Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Overview: Tone and Voice

Tone and voice are two different aspects of writing that are often confused.

Voice is a largely unconscious element in writing. It is the words you choose over others, the manner in which you build phrases—everything which makes your words identifiable as yours. It is something that will evolve over time as you write more and read new authors and genres.

A good example of authorial voice can be found in the works of Joss Whedon. Whedon has a certain style of writing dialog that carries over from story to story. Next time you have a few hours free, watch an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, an episode of Firefly, and then part or all of The Avengers. While the style (and tone) of each piece varies, you can still feel a similar voice in the snappy back-and-forth dialog of each one.

Because voice is largely unconscious, it’s not generally something that new writers need to focus on; it’s something that develops on its own as you progress.

(Note that we're speaking here about your voice as an author. Your characters can and should have voices of their own, which is a topic that we discuss in this post)

Tone, on the other hand, is an aspect of writing which is often approached unconsciously but which should always be given conscious attention. Tone in writing is much like tone in speaking—someone might speak in a sarcastic tone, a serious tone, or a silly tone. It is how something is said, as opposed to what is said. Some stories have a humorous tone; others have a serious and straightforward tone. Just like you have control of the tone you use when you speak, you have control of the tone you use when you write.

Consider the tone of this excerpt from Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister by Gregory MacGuire

     Hobbling home under a mackerel sky, I came upon a group of children. They were tossing their toys in the air, by turns telling a story and acting it too. A play about a pretty girl who was scorned by her two stepsisters. In distress, the child disguised herself to go to a ball. There, the great turnabout: She met a prince who adored her and romanced her. Her happiness eclipsed the plight of her stepsisters, whose ugliness was the cause of high merriment.
     I listened without being observed, for the aged are often invisible to the young.
     I thought: How like some ancient story this all sounds. Have these children overheard their grandparents revisiting some dusty gossip about me and my kin, and are the little ones turning it into a household tale of magic? Full of fanciful touches: glass slippers, a fairy godmother? Or are the children dressing themselves in some older gospel, which my family saga resembles only by accident?

The tone here is serious, pensive, and somewhat bitter, no? Now compare the tone of that example with the tone of this excerpt from Terry Pratchett’s Going Postal:

     They say that the prospect of being hanged in the morning concentrates a man's mind wonderfully; unfortunately, what the mind inevitably concentrates on is that, in the morning, it will be in a body that is going to be hanged.
     The man going to be hanged had been named Moist von Lipwig by doting if unwise parents, but he was not going to embarrass the name, insofar as that was still possible, by being hung under it. To the world in general, and particularly on that bit of it known as the death warrant, he was Alfred Spangler.
     And he took a more positive approach to the situation and had concentrated his mind on the prospect of not being hanged in the morning, and, most particularly, on the prospect of removing all the crumbling mortar from around a stone in his cell wall with a spoon. So far the work had taken him five weeks and reduced the spoon to something like a nail file. Fortunately, no one ever came to change the bedding here, or else they would have discovered the world's heaviest mattress.

While this second example focuses on a man in very serious circumstances, its tone is anything but serious. The tone here is clever and lighthearted, decidedly humorous. It could not be more different from the first example.

It is important for writers to be aware of what tone they are using in their stories. A tone that doesn’t fit the narrative or that is inconsistent, switching back and forth from one tone to another, can easily ruin an otherwise-solid story. We’ll delve more into tone problems in future posts.

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