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.
It’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 :
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.
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.
‘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!
Don’t forget if you get a moment to take a look at my book Song of the Sea God.