Friday Writing Experiment No. 23: Voice 2: Tone


Continuing this series of exercises working with different aspects of voice, this week let’s work with tone in writing.

It’s easy to blur voice and tone, and as with many things in writing I think it’s good to establish your own working definitions as an ongoing exercise, perhaps with examples to illustrate the case.

Voice, for me, is the very vehicle of writing. It’s what carries the words. It’s something of a physical thing too (I always think of the stick man from my French class labelled with captions: le bras, la jambe, la voix). Voice starts somewhere inside then rises up through the lungs and the throat, carried on the breath; this idea can help make voice more concrete, embodied. Voice can also be a way of describing the particular prose style in a piece of writing.

Tone, on the other hand, is a particular quality or subset of voice. Tone can reveal the prevailing attitude of a speaker or narrator, and ultimately the writer, and it is one of the particular tools with which a writer can convey emotion.

In writing, tone can be expressed in a variety of ways: word choices; punctuation; sentence length; pacing; the level of description; the use of particular parts of speech; a particular mode of address.

It is also useful to consider the use of tone in other fields: music (high-pitched, harmonious), painting (dark, light), and anatomy (muscular, flabby). What tone is achieved by the play of sunlight on snow (plus the application of fancy filters) in that photograph above? Perhaps these analogies can affect how you think about your own writing: do you need to introduce more shades? Do you have too much fat?

To consider an example, how might you describe the tone in Jamaica Kincaid’s ‘Girl’ (you can watch the author read it here, too)? I was thinking it’s hard to attribute a particular emotion to this speaker, but then I realise that is the point: this piece has a forbidding, almost cold tone. The tone here is controlling, domineering, and most definitely superior. The choice of the list as a form is in itself relevant: the speaker is handing out a largely uninterruptible list of orders and instructions that reinforces her authority.

This piece brings up something else. When using tone in a piece of writing, writers might have to decide if they are going to be literal or ironic: should the voice be taken at face value, or should the reader infer meaning from things beneath or around the text? What should the reader take away from the experience?

In ‘Girl’ we have a first-person speaker, but I don’t think we should identify Kincaid with that fierce mother. Instead, she is making a statement through a character and what she has to say, and through our experience of this character we come away with Kincaid’s observations on, among other things, the nature of power in that sort of relationship. It’s useful to consider another term here: persona. Kincaid has created a character with a particular persona, or mask, to convey the things she needs to say.

Another list piece with a different but very effective tone is ‘How To Write About Africa’ by Binyavanga Wainaina. Who said sarcasm is the lowest form of wit? (Though I have encountered college students whose responses suggested they read this in the most literal of ways.)

And while we’re here: I often direct students to Lorrie Moore’s How To Become A Writer, Or Have I Earned This Clich√©? It has a delicious ironic tone.

In all of these examples, note how the writers use concrete and specific details to bring their worlds and their messages to life: salt-fish, sewing on a button, the slut; monkey-brain, a nightclub called Tropicana; majoring in child psychology, the Names For Baby encyclopedia.  Sarcasm and irony are strongest when they are pointed, and so is writing in most contexts.

The exercise
So, this week let’s use tone:

* Write a piece based on a list in which a speaker (perhaps embodied in a persona) directly addresses another person. Like Kincaid, instruct them in what to do, or perhaps like Wainaina or Moore show them how to do something specific. Alternatively, you could do a version of How To Become A Writer based on your own history.

* Give that list a particular emotional quality. (A list does not have to be a bossy form. It could be cheering, cajoling, sarcastic, angry, bitter. As with any form, work and play within its limits, and own whatever it is.)

* Be aware of your own use of language: word choices, punctuation, sentence lengths, pacing, description, and parts of speech. As ever, specific and concrete will probably win over abstract and vague.

* Above all, be passionate about what’s said. Know the things that you (as a writer) need to say, and then in service of that cause know how your voice (or persona) can say things to convey that message effectively, either directly or indirectly.

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