The Story Solution: Tone & Voice

Write Craft with Sean and Johnny

The same story can be told in different ways.

That’s where tone (or, if you prefer, mood), comes in.  

Whenever we have a cover made for one of our books, the designer asks us to fill out a form describing a few key details about the story. We’re always asked about genre, because that’s the number one thematic concern.  

Thriller covers look different from horror covers, and both look nothing like romance covers, sci-fi covers, comedy covers, or literary covers. An attractive cover is the primary way a book draws in readers, but it will only attract the right readers — those who will actually enjoy it and tell their friends — if it looks like it fits into the appropriate genre. 

But another thing on that book cover designer form is tone. Because the cover is a promise to the reader, and tone is a key part of that promise.  

Tone, then, is the way we fulfill those promises.  

I’m sure you’ve heard the expression, “It’s not what you said; it’s how you said it.” Tone is the how you said it part of the equation. You can play the exact same role in the exact same story within the exact same genre in many different ways.  

If you’re a parent, you could be a lighthearted mom or dad whose love of fun (and dislike of responsibility) makes you popular with the kids, yet sometimes gets you in trouble (Robin Williams at the beginning of Mrs. Doubtfire). Or on the other end of the tone spectrum, you could be a stern parent who demands the best from your kids for their own good, even though you must suffer the risk of them hating you. (Allison Janey’s portrayal of Tonya Harding’s mother in I, Tonya.)  

You might be a bright and sunny neighbor like Wilson in Home Improvement, a manipulative or backstabbing one like any of the Desperate Housewives, or a frightening old man with a secret sweet side like Kevin’s neighbor in Home Alone. You could even be the serial killer next door, though we don’t recommend that last one. 

Two last thoughts on tone

The first is that tone modifies genre.

It changes the way a genre expresses itself the way wine can change the taste of food. Sean and I have a psychological thriller, and when we chose three adjectives to describe its tone or mood for our cover designer, we came up with vengeful, feminine, and noir. That’s a very different story than a book in the same genre described as claustrophobic, paranoid, and quiet. The cover had to convey that difference, so the reader would understand the promise being made. Our book is full of scheming, and feels like old Hollywood. Everyone had to understand that going in. Us, the designer, the editor, the person writing the description blurb.  

A book is focused when it’s that coherent, when all arrows are pointing in the same direction, because everyone involved understands what it is. For your life to have similar purpose and fewer confusing loose ends, you need to be coherent in the promises you’ve made to yourself as to what you’re “about.”  

The final thought on tone is that tone can transcend genre.

Some people act differently in their varying environments, like the woman who’s intense at work but fun when she gets home. Others are consistent end to end — you’d describe them wholly by adjectives rather than invoking roles. Our friend Jonathan Fields is like this. Sean doesn’t say that Jonathan is “a great businessman” or “a talented author” or “a devoted family man,” though he’s all of those things. Instead, Sean always says, “Jonathan is the most calming person I’ve ever met.” Note the word choice there: calming instead of calm. Jonathan is calm, but what’s unique is that he calms everyone else around him. He’s like a control rod in any room he enters, lowering its temperature. That’s a tonal thing, not a category thing.  

Know your tonal goals, and how much they matter.

The last thing we’ll cover in Phase One is voice.  

Also known as style.  

Or, if you want to get really fancy, brand.  

The hierarchy works like this:  

First you must decide what to do. That’s a genre decision.  

Then, decide how you’ll do it — the “mood” in which you’ll operate, which in turn determines the adjectives by which others will talk about. That’s tone. 

Voice, then, is your signature. It’s the accent that infiltrates every corner you touch. The flair that separates the way you operate from the way everyone else does.  

Voice can be obvious or subtle. It doesn’t matter which, so long as it’s genuine.  

The problem is that being true to your voice is harder than most people expect. We think we’re telling our story in our own voice — with all our inflections, slants, biases, and quirks — but we’re actually speaking with our father’s voice. Or a mentor’s voice. Or the voice society expects us to have or insists we adopt to fit in.  

Voice includes the words you use when you talk about yourself or where you’re going as well as the way you say them. It includes the descriptions you use, along with the modalities and senses you invoke when you describe them.  

But it’s not limited to spoken words. Voice is kissing cousins with Style. That means how you hold your physical space, how you move and gesture, or how you make eye contact with others, both frequency and duration. How clean or dirty you keep your car and home, how you decorate, and how you dress. Whether or not you wear makeup and the length of your hair. A million subtle things that go into the world of you, all of them coalescing into your voice.  

The difference between an authentic “you” voice and a false “someone else’s” is often subtle, which is why it’s so easy to betray yourself. You might not even realize you’re doing it. 

I know someone who always wears her pony tail on the side of her head, not on the back. It’s an unusual look, true to her quirky personality. Move that pony tail a single inch backward, and her whole voice changes. You literally do not get the same experience or the same person. 

Now consider times when someone around you has denied their voice, and you’ve seen it clear as day. 

The compassionate man, adapting to survive a cutthroat vocation.  

The driven woman, dropping her career to play housewife and please her husband while hating every minute of it. 

The teenager growing up gay, determined to play straight. 

The counterexamples above bleed into genre and tone, but it’s in voice where you see the suffering. The compassionate man might sharpen his wardrobe and tongue to fit in, whereas he’d be more at home in loose tees, speaking with a drawl. The driven woman might stuff down her more vocal opinions as part of the act. The gay teen might try to act macho, seeing his instincts as “too flamboyant.”  

Now here’s the rub: There’s a chance that the three examples above could actually fit well with the realms they’ve found themselves in. A compassionate man could happily be part of a shark tank. A driven career woman could find fulfillment as a housewife. A gay teen could be friends with the kids he’s trying to fit in with, even if their sexualities differ.  

Of course they could, if they wanted to. If they let themselves be themselves. If they allow themselves to have a genuine voice.  

The man could become known as the laid-back cool dude even among the bulldogs. Done right, it might set him apart and help him to thrive. I see billboards all over Austin of an attorney with long dreadlocks and not a suit in sight. He looks like a biker. But his clients appreciate that he’s being true. They think, He’s like me, not some corporate stiff. And on the heels of that, I can trust him. A valuable thing, for clients to feel about a lawyer.  

The woman, if she genuinely decided she’d rather not return to her old career, could be happy at home. If she didn’t try to act like a person she wasn’t, her unique voice would attract others like her. She’d find something to run, if not an office, because her competence and leadership would radiate like the sun.  

And the teen, if he stopped trying to act the way he believed others expected, might find himself accepted — if not by the jocks (to stick with clichés), then by a better group of peers.  

You can only have one voice.

That may sound stupidly obvious, but it means that if you adopt something untrue, you’re robbing the world of your reality. I shiver to think what the creative world would be like if Walt Disney hadn’t unleashed his voice, or if the founders of Pixar had tried to be like everyone else (including too much like Disney). Unique voices make our world what it is. 

There is no right voice. No wrong voice. There is only voice, and that is the one that is most true to you.


This excerpt was taken out of the book The Story Solution by Sean M. Platt & Johnny Truant. The Story Solution isn't just about writing, it's about the story of your life. While StoryShop University is hitting on the points that may help you in writing, if you want to take charge of your life and construct your story the way a writer does, The Story Solution is for you. 

Next Week: Ideal Reader & Hook

Read also:
Genre Therapy Part One
Genre Therapy Part Two