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.

Finding your voice

So how can you find your own voice in a particular work? 

Cavanaugh believes if you want to find your voice, you must discover a unique way of telling your story. This may take years of practicing the craft. One problem beginning writers must overcome, he says, is the tendency to write with “proper language,” making one’s work “correct” according to the rules of formal grammar – but if you write like a schoolmarm, your fiction will be lifeless. Cavanaugh says it’s best “to just throw it out there with no inhibitions.” With practice, “eventually your personality will start to come through.” 

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In her own work, Cowell wants to be sure that the personality that comes through is her character’s only, never an authorial voice. “I’ve never really tried to find my voice because I’m not in the story, except that I am making the characters come to life on the page, but I never feel they are mine. I feel they come to me as a child is born to you, and you do your best to shape that child to go into the world.” 

Slan says finding your voice takes trusting your abilities as an author. She recommends writers do a lot of reading and have plenty of life experiences. “It’s a maturation process,” says Slan. And then, at some point, you’ll experience an “‘aha’ moment when you find your voice.” 

“I like to think of a musician tuning an instrument with a tuning fork,” she says. “Until the pitch of the instrument and the fork matches, there’s a discordant vibrato. When the instrument and the fork are perfectly in tune, they create one pure, unwavering sound. That’s what I aim for, creating a pure sound that resonates with my readers.”

Like Slan, McBrearty also suggests reading a lot. “Notice when you find something distinctive about the writing voice,” says McBrearty, something that makes it sound “authentic.” Whenever you’re in the midst of the creative process, he recommends “getting in touch with your deepest thoughts and emotions, even if they are never directly stated on the page.” In fact, he says “what is unsaid” might be “what is authentic.” 

Authenticity is equally important to Cummins. As a professor of writing students, he says, “I get a sense of an inherent voice from my first readings of their work. Yet they haven’t shaped that voice at this early stage. They may even want to emulate someone else’s, a successful writer they admire. But while they can learn elements of craft that way, they can’t force a voice that isn’t inherently their own.” Finding their own voice comes, says Cummins, from “pruning excess, developing scenes and characters, finding the hearts of their stories.” Once writers improve and understand the writing process, they will gain confidence. “Then their true voice will start to emerge,” says Cummins. It’s a misconception of voice, he believes, to think of it as something separate from everything else in a story. “It’s one aspect of a whole, one revealed as a writer finds how to master other aspects of story writing.” 

Handling multiple voices

How many voices can a work of fiction have? And what about the voice of the authorial persona versus the voices of the characters? 

“The most obvious multiplicity is found in dialogue,” says Cummins, “whether the basic telling is in the first or third person.” And “characters should be distinctive when they speak,” he says. “But if the story is conveyed by one narrative voice – typical of most stories or novels – that voice must be consistent.” 

Cowell believes a work of fiction can have many voices, but “I think all the voices must be used to expound one major theme or plot.” She uses her novel Marrying Mozart as an example, where she has a total of six different voices: “the 21-year-old Mozart, the four pretty unmarried Weber sisters, and their controlling mother.” This novel consists of “variations on a theme,” with each character’s distinctive voice related to the central issue of the novel: the marriage to Mozart.  

Slan also strives for a unifying voice in a given work of fiction. “By my definition, there will always be one authorial voice within a book, unless the book is an anthology. However, just as each character has an arc within the arc of the book, so does each character have his/her own voice within that over-arching voice of the author.” 

Creating a consistent voice 

What about continuing voice from story to story, or novel to novel? You don’t want to sound like Stephen King in one work and John Grisham in another. Readers can know you by a voice that is consistently one voice. But how important is consistency in a writer’s voice?

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“A distinctive voice that carries from one book to another gives readers a sense of familiarity,” says Cavanaugh. “They know what to expect. It will grow and develop over time, and changing genres alters it some, but I think authors should focus more on overall voice.” 

