Tone and Voice

We’re getting towards the end of Blogtober, and I’m still shocked I’ve been able to come up with writing tips every day this month. Not all of the posts have been absolute winners, but I think I’ve been able to convey a lot of useful information. The tips and insights may even be valuable. It’s all information I wish I had when I was younger.

Today’s topic came from a suggestion from my online writing community. Someone suggested I write about the difference between tone and voice.

This might wind up being a really short essay.

What is Tone?

With respect to stories, tone is the general feel and attitude of the narrative. With Halloween fast approaching, we’re exposed to more spooky, scary, or disturbing tones than other times of the year. Tone can describe the emotional feel, the amount of humor, the level of affluence, the degree of seriousness… tone is what the story tastes like.

We create the tone of our stories through our imagery and word choices. Here are a few examples:

Spooky

The full moon shone silvery light upon the foggy graveyard, its headstones protruding from the muddy earth like jagged, stony teeth. A gnarled oak, its twisted bare branches reaching towards a cold and uncaring sky, gave witness to the crack and groan of the ground as the eldritch horror broke free of its subterranean prison, reaching and clawing its way up and out through an open, hollow grave.

Somber

The pallbearers marched along the stony path, their heads down as they bore not only the mass of the coffin, but the weight of the loss of their friend. Funeral goers, dressed in black, some with gauzy veils, stood together in a small cluster, watching the last procession of their lost father, brother, friend. A gray sky full of thick clouds held back the warm comfort of the sun. Only the leaves from the nearby great oak offered any hint of the triumph of life, with its still green leaves lingering longer than usual into the deep, cooling months of fall.

Sultry

Mary took his hand and led him down the stony path, her eyes dark and shining, striking sparks every time she looked over her shoulder into his nervous face. He questioned the location she chose, but his protestations diminished every time she swayed her hips, each time the strap of her short black dress slipped from her shoulder. She slid the material back into place, slower each time, her mask of chastity and propriety slipping. She stopped near one of the headstones, no different from any of the others save for her mother’s name etched into the weather-worn stone. His hesitation evaporated when she pulled him down next to her on the cool grass, her slow smile playful, intoxicating, inviting.

All three of these scenes are set in a graveyard, and they all have different tones. In the first, I relied on typical Halloween imagery: fog, full moon, teeth, and headstones. The second has some similar imagery, but the sky is gray instead of black, and there is some contrast at the end with the green leaves.

The third one is about Mary Shelley.

What is Voice?

In regards to writing, voice refers to the unique diction and style the writer brings to their stories. It refers less to the content of the story and more to the way the story is told.

Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote with a very dense style of prose, packing each sentence with complex ideas. Stephen King relies on sharp imagery, the characters occasionally exaggerated, the prose punctuated with crass or shocking language. Tom Clancy wrote with firm, stoic language, with dry technical references giving credence to the realism of his military fiction.

There may not be any more new stories, but there are new and unique voices which make the stories fresh. A good example of voice is Chuck Wendig. Here is a tweet thread where he’s talking about apples:

When Chuck writes, he uses words that are tangy and crunchy, similar to his heirloom apples. He isn’t afraid to take wild swings in tone, from biting political commentary to silly asides with Myke Cole and Sam Sykes. If you follow Chuck on Twitter, you will recognize his voice when you pick up Wanderers or Damn Fine Story.

People talk about writers and their voice, but it’s not something the writer has full control over. They can pretend to write like someone for a while, and they can shift their voice over time, but voice is something that just develops with experience, as unique as the way a person walks.

Voice is one of those things your critique group may try to smother, by the way. If you are attached to a particular word choice which is accurate, but your critique group is urging you to use a different word, give the recommendation appropriate consideration, then go with your gut.

The Difference Between Tone and Voice

Tone is the content, and voice is the way the content is delivered. There is some overlap between tone and voice, and some voices are more suitable for delivering a particular type of tone. I can’t imagine reading a horror story written by Ralph Waldo Emerson, for example. Now that I’ve said it, I’d be fascinated to see what that’s like. But the density of his speech doesn’t lend itself to the way horror draws out tension, delivering bits and pieces of information over time.

The three examples above, written by me for this essay, all have different tones. But if you’re familiar with my writing, you can probably recognize my voice in all three. There are patterns of speech and word choices I rely on that are my hallmarks.

Parting Thoughts

Well… I guess this one wasn’t short, after all. I didn’t know I had so much I could say about tone and voice. Tone is intentional, while voice is integral and automatic. You can change the tone and you can mask your voice, but the former is easily mutable while the latter can be painful to simulate, like trying to imitate Christian Bale’s Batman voice for hours on end.

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