Tone of Voice

It’s not just what you say – it’s how you say it. Sometimes you can find your tone of voice in a single line I think, other times you can write for a thousand lines without ever finding it.

428px-Old_violinIt’s a crucial thing to have in a story or a book that distinctive tone of voice, a vital thing, but it’s also a slippery customer to pin down – hard to define. It’s how the story should sound – just the right words, said in the right way, to summon up a person or a mood or a feeling, something. A voice which gives the reader a way into the narrative and makes it ring uniquely for them. Like finding the right notes on a Stradivarius.

Thinking about tone of voice reminded me of a line from an old movie I once saw where a young intern at a big city newspaper was asked to define irony.

“I don’t know,” she said, “But I know it when I hear it.”

Though the formal definition of irony is a figure of speech where the actual meaning is the opposite of the meaning implied, I like her version. “I know it when I hear it.”

And that’s true of tone of voice – you know you have it right when it rings true for you. Stumbling across it can be something which happens when you find a phrase or a line which strikes you in just the right way.

I’ve rewritten whole stories once I’ve found that line – sure now that I know the way they ought to be written, sure of the voice which has to speak them.

Often I think it helps if I have someone in mind speaking as I write – a single person or an amalgamation of them, the memory of not just how they spoke, but how they rubbed up against the world.

The reason it’s so important to get this right is it’s one of the things which makes your book uniquely, distinctly itself – the thing which sets it apart from any other. In this sense, pretty much any famous book has great tone of voice, that certain quantity of specialness in the writing which picks it out from the crowd.

So here are a few examples of books I think have an amazing and distinctive tone of voice. I’ve included just the first few lines from each because I think that’s enough for us to hear how unique, how distinctive the voice is in each :

sfiveSlaughterhouse Five, Kurt Vonnegut Jr

Listen: Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time. Billy has gone to sleep a senile widower and awakened on his wedding day. He has walked through a door in 1955 and come out another one in 1941. He has gone back through that door to find himself in 1963. He has seen his birth and death many times, he says, and pays random visits to all the events in between.

vernonVernon God Little, DBC Pierre

It’s hot as hell in Martirio, but the papers on the porch are icy with the  news. Don’t even try to guess who stood all Tuesday night in the road, Clue: snotty ole Mrs Lechuga. Hard to tell if she quivered, or if moths and porchlight through the willows ruffled her skin like funeral satin in a gale. Either way, dawn showed a puddle between her feet. It tells you normal times just ran howling from town. Probably forever. God knows I tried my best to learn the ways of this world, even had inklings we could be glorious; but after all that’s happened, the inkles ain’t easy anymore.

nights circusNights at the Circus, Angela Carter

‘Lor’ love you sir!’ Fevvers sang out in a voice that clanged like dustbin lids. ‘As to my place of birth, why I first saw light of day right here in smoky old London, didn’t I! Not billed the ‘Cockney Venus’, for nothing sir, though they could just as well ‘ave called me ‘Helen of the High Wire’, due to the unusual circumstances in which I came ashore – for I never docked via what you might call the normal channels, sir, oh, dear me, no. but, just like Helen of Troy, was hatched.

Share your favourite books with a strong tone of voice in the comments!

Song of the Sea God visualDon’t forget if you get a moment to take a look at my book Song of the Sea God.

You can look inside to read the first few pages free and download a free Kindle sample for UK readers here. And for readers in the USA here.

14 thoughts on “Tone of Voice”

  1. But it’s so difficult to know if the tone of voice you hear in your head when you write is the same as the one people read, isn’t it? As someone who has spent years in the business of communication in business, I know how easily readers can misinterpret the tone of a letter, for example. The opportunities for misunderstanding are endless 🙂 Tone of voice, and especially effective irony in writing is a great skill!

    1. I agree Val – It’s one of the most difficult things to get right and one of the most important. As you know, like so much else with writing in the end it comes down to your personal judgement which is based on your skill and experience as a writer. But when I think about the books I love they pretty much all tend to have that distinctive, unique view of the world and way of communicating which sets them apart from everything else.

  2. Angela Carter had such a distinctive ”voice” – you could give me a bit of her prose, and I’d know it. Same with Beryl Bainbridge!! A very interesting you say, hard to define, but instantly recognizable.

  3. I think a good sense of voice is import and one I would like to mention is the voice of Jean Pio the nine year old narrator from The Water Breather by Ben Faccini. Described as ‘a convincing portrayal of the workings of a child’s mind …..truthful, affecting.’ I don’t think you forget a story that has a strong narrator.

  4. For me, Catcher in the Rye stands out as being particularly memorable in terms of voice. Its artful telling of Holden Caulfield’s life struggle and awareness would not be half so powerful if it lacked such a unique and spot-on voice. The voice and character go hand in hand. I’m sure Salinger can rest easy knowing that I approve.

    1. If he’s anything like every other author I’m sure he would be thrilled you approve! I agree – it’s a great example of a book which gains massively from the narrative voice.

      1. And while I’m only on page 38 of Song of the Sea God–holiday schedule intruding on my reading time–I’d say narrative voice is something you know a good bit about, Chris! An engaging story and excellent characters; really looking forward to reading more.

      2. Thank you, that’s very kind of you to say so – it is something I set great store by and work hard at – for the very reason you mentioned with regard to Catcher in the Rye – it wouldn’t be the same book without the voice. I hope you enjoy the rest of Sea God as it heads into darker territory 🙂

  5. I generally start out writing my characters’ dialogue. I find I can get a much better grasp on who they are if I can first imagine how they sound. When I first started writing I wrote plays, so I have found that my tone of voice as a writer is directly tied to my characters’ voices. Fantastic post!!! You really got me thinking

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