He suggests practicing to maintain a consistent voice. “A good exercise is to take one written page or passage, and write it completely different. The more times you rewrite it, the more possibilities you’ll see – and the more voice will begin to develop. You’ll start to recognize what is comfortable and natural for you. Plus, you’ll learn how to maintain that natural style even when the subject matter and genre change.”

Cummins encourages adaptation. “A writer can and probably should modify his or her essential voice to suit the tone and circumstance of a particular book,” he says. Yet there are limits, he points out: “I recall meeting a British writer who had a successful first novel but felt a need to write in a totally different manner in his next, with a voice closer to that of another writer he longed to emulate. He shared part of that attempt at a public reading, and it sounded strained. It wasn’t him.” 

When adapting your voice to suit a particular work, Slan suggests listening to recordings. “When I wrote my Jane Eyre books, I listened to snippets of Downton Abbey before settling down to write. This infused my thinking with the cadences of the British accent.” As to changing genres, she points out that your voice must be adaptable if working on vastly different projects: “When I wrote a textbook, my voice was more professorial and removed. When I wrote nonfiction about scrapbooking, I could be more friendly. When I write about Jane Eyre, I have to be more formal and erudite.” And her other fiction? “When I write about Kiki Lowenstein, I’m very much a figure in mom jeans, but when I write about her friend Cara Mia Delgatto, I have to think like a businesswoman. These are all facets of my personality, revised and weighted to shape the message I want my audience to receive.” 

It’s true that certain genres call for certain kinds of voices. Wouldn’t it be misguided, absurd, even, to adopt your James Joyce style in a company memo? One has to remember audience and purpose. But within a given genre, you can maintain a voice that is relatively consistent, and hopefully one that comes natural to you. Always remember: If you force it, it will sound forced, not authentic. 

Voice and subject matter

How do you pitch your voice to the subject matter? According to Slan, “To select the proper variation of your voice, you must first put yourself in the place of your reader. What does he/she expect? Then go on to ask yourself, ‘What does the genre demand?’” 

 But how can you be sure it’s effective? Beta readers can help, says Slan. But do be careful, she cautions: “They must be fans of the sort of work you’re hoping to create, or they won’t be able to discern a misstep.” 

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Cummins sees the matter differently – in fact, oppositely: “The voice should come first and drive the way the subject is handled rather than the subject dictating the voice.” 

“Shakespeare wrote comedies, tragedies, and histories with very different attitudes toward his stories, and yet the voice behind them is always Shakespeare’s. F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote The Great Gatsby and the social satire fantasy story ‘The Diamond as Big as the Ritz.’ He made both approaches his own. That’s the point,” he says.  

Whichever comes first – voice or subject – the tone of a story can be way off. “I mean, if you’re stuck with a style where all the world is light and happy, [that] voice will not do to describe a brutal murder,” says Cowell. And so, if that’s your usual style, it behooves you to pick your subject, genre, and characters well. What’s your temperament? What’s your general take on the world? What kinds of characters suit you? 

For example, “I choose mostly very sensitive characters,” says Cowell. “I think I would not be good at describing the deeds of a serial killer! I have a gentle, sensitive style. It would not be good for thrillers or mysteries or traditional romance or science fiction or fantasy or whatever. It is me, and it suits what I do.”

 Sometimes it’s possible to take advantage of a discrepancy between voice and subject matter, such as in black humor or farce. “If you are writing comedy, it’s that unexpected fillip that makes us laugh,” says Slan. “If you are hoping to surprise the reader or to keep the reader intrigued, a disparity between voice and subject matter can create interest.”

Now, go find your own voice

An interesting, compelling voice is the engine that moves readers from sentence to sentence, from paragraph to paragraph, from page to page. A flat voice will cause us to close the book. With practice, you’ll discover a voice that is true and authentic to you, and it’s crucial in your journey as a fiction writer. After all, finding your voice in a work of fiction is finding its core, its center, the heart of it. 

 

—Jack Smith is the author of four novels, two nonfiction books, and numerous articles and interviews. He writes regularly for The Writer.