Writers’ Tools – Voice

What is your voice; your social voice, the one you use with other people? It’s how you sound when you talk; what you say and how you say it. Your personal VOICE is how you sound when you talk inside your head, where nobody can hear you. (And then, out loud, I said….) Your fictional VOICE is the sound of your story telling itself.

The biggest stumbling block most people have to finding and using an authentic fictional VOICE is: What if I give myself away and the reader doesn’t like me?

The answer to that is: What if they don’t? How many of you have read at least one Stephen King book? Do you believe you know him and all the secrets of his soul? He hasn’t given himself away; what he’s done is find and face in himself a love of creepiness, which he uses to create a VOICE that is basically the same, but slightly different from book to book. This variability is a third VOICE, your book’s; which is the way your story sounds when it tells itself. The same event, involving the same people and the same dialog, will sound different, depending on the tone of voice in which it is told.

Do you ever flip through cable channels, catch three seconds of something, and say, “Oh, that’s M*A*S*H,” or, “That’s DRAGNET,” or “That’s TWILIGHT ZONE”. Well, just as you can spot a M*A*S*H or a DRAGNET or a TWILIGHT ZONE in three seconds, you know a scary book when you read it. You know a tough-guy book. You know a light-hearted comedy. You know it by the tone.

No matter how unpleasant or how silly the story you choose to write, you must do these two things: Take your voice seriously, and use it honestly.

Click here for PDFs of examples: Hammett and Bradbury and two vampire scenes.

Elements of Voice


1)Who is telling the story? First, second, third person; objective or subjective?

2)What part does he/she/it play – passive or active?

3)How is story told? What is narrator’s attitude? What attitude should the reader have toward the story – and toward the narrator? – The “unreliable narrator” is one who doesn’t present an accurate picture of what is going on or of him/herself. Sometimes the reader doesn’t realize that the narrator is unreliable until the twist ending, and sometimes the reader knows all along and laughs or shudders at the gap between reality and the narrator’s presentation of it.

II)Details – Few or vague details will result in a broader, more objective tone. More or explicit details will be more intimate.

The details themselves have style. The names you give your characters have style.

Your details should have purpose. They should help support the plot, the atmosphere, the character, the setting, the theme.


Nancy Kress, in “Writer’s Digest,” says that there are two kinds of Pace:

1)How quickly events come along in the course of the story

2)How quickly new bits of information are revealed in a line or paragraph

You want the two to balance each other off. If you have a lot of action, a lot of scene shifts, you don’t want to load each line with information – unless you want to burn the reader out by the end of the first page. If your story unfolds slowly, you need to load each line with interesting detail or information. Ex: Henry James – slow action, much detail. The first paragraph of Ruth Rendell’s THE FACE OF TRESPASS is packed with details that forshadow the rest of the book. Lois Duncan does this beautifully, too.

There is a third kind of pace: How quickly new sentences come along. Short, simple sentences, short paragraphs using simple words create a tone of tension, action, quick pace. Longer, more complicated sentences, longer words in longer paragraphs will slow down the pace. Of course, you’ll have a mix of longer and shorter sentences, just for variety and sound.

IV)Let’s mention Dialog as tone-setter

A young man says, “Will you marry me?” His girl says, “Oh, my dearest love, I can’t. I can’t even tell you why. There’s a secret that isn’t mine to tell.” Or, she says, “We’re grown people. Let’s not pretend I have a choice. No, I won’t marry you. How could I?” Or, she says, “Why, you two-timing baboon, I wouldn’t marry you if you came with a free set of dishes.” All the women said no, but they did it in different tones. Different characters in different situations in different kinds of books will say the same sort of thing differently.


The kind of people you invent will contribute to the tone of your book. Ed McBain peoples his 87th Precinct books with ruthless predators that wouldn’t do for Georgette Heyer.

VI)Results of actions

In P. G. Wodehouse’s comic story “Goodbye To All Cats”, a young man catches a cat on the shirt he has laid out. He picks up the cat and throws it out the window, where it lands on the back of an elderly gentleman’s neck. The elderly gentleman says, “Hell!” and the cat streaks off. Neither is any the worse for the experience. If the cat had mauled the man’s neck, or the man had murdered the cat, we would have a different kind of book. The only result of the young man’s action is to earn himself a reputation as an odd character, contributing to the buildup of comic incident.

VII)Word choice and use

Remember what Mark Twain said: “The difference between the right word and the almost-right word is the difference between lightning and lightning-bug.”

This has only scratched the surface of Voice/Tone, but I hope it’s served as an introduction and a starting point. Think of these things as you write–and as you read.

WRITING PROMPT: Write three paragraphs, one in which an elderly woman is referred to as “hag”, one in which she’s referred to as “grandmother” and one in which she’s referred to as “Sugar”.



I was born in Louisville, Kentucky, but now live in the woods in southern Indiana. Though I only write fiction, I love to read non-fiction. The more I learn about this world, the more fantastic I see it is.

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One thought on “Writers’ Tools – Voice

  1. Holly Jahangiri

    May 9, 2011 at 12:52pm

    Perfect! Next time someone asks about their “voice” as a writer, I’m going to send them here. This is what particularly resonates with me:

    “He hasn’t given himself away; what he’s done is find and face in himself a love of creepiness, which he uses to create a VOICE that is basically the same, but slightly different from book to book.”

    This is so true. A lot of readers will assume things – amazing how people ASSUME writers of erotica have PRACTICED (lots!) what they write about, but no one assumes that of murder mystery authors. Why IS that, anyway?

    Permalink  ⋅ Reply
    • Author

      Marian Allen

      May 9, 2011 at 2:26pm

      Wish fulfillment. They hope the erotica writer might give them a demonstration, but few people want to be the plaything of an ingenious murderer. Unless he’s a sparkly vampire, of course.

      Permalink  ⋅ Reply
  2. damyanti

    May 14, 2011 at 4:35am

    Thanks Marian, excellent tips!! And also excellent analysis of the elusive thing called “voice”!

    Permalink  ⋅ Reply
    • Author

      Marian Allen

      May 14, 2011 at 9:18am

      My friend Jane has promised me a follow-up post sparked by mine. Jane is brilliant and a wonderful writer, so I’m looking forward to sharing it with everybody. 🙂

      Permalink  ⋅ Reply

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