Writing a Novel – The Difference Between Voice and Tone

For many, tone and voice seem synonymous, and it is easy to see why people might feel this way, however, the terms are decidedly different. But before either can be differentiated, it is important to take a close look at writers who mastered voice.

Thomas Mann’s Short Stories Showcase Voice

One of the best ways to understand something is to provide different treatments of the subject. Thomas Mann’s eight stories in the popular Vintage imprint with DEATH IN VENICE as the lead title is ideal to work from, since each story is written in a different voice. Yet Mann’s masterpiece, THE MAGIC MOUNTAIN, depicts his voice as a separate entity unto its own–and one could say that it was his true voice. 

While the short stories in the DEATH IN VENICE Vintage compendium enable a relatively quick study of the range voice can take, this is far from conclusive. The reason is because voice is without boundaries. This open architecture, in and of itself, leads to much of the confusion about voice. And this is the first distinction between voice and tone, since tone can generally be identified without too much of an argument.

So What is Voice?

When someone hears that a “new voice has exploded upon the literary scene,” does one automatically expect to read the next Marcel Proust, Virginia Wolfe, Ann Rand, Ralph Ellison, William Faulkner, or Erskine Caldwell; or should we seek writers of a more current era such as Pat Conroy, Elmore Leonard, E. L. Doctorow, Tom Clancy, or Barbara Kingsolver?

Each of these writers possesses a distinctive voice, but what do we say about authors who work in the same genre and write in a similar style? Does each have a separate voice? Of course he or she does. Just as one singer can sound like another but not possess the identical range in every key.

An Attorney Letter and Family Correspondence on the Same Subject Illustrate the Difference 

One of the best ways I can think of to express voice is to compare an invitation to the reading of a will from an attorney with the same request from a close relative. 

The first might read something like this: Dear Mr. David C. Howson: Please be advised that your attendance is requested on Thursday, January 11, 2009, at 1:00 p.m., in the offices of John Carlton Jones, Esquire, Attorney at Law, 201 West Michigan Avenue, Chicago, Illinois 60601, for the reading of the Last Will and Testament of Horatio Clark Howson, etc.

Conversely, here is an invitation to the reading of the will from a close relative: Dear Davey, your uncle’s will is going to be read next week at our attorney’s office, and we look forward to seeing you there. Jo Ann will call you for with the details. Love, Aunt Mary.

Style Establishes Voice, but There’s a Lot More to it

Same message about the dearly departed, and although both are conveyed in what is considered a soft tone in relative terms, they are written in quite different voices. So while it’s safe to say that style creates voice as much as the words which are used, what about an academic paper written in an authoritative tone? Isn’t this also an authoritative voice? Certainly, except it would probably be easier for definition purposes to claim the voice as authoritative and the tone as strong.

Tone has Three Basic Mediums

For practical purposes, tone is either soft, moderate, or strong. These areas of course can have any number of gradients, from very soft to aggressively strong, but the three delineations provide the basis for comparison. This is still speculative, because what one person considers moderate another might feel is strong (or naturally vice versa). But it’s much easier to come to a consensus on a specific tone than to devise a chart that categorizes voice.

So, Again, What is Voice?

Voice is you. Should you and another person write a book about the identical topic, your story will reflect your way of telling the tale via words and syntax that differ from what the other writer has used. So when you write a book, and the critics proclaim a fantastic new voice has roared onto the scene, these pundits are talking specifically about you, because you are the voice of your writing. And a unique voice indeed.  

Robert L. Bacon, Founder
The Perfect Write (TM)

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