Tone in fiction is the attitude of the narrator or viewpoint character toward story events and other characters. In a story with first-person POV, tone can also be the narrator’s attitude toward the reader.
In non-fiction, tone is the writer’s attitude toward subject matter and reader. So the writer might come across as a know-it-all or a blowhard or as humble or solicitous.
We’re all familiar with a mother’s words to her mouthy son—Don’t you take that tone with me, young man.
The viewpoint character’s perception of and reaction to sights, sounds, odors, touch, and taste add to tone.
Reactions and Demeanor
How does the narrator or viewpoint character come across? How does he respond to story events and revelations?
Is he desperate, upbeat, dismissive? Is he clueless or callous or indifferent?
Tone can change over the course of a story, as the viewpoint character grows or changes, but every scene should have a tone, a feel, that’s generated by the attitude of the viewpoint character, and that could hold fairly steady for much of the story. That is, until events start shaking up the character.
A story as a whole will also have a tone, a particular feel.
Use tone to differentiate scenes between viewpoint characters. So while Irving’s attitude is whiney, Pete’s can be overbearing. Use word choices and the unique events and story elements that each character focuses on to play up the different tones.
A long list of tones (attitude), but by no means an exhaustive one—
Mood is what the reader feels while reading a scene or story. It’s not the reader’s emotions, but the atmosphere (the vibe) of a scene or story. It’s what the reader reads or feels or notices. Not all readers would necessarily report the same mood from a scene, although the writer does hope to achieve a particular feel common to every reader.
Mood can be expressed in terms such as dark, light, rushed, suspenseful, heavy, lighthearted, chaotic, and laid-back.
The mood of each scene can differ from that of the scene before, but you will want some consistency. Yet, as the story approaches the climax, the intensity levels should change.
Keep in mind that mood has to change for a reason and that something must happen even to provoke an intensity change. Something must be different to make sense of any mood change, whether the change is from mood to mood or level to level.
This change can be a physical event or a character’s sudden recognition of the meaning of an earlier event or another character’s remark.
If you’ve got several story threads or subplots featuring different viewpoint characters, the mood could switch each time you move from one subplot to the other.