Setting the tone: How to handle voice in your fiction

Authors share tips for finding a voice that will suit your work and resonate with readers.

Tone
Learn how authors set the tone of their writing.

In real life, we often speak of tone of voice:

“What’s with that tone of voice?” Perhaps because it sounded impertinent or disrespectful; we picked up on an attitude we didn’t appreciate. At any rate, we know that the way words are said matters just as much – if not more – as the words themselves.

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In fiction, as in real life, we listen carefully for voices: both the author’s and the characters’. The authorial voice is the voice we hear when we’re reading the author’s prose, whether it’s exposition, narration, or description. Think of the difference between a Hemingway narrative and a Faulkner one: Hemingway’s prose is lean and stripped down, whereas Faulkner’s is intricately and richly embellished. 

Characters also clearly have distinctive voices that establish personality, attitudes, and disposition. Think of Huck Finn, Holden Caulfield, Moll Flanders. A character’s voice can be apparent in both thought and speech. And speech in fiction, as in real life, clues us in to a character’s take on self, others, and the world at large.  

As a writer, you may have been urged to find your voice. The idea is that once you do this, something “clicks.” You’ve found the right voice for your narrator or your protagonist. Maybe initially your voice sounded amateurish, bumbling, uneven, wrong for the story or wrong for the characters, but now it’s got authority, it’s just right, it’s tuned in.

But how do you find that voice? And what about from project to project: Should you work toward creating a consistent voice, one that readers will recognize as uniquely yours? 

The nature of “voice”

Walter Cummins, former editor of The Literary Review, emeritus professor at Farleigh Dickinson University, and a short story writer, points out that a voice’s sound is created by such elements as “sentence rhythms and patterns, word choices, enunciations, syntax, and pauses.” Voice must work in tandem with key features of a character or story: “In addition to sound, the details that a writer chooses to note imply a distinct worldview. There’s also an attitude toward people and places, situations and events that emerges.” 

It’s a complex process, says Cummins, especially since fictional voice consists of both the basic authorial voice and the occasional, or contextual, voice, which depends on the particular story elements. “I consider the voice underlying the occasional voices [to be] one that develops unconsciously, but a writer can be more deliberate about adjusting that basic voice to one that suits the narrative situation,” he says. For instance, in his own work: “As far as I’m concerned, I just write in a manner that’s natural to me. But people have commented on what they find are distinctive sentence patterns and rhythms, a voice I hadn’t intentionally planned and didn’t realize I had.” 

Consider the opening of his short story “Someone Else,” from The End of the Circle

“You’re traveling alone, aren’t you?” she said.

Mark nodded at the large young woman standing over him in the train aisle, then turned back to watch people move in and out of the station. He hoped that was the end of it and she would go away. But she dropped her backpack and sat on the seat facing his. He pretended to be intent on searching the crowd, as if expecting someone. The woman’s image reflected in the window of the coach, flat and transparent, a double exposure over the great mountains surrounding the town.

“Look at them all running around like idiots.” She gestured with an abrupt sweep of her hand.

“Who?” Mark followed her pointing to see if she had noticed something unusual, but nothing seemed to have changed, just people hurrying with luggage and knapsacks.

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“Like they’re desperate to get to someplace that mattered.” Despite the insistence of her words, her voice was toneless, a straight line on a graph.

We feel a restless need on Mark’s part to be free of this woman who has imposed herself on him. “I see certain tics of mine, a tendency to add on phrases after commas, an uncertainty in the protagonist, metaphoric analogies, seeds of an as-yet unstated tension,” Cummins says.

 While these techniques have now become unconscious or subliminal in his writing, Cummins has deliberately adjusted his voice to the narrative situation. So the language itself, the rhythms and the use of figurative language, all help create the restive voice of his protagonist. 

Robert Garner McBrearty, author of several story collections, likens voice to the style of a good actor. “Somehow with the great actor, we’re feeling not only the acting style but the ‘voice’ of the actor,” he says. Everything about this actor’s performance, says McBrearty, reveals an authentic style/voice: “The delivery of the lines, the facial expressions, seem called forth from some deeper, authentic place, as if the actor has become the character rather than simply pretending.” In fiction, a distinctive style and personality must come through as well. McBrearty goes for the comic mode. In the following passage from “The Hellraiser,” from A Night at the Y, he presents Scooter, an aging troublemaker, at once humorous and sad, at odds with his old friends, who have settled down and given up the youthful fast life: 

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It’s New Year’s Eve and I’m raising hell. I’ve driven my truck into town and tried to call the boys together. But each year there’s more guys settling down, getting married, dulling out, and this year I’m down to Leon and his tag-along little brother Sam.

And, a bit later:

All afternoon as I was driving in from Irving, I was getting in a crazy mood, wearing my hat with the deer antlers, honking my horn at any girls I passed on the highway. Sometimes the girls would laugh and wave. It seemed to take the chill out of the day. For a while. I was thinking maybe I’d meet a girl at a roadside park, a gas station, the Stuckey’s, the Colonel’s Kentucky Fried, you never know. But mostly it just seemed like the cows were watching me, standing behind the barb-wired fences, wondering if they were going to get rained on. Cows always look depressed and lonely and like they’re hoping you can do them a favor. I grew up in the country. I hate the country.

