Writing: Tone and Voice

My daughter came to stay the weekend with us. She’s a travelling nurse who works in Indianapolis, close enough to zip home and spend time with us. We’re celebrating my sister’s birthday tonight. She asked me to make supper for her–Delmonico steaks, potato salad, and peach cobbler. Easy enough to do. So I thought I’d be brilliant and write my blog ahead of time, then post it today…except when I hit the link, the only thing that saved was the title. Arrgh. I saved the post twice, to be sure. What can I say? Life happens. But here goes. Again.

I’ve been thinking about the difference between voice and tone lately, because I’ve been working on a few different things instead of just one. When new writers join Scribes, some of them ask about voice. What is it? How do you get it? It’s always a tricky thing for me to explain. But in my opinion, voice is the combination of all of the components that make up your writing style–word choice, the way you arrange words, if you prefer long, rambling sentences to short, punchy ones, if you use sentence fragments, your rhythm, your style–it’s a natural reflection of you. The best way to “find” your voice, is to simply write, then write more, and keep writing, until eventually, your writing will be YOU. You’ll learn all of the craft of writing along the way–grammar, verbs, etc.–but voice is what makes your writing different than anyone else’s. I don’t think it’s something you have to work at. Don’t try to copy someone else. Learn from them, but be you. And eventually, people will recognize your voice. (Les Edgerton wrote a good “how-to” book on Voice, http://www.amazon.com/Finding-Your-Voice-Personality-Writing/dp/1508879710).

Tone, I think, is a different animal. Tone is something I choose when I want to flavor a story. It’s the difference between a story that’s dark or humorous. It’s a matter of word choice. It permeates the cracks and crevices between sentences. Setting contributes a lot, but you don’t have to do the obvious. Small towns and cities can be both comforting or ominous, according to what you emphasize. When a horror writer describes a house or woods, there are no blue skies and birds singing unless they’re used as a counterpoint to an innocent facade where the reader knows evil is brewing. I went to hear Shirley Jump on a panel once, and she said that when she first started writing humorous romances, she made a list of “funny” words to remind herself to go for the humor in every sentence/paragraph that she could. She even started one of her novels with her protagonist dressed up in a banana suit when she meets Mr. Hunk. (http://www.amazon.com/Virgins-Proposal-Romance-Shirley-Jump/dp/0263191788)

In a series, authors often keep the tone of each book consistent. Their voice is their voice. That’s going to be the same. But every Kate Daniels book, by Ilona Andrews, smacks the reader in the face with Kate’s attitude, adds healthy doses of humor, and lots of action. Readers expect and crave that tone. Patricia Briggs’s Mercedes Thompson series has a distinct tone of its own. She uses action, too, but Mercedes isn’t as in-your-face as Kate. When I read an early novel by Patricia Briggs, though, When Demons Walk, I fell in love with the brashness of her protagonist, Sham. Briggs’s voice was still there, but the book had a fun, sassy tone.

For me, then, the protagonist is a big part of what sets the tone of the book. If we’re in her POV, the way she views life is going to creep into the story. If she’s a woman who’s had a hard life of struggles that’s worn her down, her outlook isn’t going to be innocent and sunny. Her voice–the character’s voice–might be world-weary, harsh, or brittle. Some cynicism probably creeps in, too. Or maybe she’s just given up, doesn’t care anymore. That view will tinge every aspect of what happens to her and how she reacts. We want to hear her, and that sets the story’s tone.

An author’s voice, I think, will be consistent. It’s how she writes. But tone can vary from story to story, depending on the mood you want to set and the protagonist’s POV. It’s the difference between the author’s voice and the character’s voice.

Hope you have an awesome August, and happy writing!

My webpage: http://www.judithpostswritingmusings.com/
on twitter: @judypost

6 thoughts on “Writing: Tone and Voice

  1. I have been trying to re-say (in my blog) what Anthony says but it seems stilted. Thanks for helping me to rethink how I can convey our rather weird conversations.


  2. Terrific post, Judy. Love you clearly set apart voice and tone. Both critical in and of their own right, but understanding the difference can really “make” a great story.


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