Read Part 1 here.
Read Part 2 here.
Think of voice as the author’s unique personality that comes across in writing. It can’t be duplicated by anyone else. We each have our own voice. We don’t change our personality depending on whether we are upset, angry, bored, or hungry. We are what we are regardless of circumstance.
If voice is the work’s personality, then tone is its attitude, or mood. It is a subset of voice. Voice is more or less constant, but tone varies, just as a person’s mood changes depending on the situation.
It can be formal or casual, bitter or sweet, humorous or serious, straightforward or convoluted, and so on. As the author, you control both voice and tone; they do not depend on the reader’s interpretation.
Let’s look for the tone found in the examples from parts 1 and 2 of this series.
The first paragraph of Angela’s Ashes, by Frank McCourt: “When I look back on my childhood, I wonder how my brothers and I managed to survive at all. It was, of course, a miserable childhood. The happy childhood is hardly worth telling. Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood. And worse still is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood.”
The first paragraph of Made in America: My Story, by Sam Walton, with John Huey: “Success has always had its price, I guess, and I learned that lesson the hard way in October of 1985 when Forbes magazine named me the so-called ‘richest man in America.’ Well, it wasn’t too hard to imagine all those newspaper and TV people up in New York saying ‘Who?’ and ‘He lives where?’ The next thing we knew, reporters and photographers started flocking down here to Bentonville, I guess to take pictures of me diving into some swimming pool full of money they imagined I had, or to watch me light big fat cigars with $100 bills while the hootchy-kootchy girls danced by the lake.”
The voice for each is informal and conversational, but the tones are very different.
Frank McCourt’s tone is calm, thoughtful, and introspective, even intellectual. He is clearly decades removed from his childhood and has given it a great deal of thought, but still experiences “wonder” when thinking of how he and his brothers survived. This wonder is wrapped in three layers that he unwraps in the book: miserable, Irish, and Catholic.
His tone also is objective. He writes as a benevolent outsider, not as the very subject of this misery, even though it’s in first person and his own story. He writes not because he has allowed bitterness to grow and fester for decades and wants readers to commiserate, but because he has forgiven (or at least come to terms with his past) and wants readers to understand. Because of the tone, we know that his story is about how he gained insight and wisdom.
Sam Walton’s tone is much more agitated, conspiratorial, and in the moment. He places himself front and center. He believes those “people up in New York” not only don’t understand him, but probably never could. He practically draws a line in the sand and dares readers to pick a side: his own as the triumphant underdog, or everyone else’s, as judgmental know-nothings.
His tone also is more subjective, even knee-jerk, in contrast to McCourt’s intellectual tone. There’s no sense of wonder. He’s practically barking out the words. He’s in the thick of the action, not decades removed from it, and clearly is not interested in personal growth or understanding. Because of his tone, we know that his story is about how the little guy came out on top.
In both cases, the voice is loud and clear, the tone sets the mood exquisitely, and the reader is in for a treat.