While certain elements here are outright comic – Scooter’s wearing a deer antler hat and honking his horn, laughing and waving, meditating on the psychology of cows – McBrearty plumbs his character for a deeper voice, one that is “primarily a plaintive, sad one.” It’s the deeper layers where we discover the real character, says McBrearty: “We know that Scooter isn’t really happy, even if he pretends to be. The real Scooter, the deep down plaintive Scooter, is where I hope his ‘voice’ comes through.” For McBrearty, it’s essential that voice, whether it’s first person or third, convey this deeper level. 

The voice that suits Alex Cavanaugh, a sci-fi novelist, is also a comic one, well-suited to readers who aren’t into the technical side of science fiction. He goes for “light humorous passages, especially those with a more rapid-fire delivery.” The following scene from CassaFire, the second book in his CassaSeries, reveals this fast pace, which helps create a snarky voice, typical of Cavanaugh’s fiction:

Byron peered into the cockpit. Athee now sat in the co-pilot’s seat, her harness in place and eyes scanning the control panel. Concerned, he entered the cockpit. She looked up and smiled.

“Your controls still amaze me,” she said, her eyes reflecting childish wonder. “So much information to process.”

Hesitating, Byron grasped the back of her seat. “You’ve been in a shuttle before?”

“Of course. The previous shuttle pilot even gave me a ride over the valley.”

I bet he did! Byron thought, staring at the attractive young woman. “Well, you need to go take a seat with the other passengers.”

Athee tossed her hair aside and eyed him expectantly. “I thought I’d ride in the cockpit with you.”

“That’s probably not a good idea.”

“Why not?”

“That’s the co-pilot’s seat.”

“Do you have a co-pilot?”

“Well, no…”

“Then this seat is open.”

As we encounter these two characters in their back-and-forth, they come alive for us, each with a distinctive voice – the woman off-handed, the man cautious and concerned. Cavanaugh’s tone creates a light-humorous voice nicely suited to his space opera readership.

For author Joanna Campbell Slan, voice is “the humanity behind the words that connects the reader to the character on a personal level.” Consider the following passage from her cozy mystery novel All Washed Up, illustrating how voice comes through in the language of the first-person narrator as well as in the dialogue: 

Poppy raised a caterpillar-shaped eyebrow at me. “That’s where I gotta trust Binky. If she says they can hold out, I gotta believe her. That’s how come we call people like her ‘assets.’ They got experience and smarts, and they aren’t just warm bodies. They’re experts. A human asset to the intelligence community.”

My head was beginning to hurt, and the wet fabric of my jeans chafed my skin. “I’m not sure that’s your decision to make. Or hers. As a mother, I can’t imagine putting my child at risk. Sure, you say that Binky has it covered, but what if she’s wrong?”

“She ain’t.”

The two voices here are those of Poppy and his granddaughter, Cara Mia Delgatto. The two have just come back from a stakeout where they waited for a signal from a retired CIA agent, Binky, who has been captured along with her grandson. Poppy’s sentences are clipped short, says Slan, because he’s “not concerned with feelings or emotion.” The only reason he’s talking to Cara is that “she’s worried.” But Poppy, says Slan, “isn’t.” The voice that comes through for Poppy represents his narrow-minded thinking: “Everything with him is black and white, like it or be damned.”

For historical novelist Stephanie Cowell, voice has to do with capturing the deepest recesses of her characters’ emotional and spiritual lives. Her protagonists are people with great stature, with profound artistic potential. What are the wellsprings, the inner life, of a character like Monet, fiercely driven by his art? In the following scene from Claude and Camille: A Novel of Monet, Cowell tried to capture the voice of her protagonist following a fight he’s had with his wife. Notice how Cowell reveals his deep passion for painting: 

Outside, he turned away from the sea toward the farms inland. He walked down the road resolutely, his scarf blowing, slowing a little. The field in front of him was covered with snow, as was the dark wood, rough-hewn fence. He set up his easel, fixing the canvas to it. A few lines in charcoal marked his boundaries. The snow was so many shades of white.

Now that he painted he could breathe a little. It didn’t matter that it was cold.

 Damn the cold.

The fence was no longer empty. A single black magpie huddled there, contemplating the field. Claude painted it swiftly. It might have taken a few minutes or more. The bird turned its head and stared dark-eyed, then leapt into the air; it took flight and was gone. Yet now as he finished, painting a bit more slowly, a calm returned to him he had not felt in weeks. He had told the canvas what he could not tell her…

Cowell says she wasn’t conscious of herself, as author, when she wrote this passage. What drove this scene was her visceral sensing of Monet’s great need to be off by himself – and to paint, which gives his life substance and meaning. Notice how she captures his emotional state: “He walked down the road resolutely, his scarf blowing, slowing a little.” The word “resolutely” suggests his anger after his fight with his wife, his stiff-necked bearing. “Damn the cold,” because he will paint, regardless of the weather. Having found solace in his art, he begins to calm because his painting has allowed him an audience that his wife could not. The voice of this passage connects us with the deepest feelings of Monet, and it’s handled with the characteristic subtlety of a literary novel.