Thursday, April 26, 2012

Voice, Tone, Style? Define That!

I'm more abstract than concrete; more intuitive than sensory. So, much of the time, I'm content to use words that I understand both abstractly and intuitively, in context rather than by dictionary definition. Sometimes, though, I should be bothered by the fact that this comes uncomfortably close to a charge that's been leveled at my temperament type in general: "Tends to believe 'I know all about that,' but when pinned down to explain and define terms, proves to not know much at all."

So what is this thing called VOICE? It's been discussed in a myriad of places, and we may not need another, but I feel the need/desire to state in a fairly concise manner what I believe it means for me and my writing, rather than rely on others' definitions or be all head-in-the-clouds imprecise about it. So, here follows my attempt at a definition:

VOICE (in writing): The intelligent designer, authority, or god behind the book, who speaks it into being and decides what it shall be made of. The essence and expression of one's "authorness" in the writing of it. In first-person, this voice is bestowed on and channeled through the narrator. In third person, it's expressed through the author's narrative persona.

What's TONE, then? My definition: The conveyance of an overall mood or emotion that pervades a book or scene, such as foreboding, humor, sarcasm, warmheartedness, and so forth.

STYLE seems broader, and I've had to give this a fair amount of thought, because I realize that the way I've defined VOICE makes it the top authority in our writing (and conflicts somewhat with other things I've thought/written about voice), yet it's a new-ish idea for me to state that style does not encompass voice. If voice is the authority, then it seems it would have to be voice that determines style.

STYLE: The voice's expression of the prose itself, in sentence structure, meter, word choice, punctuation, and connectivity between one idea and the next (for example, a style could be smooth and fast-paced if that connectivity is strong and direct, or convoluted and more leisurely if the author takes the scenic route).

What do you think? And how important is it that we define these terms?


Sara Hill said...

You don't explicitly say so, but your view of voice relies on your belief in the creator God who spoke the world into being. The style of the world ultimately depends upon His voice. And I think the analogy holds for voice and style of novels/stories. Of course, I'm speaking intuitively, not having much writing experience. Although I have read a lot. I'll be interested to see what others say.

Faith E. Hough said...

I agree with your definitions...I also have a hard time coming up with concrete definitions of things I understand (though having an inquisitive, concrete four-year-old is forcing my improvement)--but I guess that makes sense since we have the same personality type!
But I do think being intuitive is a tremendous help in crafting a good voice--you just KNOW when it's right, in others' writing or your own.

Barbara Watson said...

Your definitions speak well, even understandably so to someone who doesn't write or isn't literature inclined. There is so much weight placed on voice, when, for readers, the almighty voice we writers discuss isn't something they are captured by -- it's all in the story.

Vijaya said...

Good distinctions, Marcia. I too rely heavily on my intuition and this is why find it difficult to "teach" voice. I can only do it by example (by rewriting and showing different voices).

By the way, I had a colleague in grad school who had atrocious grammar. Talk about lack of clarity. He told me that was his "style" when I corrected him. I told him to fix his style.

Mirka Breen said...

I don’t know why your succinct post made me think of Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart who said, (of Pornography) “I don't know how to define it, but I know it when I see it.” That’s the way I think of ‘voice,’ al least. Tone and style invite concise definitions, but voice is elusive to me.

MaDonna Maurer said...

Love your definition of "voice". Wish I had had that when I was long-term subbing and teaching "voice" at the time.

Cynthia Chapman Willis said...

I like your definitions. Voice in particular is tough to pin down. However, I do think it's important to define and distinguish between these terms.

Marcia said...

Sara -- When I started thinking about God creating by speaking, and that we're created in his image, and that author is the root word of authority, I began to understand voice better. The claim of so many that voice is the biggest thing in our writing makes more sense to me in this light.

Faith -- Yes, defining things you already understand can be tough! I think when people claim you can't teach writing, what they mean is that you can't teach voice. It must be that voice is the expression of the calling, drive, or talent to write. I learn about voice through many of my students' mss., and I agree it's the one thing I can't teach them. It might be the same thing as being unable to teach a tone-deaf music student to carry a tune.

Barbara -- I agree with you that our MG readers are captured by story -- they want to know what happens in the book. But I think I'm getting better at recognizing whether voice is there or not, and despite my definition it's just not that easy to talk about!

Vijaya -- I think voice can be coached to some degree if the person's voice is already emerging pretty well. But when somebody just doesn't have it at all, I think probably the best hope for developing it is reading voraciously and widely. I'm not sure what else might draw it out.

Mirka -- Yes. Voice is elusive. I know when a ms. has it and when it doesn't. Something that might help with a voice problem is to temporarily stop thinking about publication, what the market wants, even finishing a complete story, and just doing more free writing about subjects that matter to you, for nobody else's eyes.

MaDonna -- Were you teaching this at a college level, or younger? I'm fascinated to hear that anybody at the HS level would even be talking about voice.

Cynthia -- I do, too. If we don't try to define any of them, they're just kind of this vague concept-blob. Not so useful for sharpening craft.

Ricardo MiƱana said...

have an interesting space, a great pleasure to read you.
if you like the poetry I invite you to my space.
happy day.
a greeting.

MaDonna Maurer said...

Marcis, I taught grade 8, but they actually start teaching these concepts in grade 1. The program is called the Six Traits. It is really good. They teach by using examples from books, and then even show good examples against bad examples. Just really good

cleemckenzie said...

For me it's intuitive. Giving labels to what makes storytelling "work" is great for teaching, but it doesn't translate into writing a good story. Reading and practicing writing is what makes a writer. Talent doesn't hurt, either.

inluvwithwords said...

I'm impressed, Marcia, at how you've nailed these down. Though I have a feel for each of these things, I would be hard pressed to come up with a definition. Thanks so much for sharing these.

Medeia Sharif said...

You've got it, Marcia. I like how my discernment of these components gets stronger over time. I always had a sense of these terms, but I used to be vague about them.