For Writers: On Voice and Tone

Editors and agents often say that they sign an author because of the excellent/compelling “voice” of the work in question. What does this mean, and how do you accomplish it?

First, some definitions…

Tone: the “atmosphere” of a narrative, generated by using diction (word choice) and syntax (sentence structure). Specific genres are characterized by their tones (think western, noir, romance, science fiction, fantasy). For example, the tone of a piece might be old-fashioned, stilted, verbose, punchy, and/or humorous, etc. The tone of Captain Underpants is irreverent and silly; the tone of The Hunger Games is serious and driven.download

Voice: There are two things we mean when we say “voice”:

  • Author voice. Each author brings to their work a unique voice that is a product of the author’s education, upbringing, personality, ideology, and beliefs. Your voice, which tends to persist regardless of the genre in which you write and the tone you set, bleeds through in the way you structure the narrative, and in particular your syntax and diction. For example, you may tend to use repetition, alliteration or parallel construction. The best example of tone/author voice is the Gettysburg Address, in which Lincoln sets a reverential tone honoring the dead, and uses parallel construction to emphasize his point: we can not dedicate—we can not consecrate—we can not hallow, this ground
  • Narrative voice. This is really what editors are looking for. Regardless of tone or author voice, a strong narrative voice is distinctive and unique to the work. Regardless of how many books you write and how strong your author voice, your narrative voice will be different with each book unless it’s part of a series (like The Hunger Games). It doesn’t matter whether the work is written in first person, second person, close third, or omniscient (see below); the voice of the piece evokes an emotional response in the reader to the character(s) and story. Here are a few examples:

From Laurie Halse Anderson’s YA The Impossible Knife of Memory:

It started in detention. No surprise there, right?

Detention was invented by the same idiots who dreamed up the time-out corner. Does being forced to sit in time-out ever make little kids stop putting cats in the dishwasher or drawing on white walls with purple marker? Of course not. It teaches them to be sneaky and guarantees that when they get to high school they’ll love detention because it’s a great place to sleep.

I was too angry for a detention nap.

Tone: contemporary, using youthful direct address (“right?”). Voice: snarky, dark, angry (cats in the dishwasher?!) First person.

From Julie Berry’s YA All the Truth That’s in Me:

You diJulie Berrydn’t come.

I waited all evening in the willow tree, with gnats buzzing in my face and sap sticking in my hair, watching for you to return from town.

I know you went to town tonight. I heard you ask Mr. Johnson after church if you could pay a call on him this evening. You must want to borrow his ox team.

Tone: old-fashioned. Voice: formal – yet intimate, observant, melancholy. Second person.

From Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief:

They couldn’t just leave him on the ground. For now, it wasn’t such a problem, but very soon, the track ahead would be cleared and the train would need to move on.

There were two guards.

There was one mother and her daughter.

One corpse.

The mother, the girl, and the corpse remained stubborn and silent.

Tone: somber, intellectual. Voice: formal, distant, using short sentences that punch the narrative with energy and imagery. Third person, with an omniscient narrator (Death).

Creating a strong narrative voice comes from understanding your main character and their point of view and going deeply into their psyche and blending that understanding with your own author voice.

Points of View: the “eyeball” or camera lens of the narrative:

  • First person. “I do” or “I did”. Limiting, because the reader can only see through the eyes of the narrator/character. This means that the character may in fact be unreliable (lying, hiding information), but the reader can’t really know this right off. This is also the most deeply felt POV and is used a lot in YA fiction because it’s so easy for the reader to identify with. It can also be hard to take if the character is truly suffering.
  • Second person. “You do/did” Rare, because it’s hard to pull off. When done well it can be effective. See All the Truth That’s in Me, and Tim Wynne-Jones’s Blink and Caution. Limiting, like first person, because the reader is still deeply inside the head of the narrator/character.
  • Third person limited. “He/she does/did” The limited third person stays with a single character, as in first, but the focal lens is pulled slightly away so that other character behaviors are visible and their motives can be revealed through their actions. The main character doesn’t ever exit the stage in limited third person; it’s rather like a camera following them around as they move but not being inside their head revealing their thoughts except through action and some internal reflection. Common in middle grade fiction because it’s less limiting and emotional. A good example is Eoin Colfer’s Artemis Fowl: Sun did not suit Artemis. He did not look well in it. Long hours indoors in front of a computer screen had bleached the glow from his skin. He was white as a vampire and almost as testy in the light of day.
  • Third person omniscient. “He/she does/did” The narrative lens is pulled way back. The narrative may move from one character to another but always in third person (unless there’s an identified narrator as in The Book Thief; Dickens used this POV all the time, often with narrators; Jane Austen used it exclusively). The reader has the feeling of being on Mount Olympus looking down at the behaviors of all the people in the story more or less simultaneously. This POV Kathi Appeltcan fall into an old-fashioned tone unless the narrative moves at a rapid clip. A good example is Kathi Appelt’s The Underneath, which also uses direct address effectively:

Halfway down the Bayou Tartine, the land drops off in a channel, which creates just enough room for a little bayou, the Petite Tartine. It makes a semi-circle and rejoins its big sister, and all the land between is marsh and swamp and quicksand.

Do not go into that land between the Bayou Tartine and it little sister, Petite Tartine. Do not step into that shivery place. Do not let it gobble you up. Stay away from the Tartine sisters.

A note on direct address: use with caution. For one thing, it can be an old-fashioned-sounding affectation: “And so, dear reader, we come to the heart of the story.” For another, it can remind the reader that they are reading a book, taking them out of the story moment, and not “living the story”. Done well, it can be powerful. See, for example, Kate DiCamillo’s The Tale of Despereaux – although I will add that some critics didn’t like her use of DA in this book.

Exercises:

The next time you begin reading a book, you should be able to identify the tone, narrative voice, and POV on the first page. Make a note and see how it feels to you. Then, see if you can identify the author voice, which may take a bit of reading.

Read the first pages of several genre books, especially noir, murder mystery, western, romance. Identify the tone/voice in each.

Write the opening pages to a number of works of fiction using different combinations of voice, tone, and POV in each.

Comments

  1. Great post, Janet! So helpful! As someone who has been querying agents, I wondered what one meant when he commented, “The voice didn’t grab me.” Thank you for including the definitions and examples!

    • Thanks, Linda! I think voice is one of the hardest things I’ve had to master. I’m so happy you’ve found this useful!