Monday, November 24, 2008


Have you ever read the first chapter of a book and thought, "Oooo, what a voice this author has!"?

What were you saying when you thought that? What, exactly, were you noticing about the chapter?

You might answer, "Well, I was hooked into the story right away, and I could feel the book was going to be ____________ (fill in the blank: scary, funny, lighthearted, serious, a romp, ethereal, etc.)

If you answered that, I would say to you, "No. That's the tone. Tell me about the voice."

Many writers get these things confused. So, what is the difference between the tone of a novel and the voice of a novel?

Some would tell you that voice has more to do with how your characters speak, the things they say, the way they react to one another. But no, that is characterization - and it is not at all necessary (or even recommended) for all your characters to flow with the voice of the novel. It's interesting to have at least one character rub the voice the wrong way, stand out, or sound contrary to the overriding voice of the novel.

If you are writing in first person POV (point of view), your characterization and voice are more tightly connected, that's true, because you use your protagonist as the main vehicle of explaining the world to the reader. But, more tightly connected or not, there is still a difference between them.

Voice is the METHOD of conveying tone in a novel.

For example, let's say you are writing a scary book (tone). It is full of suspense (tone), and your characters don't even realize how much trouble they are in until it's too late (characterization).

There are a million different ways to convey suspense (voice).

You might use short, choppy sentences peppered with excitable words. Then sandwich them between long, meandering sentences that take the reader on a brief trip and also build questions in the mind of the reader. Before you pop out more short sentences.

Just like I just did in the previous three sentences.

Voice isn't so much what you say, as how you say it.

It's just so all about the how. Let's do a for instance.

We have a scene - a coffee shop. And a character: a woman. We need to tell the reader that the woman enters the coffee shop, makes a phone call from the payphone, then sits at the counter and orders a coffee. That's the what.

Here's the first example of conveying the what using voice.

1) Joe wiped the counters, swiping in long ovals across the blue tiled counter. He didn't bother to move the napkin dispenser, the salt, the pepper, the sugar containers, the menu stand. Let Mable do it. She'd be out here in a minute re-wiping the whole counter anyway, just like always, just like she enjoyed doing twice what could be done once.

Joe looked up just as a woman appeared at the door. He squinted at her and kept wiping up the long counter. He didn't know her, which made her a stranger to town, that was for sure. Bobby Parker always said, "Joe don't know you, then you ain't known at all." That was true, sure as he stood on two feet. She'll head for a booth, he thought. Strangers always do. He snorted when she moved toward the pay phone, lifted the receiver, listened for a dial tone, deposited a coin and pushed seven buttons. Local call. She spoke all of five seconds, then moved to the counter, sat right in front of Joe and said, "Coffee, black." And you could have knocked Joe over with a feather.

Same scene - a different tone, created by the use of voice:

2) Joe swiped at the counters. "Mable's job," he muttered. He shoved the cloth here and there, hit and miss.

The door opened and a woman appeared. Joe watched her scan the diner with two huge eyes like scared birds. He poked at the counter with his damp cloth, but he wasn't paying any attention to it now. Booth, he thought. Strange women always sit in booths. He was surprised when she lurched toward the phone. He squinted hard, like it would improve his hearing, as she spoke into the receiver. She hung up fast, spun around and caught him staring. She marched to the counter and sat in the stool right in front of Joe. "Coffee. Black." Joe could only nod.

Okay, same scene, different tones. How I'm accomplishing the two tones is by use of voice. POV stays the same. The action stays the same - but my word choice, sentence structure and the way I stack the paragraphs changes. I use a different voice. In scene 1 I used a relaxed voice, a swatting flies sort of voice, a passing the time of day voice which let the reader know this story was going to sound like a warm day in May. Things would happen, in their own time.

In scene 2, I used shorter sentences, stiff details, and clipped words to let the reader know this was a snappy, possibly mysterious story about a woman who may or may not be in trouble.

While this is hardly the definitive example of voice, I hope it prods some thoughts, and encourages a discussion about this slippery concept called Voice.

I bid you good writing.


Avily Jerome said...

Interesting. Thanks!

I have SO much trouble with voice! I don't really understand what it means to have a fresh, unique voice, although I've been told I have a "strong" voice.

I like your two examples- that definitely helps me to see the way voice portrays the intent of a story. Great post!

Krishna Chaitanya P.N.V said...

Great explanation!

I felt the second one rather gripping.

The way you explained the scene in two ways is good.

Expecting lots of stuff here in near future.

Nicci said...

Well said!

Bonnie Grove said...

Avily, I KNOW! It's so tricky. I don't have all the answers for it either. Method is always the hardest thing to wrap my head around. If people tell you they read your voice as "strong", that is likely a good thing. It should still sound like it came from you. Arrgghh...tricky!!

Krishna, nice to see you here. Thanks for dropping by!

Nicci, :)

lynnrush said...

I was just reading Manuscript Makeover and tone/voice was discussed.

This is such a tricky concept.

This is a great example. Thanks for this.

The Koala Bear Writer said...

Tricky indeed. This answered a few questions and left me with a few more. :) One thing I like to do is think about my favourite authors and what sets them all apart--how they sound different. For example, Sigmund Brouwer is very much about the action, keeping it moving; Michael Phillips tends to "philosophize" and spend more time thinking. If I'm understanding voice right... :)

Bonnie Grove said...

Koala, yes, I think that's part of it - the overall attitude the writer impresses on the story. One of my favorite examples of Voice making the book is Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes. No one could make it through the book if it were not for his lilting hand, his extraordinary Voice that acted as a friend to see you through. However, when he employed that same voice in a follow up book 'Tis, the Voice was the ruination of the book. Endearing in the memoirs of a boy, the Voice became whiny and passive as it walked us through his years of young adulthood.
Voice must fit the story and the story must fit the Voice.

Thanks for your comments!