the message. 

Tone reflects the attitude that the narrator presents.

Tone also has an intimate connection to mood, which we’ll touch on later.

You couldn’t realistically expect to write a gripping narrative with conflict and stakes without inserting some sort of theme or moral, even if you end up doing so by accident as a result of how the conflicts in your story turn out.

Tone is even more unavoidable. 

Simply by virtue of placing words on a page, you create a tone. 

Even a dry emotionless boring academic tone is still technically a tone.

Of course, there’s much more to delve into than just that.

What Is a Tone?

Young widow suspected of murdering her husband is crying with eyes messy with makeup.

Perhaps you’ve heard someone say, “Don’t take that tone with me!”

If so, then you essentially know what a tone is, more or less.

Just as the tone of your voice reveals your current mood, the tone of your writing reveals the narrator’s feelings. 

Of course, literature can’t rely on pitch and inflection to invoke tone.

It has to do so entirely with the word selections and the syntax of the sentence.

See the below examples:

  1. We drove back the alien scourge with our strongest weapons.
  2. We managed to push back the monstrous aliens with only human technology.

In the first sentence, the narrator sounds triumphant and assured. 

There was never any doubt that the protagonists were going to defeat the aliens with their impressive firepower. 

The choice of words is important in establishing tone because tone relies heavily on connotation.

Painting the aliens as a “scourge” and the human weapons as the “strongest” creates a dynamic that sounds almost like an exterminator eliminating an infestation.

Meanwhile, the second sentence sounds much less confident. There’s a palpable sense of hesitancy in the wording as if something could have easily gone wrong at any moment.

This, too, is established via the connotation of the words used. Instead of boldly defeating the aliens, the protagonists in this version merely “managed” to handle it.

Here the weapons are classified as “only human.”

The underlying implication is that the narrator of the second version is surprised that the humans were victorious over the “monstrous aliens.”

The events of both versions are the same, but the tone is drastically different.

What Is the Connection Between a Theme and a Mood?

Young woman in the field enjoying the moment outdoor.

It’s difficult to address tone properly without also bringing up mood.

The very purpose of tone is very often to set the mood, after all.

The tone, as stated above, is what the narrator expresses.

This is the voice painted by the author using careful word choices. 

It might be a subtle undertone or an aggressive overtone, but it is always reflective of how the narrator is meant to be characterized.

The mood is what the reader feels in response to that expression and to the details of the text. 

A scene presented with graphic imagery and gore may be intended to gross you out and horrify you. In that context, you could say the mood is horrific.

While mood is not only set up by the tone they do go hand in hand.

It would be difficult to write an entire novel with a lighthearted comedic tone but still establish a serious mood.

This doesn’t mean tone and mood always match, of course. 

If you were to write about a haunted castle beset by legions of the decaying undead in a hopeless situation, but do so in a heavily romanticized tone, then a unique dissonance would be achieved that breaks the tone and mood up into something intricate and strange.

What Is a Theme?

Mysterious Snow White holds a ripe apple on her lap.

Theme is debatably the more complex of the two.

While a tone is something you might pick up in the first couple of sentences, the theme of the work often requires that you read the entire story cover to cover.

This is, in large part, because any sudden overturn in the plot might turn the theme on its head. 

A plot twist might change the relationship between good and evil at any moment, thus recontextualizing the theme from scratch with each unexpected turn.

There can also be subthemes appearing in sections of the work or even in individual scenes, completely separate from the more cohesive overarching theme(s).

Themes are inextricably linked to the “moral of the story” and are essentially the ethical fibers that the narrative uses as a backbone. 

Themes can be wholly intended and blatantly obvious, like how the morals of fables and parables are essential to the story, or they can emerge organically and be incredibly subtle.

Even when you do not actively try to promote a theme, it’s likely that one will be born of the events that take place in your stories, most notably the conflicts.

Who won and who lost?

How did that turn out for everyone else?

Whereas tone and mood emerge from careful and consistent word choices, themes typically pop out of the story’s actual events. 

Forcibly inserting a theme through dialogue or exposition usually amounts to poor, lazy writing.

Young woman working on laptop lying in hammock on the beach

The most memorable themes are often the ones that are debatable and complex.

One obvious and even overused theme is the classic “Love finds a way.” 

The idea is that the characters of the story who are in love will end up together without a shadow of a doubt. 

Cities may fall, nations may crumble, and stars may fall from the sky, but the fate of the lovers is set in stone.

You could, of course, flip this concept on its head by having the lovers fail miserably to stay together in the face of adversity. 

In this case, you would subvert the trope, arguing through a narrative that love alone is not always enough.

There’s no rule that themes have to be founded on happy endings, after all. 

A book can be a lesson in the harshness of reality just as easily as it can be a window into a fanciful dream world. 

The outcomes you portray when your characters are tested will naturally, gradually unveil the themes of your work, whatever those may be.