By Jayne Barnard
In 10 years of serving on crime fiction juries, I’ve seen hundreds of stories. Most are forgettable. The ones that stick with me are those that vibrate with tone and/or voice. I know them when I see them. So do agents and editors. Tone and voice tip the scales from an also-ran submission to a tale that editors and agents desire.
But what are tone and voice? Essentially, they’re attitude. The character’s attitude and the story’s attitude. Attitude is good in fiction. You’re writing slices of creatively enhanced life, not journal articles, academic essays or newspaper items. Your characters’ and your narrative’s words must hint at—or outright shout—attitudes, stances, secret fears and desires. Attitude shakes its fist at the story problem.
Tone: the attitude your narrator or protagonist brings to the table.
Each word the narrator says, every action they take, reveals their attitude toward the situation and the characters, including toward themselves. Words with tone are more than simply substituting active verbs for passive ones, although that’s a good first step. Read the following two lines out loud:
1. She walked toward the girls and said, “Say that again.”
2. Fists clenched, she stomped toward the girls. “Say that again.”
Both sentences have the same number of words, but chances are you infused the second “Say that again” with some heat, some determination. That’s tone. You want the reader to hear that anger in their head when reading.
Tone in short crime might be solemn, legalistic, humorous, slapstick or wise-cracking, but it is layered in by the narrator’s every word, thought, or action.
Voice: the attitude of the writer to the subject matter, characters, and plot.
Voice is slippery. It arises from the words you habitually use, the way you construct sentences, and how you feel and think about whatever you’re writing. Voice changes between fiction and non-fiction, and by subject. You’ll write differently on subjects you care nothing for—say, what pro baseball players do in the off-season—than on a topic you care passionately about, whether that’s animal cruelty, missing children, or the silly doings of tabloid-fodder celebrities.
See that? By describing the doings as ‘silly’ and the celebs as ‘tabloid fodder’, I’ve given away this writer’s attitude. That’s the reader’s cue to expect an article that’s slightly snarky about celebrities tabloids.
Voice makes a statement, takes a position, shakes that fist. That’s what makes a story memorable.
Testing for Tone:
1. Read aloud the third paragraph on Page 5 of your work-in-progress.
2. Identify only from those words what the character is feeling about whatever’s going on. That’s the tone.
3. Give the paragraph—only the paragraph; no set-up or explanation—to your housemate, your sister, your crit partner, and ask them to describe the character’s attitude. Are their answers what you hoped they’d be? If not, change it. Then ask someone new.
Tone and voice are developed through the words you, the author, select on purpose. After you’ve developed a cunning plot, an engaging heroine (or hero), and a keen eye for typos and grammatical imperfections, if you can infuse the story with those elusive qualities of tone and voice, you’ll soon be attracting positive notice from agents and editors and yes, from readers.
Jayne Barnard has been writing fiction since third grade. First published in 1990, she’s written for children and adults in the veins of history, mystery, and lately alternate dimensions. Her fiction awards include Saskatchewan Writers Guild, Bloody Words, and Unhanged Arthur, as well as a shortlisting for the UK Debut Dagger. Her YA Steampunk Mystery, Maddie Hatter and the Deadly Diamond, is a finalist for the Prix Aurora and the Book Publishing in Alberta Award, and a winner of the eFestival of Words Award for Children’s Literature.