Updated: Jul 20, 2020
I’ve heard many people, including some writers, use the terms perspective, voice, and tone interchangeably. This is confusing for new writers who are just learning the craft.
Perspective, voice, and tone, though related, are different techniques and play different roles in storytelling.
Let's take a look at what these terms mean and how they differ.
Perspective refers to whichever character serves as the eyes, ears, and other senses for readers on their journey through the book. In a memoir, that character is you. Readers will experience the events of the book through your senses, prejudices, fears, preferences, history, neuroses, and other filters. All these together forge your perspective.
In #fiction, it's possible to engineer a story so that the reader views events through multiple characters' eyes, but memoirists don't have that option. In #memoir, the only possible perspective is that of the author, since no one can really know another's experience beyond what they're told.
We create perspective in writing by becoming aware of what drives us (or in fiction, our protagonist). Examples might include:
#1: You see the world in terms of unpredictability/chaos/evil and structure/control/good, due to the chaotic home you grew up in with your violent, alcoholic stepmother. In this case, any display of spontaneity may be interpreted as scary and threatening to you, whereas it might seem playful and joyful to someone else.
#2: Image is everything to you, due to the bullying you suffered in elementary school. As long as you appear perfect on the outside–gaining you popularity–your internal despair doesn't matter. You might assess everything in terms of how it will likely appear to others. Keeping up appearances is all that matters.
Another aspect of perspective is related to voice and tone, which may be why some people jumble the terms together. You may hear someone describe a book's overall ‘feeling’ as: humorous, dark, darkly humorous, hopeful, hostile, low-key, fatalistic, upbeat, joyous, matter-of-fact, etc. This is because, whether in nonfiction or fiction, voice and tone are influenced by the writer’s (or narrator’s) perspective or worldview.
Voice is how the author or narrator comes across on the page. You may want your writing voice to sound:
depending upon how you want your readers to relate to you or your narrator.
We create our voice primarily through our choices of words and the lengths of our sentences. Depending upon their content, word choice, and punctuation, long, rambling sentences that go on and on and on can come across as:
Short sentences tend to come across as more:
and can also communicate either terse thoughtfulness (think John Wick) or off-the-cuff thoughtlessness.
Notice the differences between these two passages.
#1: "Even at the beach, there were signs warning you to stay out of the eelgrass because of the alligators. The Gulf itself was warm as dishwater and brown. There were stingrays and sea snakes under its surface. Shark attacks were not unheard-of, though nobody had been completely toted off by one in decades. The undertow could drag your ass to Cuba before you even knew you'd been sucked down."
#2: "At ten minutes past seven that evening I was changing to go downstairs, for dinner with friends who live in the building. I say 'at ten ten minutes past seven' because that was when the phone rang. It was Tony. He said he was coming right over. I noted the time because I was due downstairs at seven-thirty but Tony's urgency was such that I did not say so."
One of the above passages is from the memoir The Liars' Club by Mary Karr, and the other is from the memoir The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion. Karr is a middle-aged writer who grew up in small-town rural Texas, the daughter of an industrial worker. Didion is an older, highly educated urbanite living in New York City. Can you tell who wrote which passage?
Karr captures her rural roots with such earthy phrases as "warm as dishwater", "toted off", and "drag your ass to Cuba", along with the physical concerns she focuses on: eelgrass, sea snakes, gators.
Didion's urbane, more formal speech, evident in such phrases as "I was due downstairs" and “Tony’s urgency was such that…”, coupled with concerns like changing one's clothes for a dinner engagement, inform the reader of just who is taking us on this particular journey.
Tone is more subtle than voice, but just as important. There are two types of tone in a story:
Think of different tones of voice when speaking. The phrase, "That's likely" takes on a different meaning if it's said in a monotone while nodding your head in agreement than it does if your tone is sarcastic, and accompanied by a derisive snort, as in "Ha! THAT'S likely!"
Tone is also where paraverbal speech (the volume and speed of spoken words) and nonverbal speech (physical stance, physical distance, facial expressions, and gestures) come in handy.
Here's another example of how you can give one phrase two very different meanings using language to create context. It's also how you can show instead of tell.
#1: Sally glanced nervously at Mrs. Mason, and held out her hand for her usual assist from the wheelchair. This time Mrs. Mason just smiled, hands in her apron pockets. "Do it yourself," she said softly, holding Sally's gaze. "You know you can."
#2: Jake's lip curled into a snarl. "Do it yourself!" he spat, then turned and stalked off into the night.
Similarly, the tone of your story's setting helps communicate meaning for the reader.
In effect, the tone you set in the beginning of the book tells the reader how to experience the journey to come. It sets a mood, creates ambience, atmosphere.
How do we accomplish this?
Tone, in terms of setting, is largely crafted by engaging the senses. Adjectives and adverbs are helpful, but long chains of them are distracting and ultimately ineffective. If your writing is spare and selective, each word will pack a bigger punch.
For instance, you can use a dark color to signal mystery, danger, or grief, as in a "black mood," or a metaphor such as someone "storming into the house." You might also use words like:
Pastels and light tend to create an upbeat, lighthearted tone, as in “sky blue" or a "sunny smile" (though I don't recommend using clichés, unless perhaps you’re writing a children’s book). You might use words like:
Another, even better, way to engage the senses without overdoing the adjectives and adverbs is to include more verbs to show instead of tell. You do this by placing yourself inside the skin of the person in the setting, and sharing your detailed experience. By doing this, you bring the reader directly into that experience, as well.
For example, instead of writing, “That fateful, scary day was dreary and rainy,” you might say:
"The chill mist clung to my arms as I scurried for shelter in a ruined barn. Something moved in the distance. I scanned the edge of the forest where the field began. Storm clouds hung low over the trees. There! That movement again! I whipped my head around and shrank further into the shadows. Had they seen me?"
And instead of saying, “Visiting my grandmother always cheered me up, and she’d seem happy to see me. She also used to love baking, and did a lot of it. I remember her cinnamon buns fondly,” you might write:
"The scent of cinnamon buns wafted across my nostrils as I stepped into the bright bustle of my grandma's kitchen, stopping short on the threshold as she raced by, a small, wiry greyhound of a woman, with the same excess energy. In her haste, she nearly grazed me with the steaming tray of goodies, but her eyes twinkled, and her smile as usual was relaxed and inviting."
How did each of these examples make you feel? How would you describe the tone of each setting?
How will you use perspective, voice, and tone in your story?