The Difference Between Voice, Style and Tone

As I read through my favorite blogs this morning, I came across this article by Cheryl Reif (Twitter Peep and fellow writer/blogger) on Finding Voice in Writing.

Let me just say…

THIS IS A BROAD TOPIC WITH EVEN BROADER OPINIONS AND I’M ADDING ANOTHER TO THE HEAP.

Why is this such a vague area?  Well…because there is no specific definition for it, so everyone defines it in their own way – which is exactly what I’m about to do!

After Googling around I came across several articles about voice and style and tone.  Some people see the trio as separate entities and others see style and tone as a part of voice.

Maybe they are the same thing…I don’t know…but in my eyes they are not.

**Disclaimer: Before You Read Any Further: This is just my opinion…I could be crazy.

After reading Cheryl’s article, I wondered what my definition was and how I distinguished between voice and style and tone. 

The answer was pretty clear.

It’s often said that Voice belongs to the author, and I agree.  We are the creators.  What I don’t agree with is what Voice actually is. 

When I read a book, especially if it is in first person, I don’t hear the author’s voice.  I hear the character speaking.  I don’t think about the author’s morals or beliefs, I think about the character’s.

In my opinion a weak voice is when a novel doesn’t take hold because of lack of development and/or lack of consistency of the main character. 

To me, voice is just that: The voice that grabs me on the first page and carries me through a novel…or not. 

But…that isn’t how everyone else sees it. 

Most people consider voice to be the calling-card of a writer…the thing that sets them apart and makes them identifiable even out of context. 

I think it is their style that sets them apart.  The way in which they write and use the voice of that character to drive a story.

So…after Googling and reading I decided to check with Merriam-Webster to find their definition of voice in general…as in – human sound made with vocal chords…and I came across this:

Then I looked up style and found this:
And tone?
I think this is where the defining line gets blurred between the three topics. 
Is it possible that voice is the medium we as writers use to express a character’s story, and that voice really belongs to the character that we’ve created?  That style is really what separates writer from writer through our own distinctive manner of expression?  And is tone the flavor that we scent our words with so that the mood or emotion of what we are expressing is conveyed?
I think so.
This is how I see it: 
1.  Voice (medium/instrumentThe writer is driving a car that belongs to the character (who happens to be riding shotgun).  Voice is what we are driving. 
That car fits your character to a T…it’s his baby.  It even has his name on the license plate.  It’s his music that plays on the radio and his baggage that’s in the trunk.  You’re driving, so he tells you what he sees from his passenger window and he may even occasionally tell you where to go.  You may be driving but it’s still his car.
2.  Style (manner in which we express) ihow we, the writer, drive that car. 
Some writers may take curves at 90 mph speeds, others may take their time.  Some may obey traffic laws, some may obliterate them.  Some may love to put the brakes on just to tease you and others may enjoy doing a few doughnuts in the middle of the road.  Some may stop and pay attention to the flowers on the side of the road, others may focus on where they are headed.  Regardless…style is how you do what you do.
3.  Tone (the mood we express) is why we are driving that way. 
Some writers take those curves at neck-breaking speeds to create urgency.  Writers use technique (style) to deliver mood, emotion and pacing.  Strong style will keep tone consistent.
And that’s my take on this topic…
I hope I didn’t blur the lines even further! 
Just remember to:
  1. Know your characters and stay true to them as you write.  Make their voice a strong one and let it be heard.  Bits of you are always embedded in your characters…but they are their own entity.  Let them be who they are. 
  2. Understand that your style is derived from your personality, life experiences, morals, views, etc. It is the way your writing flows, the way it provokes reader emotion.  It’s basically how you and you alone tell a story.
Best of Luck…
What about you?  Do you feel there is a distinction between voice, style and tone? 

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1 Comment

  1. "Most people consider voice to be the calling-card of a writer…the thing that sets them apart and makes them identifiable even out of context."

    I actually disagree with this, personally. I think that, like you mentioned – especially if a story is in first person – if you read the character and the author comes across, then the author has done a bad job of creating a character. That person is only channeling himself or herself. It's so much more engrossing when the character is just that, a new entity. I actually have a bit of a pet peeve when it comes to books about writers, for exactly this reason. I like to see books in which the author BECAME a completely different person, like an actor playing a role. Of course I'm also a total hypocrite in this regard because I'm a scientist who writes books about scientists haha…but do what I say, not what I do, please!