tone and/or voice

People who spend their professional lives reading, analyzing and talking about novels have a vocabulary, a kind of short hand they share that makes it possible to talk about  fine points. So do fishermen, prostitutes, software engineers, poodle breeders and just about any other group you can name. Every kind of work has its own specialized vocabulary.

If you skim essays in literary criticism, a lot of the terms you’ll come across won’t mean anything to you, and to be honest, they don’t need to mean anything to you. You can have a deep understanding of a story, an empathy for the characters, a full sense of the themes without ever deciding if the novel is a bildungsroman or a roman a clef.

But if you are writing, and you find it would be useful to talk to other writers about what you’re trying (and maybe not achieving) with a particular character or plot point, you might have need of certain terms. And there are a lot of them, some more difficult to appreciate than others. Two that my students often had trouble with were tone and voice.

Tone is quite easy and instinctive.

“Young man, I do not like your tone.”

“You know that tone he gets, when he’s going to ask for a favor that’s way out of line? That oh-put-upon-me thing he does.”

“That talk she gave at the meeting? I thought her tone was way off. She sounded like an air-head, you’d never know she’s the best chemical engineer in the company.”

Tone is as universal as emotion. Snotty, imperious, jovial, condescending, those associations are clear no matter what kind of character they come from. A bus driver who tells you this is your stop in an imperious tone, an oral surgeon who gives you really bad news in an impatient tone, the seven year old who informs you he never eats vegetables in a tone that might be snotty or apologetic.

So any given character can use many possible tones. On the other hand,  he or she has only one voice (theoretically, at least). The author establishes the character’s voice, and uses tone to shade in meaning.

One way to think of this is to imagine the author as a ventriloquist with four dummies (is there another word for that these days?). The idea is to tell a story, using the four characters, and of course the ventriloquist will be involved in the narrative. He (or she, though I don’t think I’ve ever seen a female ventriloquist) creates four different characters, each with a distinctive voice. A manner and style of speaking that distinguishes one from the other, and the characters from himself. If all four sound exactly alike, something is not working.

One way to tell if your characters have distinctive voices is to ask them all the same question.

I heard there was a fight on the corner last night, what happened?

1: What are you looking at me? What do I know? I’m nobody. Nobody cares about me. I got no interest in anybody else. So Tony from the bakery got knocked over the head, so what? Ain’t got nothing to do with me.

2: I hope you aren’t insinuating that I had any connection, any possible connection to something like that. You must know that I have always been, and will always be, law abiding. If I had seen something amiss, if I *had* — which I did not — I should have called the police immediately, and possibly the fire department as well, though of course they tend to disregard my calls these days. They seem to have entirely the wrong idea about me, I don’t know who has been talking to them.

3: Oh my dear, oh dear, it really was very, very frightening. Have you ever seen a fight, a real fight, right in front of you? Of course you’ haven’t. Of course not. My dear, do you know what it sounds like when a fist hits a cheek bone? Of course, you could not.  Would you like some coffee? Of course you would, you must be parched. And wouldn’t you like to hear all about it? Because I certainly can tell you, but only if you are truly, truly interested.

4: There’s not much to tell. Tony got drunk, he made some remarks about Jerry’s girlfriend, and things took off from there. One or two punches thrown, and Tony went down. Jerry took off before the cops got there, I don’t think he even realized Tony hit is head on the curb. It must have been a shock when the police showed up at his door and arrested him for manslaughter.

If you’ve got a large cast of characters, and the time and energy, you can interview every one of them. Later, when you read over what they’ve dictated, you’ll see where the thin spots are, which characters’ voices aren’t well formed.

Authors have narrative voices, apart from the voices they create for their characters. Some authors are so distinctive that you know who wrote what you’re reading even if you haven’t looked at the cover of the book. Annie Proulx has a very idiosyncratic style and voice that carry over from one novel or story to the next. So did Hemingway. You may be able to think of others.

Some people will tell you that you can’t be a great writer unless you develop a distinctive voice of your own. I don’t think that’s true.  There are too many counter examples. A distinct authorial voice is a good thing, but it’s far more important to get the characters’ voices right.

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