Diction Plus Tone Equals Voice

by | November 15, 2014 | General | 2 comments

I’m not a poet and I don’t even see myself that way, but I
have the fundamental key I think to a poets nature.  I love words and
language.  This applies to point of view. 

I’ve been studying a couple of craft books by Mary Oliver, a
pulitzer prise winning poet.  She has several chapters which I need to
read several times on the subject of voice.  In poetry it’s called
“diction”, voice and tone.  Diction refers to your choice of words. 
The overall effect of this choice of words is called “tone”.  The diction
and tone together give rise to the “persona” of the person telling the poem or
story.  In my opinion this “persona” is the key to your choice of point of
view, and most especially if it’s the first person point of view.

Erotica more than other forms of genre fiction, except maybe
horror, is a very physical and personal form of expression. I’m talking about
literary erotica in particular.  I believe it should be written with some
immediacy from the senses from the dark waters of the unconscious.  Some
writers like Anais Nin can get cerebral about it and still make it work, but
she’s an exception because of her ability to color it with the mysteries of a
character’s inner quirks.  People should be able to feel what you’re
describing physically and emotionally.  You do this partly by letting them
fill in the blanks in your description, but also very often by speaking in the
voice of experience of the deciding character.  The most common mistake I
see in erotic writing, or at least the method I take issue with, is
speaking  from the main character without giving them a specific
personality in that voice.  That voice, when you get it right, can be the
most fun part of reading the story.  A reader will forgive you for a lot
if you can get that voice right.  And giving that voice a persona can
really drive the story forward for you as a writer.  But it has to be a
voice that matches the character.

In poetry, and I’d say also just as much in prose, the sound
of the word, its accuracy and its meaning creates the atmosphere of a
poem.  In old school horror writing like Lovecraft or Poe it seems like
the story is 70 percent about atmosphere.  The author is making a slow
hand build up to a final effect that rises from the gathered gloom.  In
“Masque of the Red Death” the first half of the story is dedicated entirely to
the description of the rooms in Prince Prospero’s castle, with almost no
character description except to let you know he’s a selfish guy.  “The
Cask of Amontillado” is a short expository blast about Montressor’s unexplained
hatred of Fortunato and then therest of the story is his first person
description of the cellar they’re going down too.  “The Tell Tale Heart”
told from the first person is the obtuse and obsessive voice of a dangerous
loon.  What is interesting about that voice is the immediate lack of self
awareness in the speaker, his capacity for self delusion:

“ . . . TRUE! –nervous –very, very dreadfully nervous I
had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad? The disease had sharpened
my senses –not destroyed –not dulled them. Above all was the sense of hearing
acute. I heard all things in the heaven and in the earth. I heard many things
in hell. How, then, am I mad? Hearken! and observe how healthily –how calmly I
can tell you the whole story. . . .”

Poe was actually onto a great spiritual truth here about the
nature of evil.  Evil does not know itself.  Evil is ego gone wild
and refusing to see itself.  But what is also special about this voice is
– it is a voice.  A distinct voice.  The voice of a dangerous
loon.  You know this guys personality.  You know who he would vote
for for president and why.   This is the carefully thought out effect
of Diction + Tone = Voice.  You feel this man, wide eyed and self absorbed
grab you by the collar, like The Ancient Mariner or a wino in an alley, and
haul you away from what you were doing to make you listen to his story from
beginning to end no matter what.  He’s your crazy Uncle at Thanksgiving
dinner except this guy kills people and cuts out their heart.  This is ego
gone boundless and is at the heart of true evil, the absence of empathy.

Here’s the First Person Present Tense voice of another evil
maniac, very different from Poe’s:

“  . . . At the brownstone next to Evelyns a woman –
high heels, great ass – leaves without locking her door.  Price follows
her with his gaze and when he hears footsteps coming down the hallway toward us
he turns around straightens his Versace tie ready to face whatever. 
Courtney opens the door and she’s wearing a Krizia cream silk blouse, a Krizia
rust tweed skirt and silk satin d’Orsay pumps from Manolo Blahnik. . . “

        “American Psycho”  Brett Easton

Now wait – read that again.  He doesn’t just describe
her clothes, he knows their brand, how much they cost probably and even what
store they come from.  Throughout the book wall street master of the
universe and human monster Patrick Bateman will do this with every person he
meets, it will become his signature and an expression of his governing
characteristic, a manic obsession with social status.  He kills a male
friend with a fashionably expensive stainless steel ax  possibly for
simply having a nicer business card than his.  This a great device.
 The first time you read him doing that, you think its annoying.  The
third time its really annoying.  After reading him do that every single
time it begins to sink in for you – this guy is dangerously nuts.

And how about this distinctive voice, the narrator Mattie
Ross from Charles Portis’ great book “True Grit”:

”  . . . People do not give it credence that a
fourteen year old girl could leave home and go off in the wintertime to avenge
her father’s blood but it did not seem so strange then, although I will say it
did not happen everyday. . . .”

The use of the outmoded word “credence” as a noun
and the lack of contractions (did not) give it the 19th century parlor room
formality of a daguerreotype.

Here are two of my voices, from stories (published) told
from first person voices:

“ . . . The old prize fighters would bust your nose or your
ribs.  A punch to the kidney that would make you piss blood for a couple
days.  We sex fighters, we bust your will to live.  We take away your
will to be free.  People look naked to us.  We see inside your
mind.    You just think you know what you want, bitch.  I
know what you really want, because that’s how I get you.  That’s how I
take you down.  I look at you bitch – I know what you want way better than
you do.  I know it even before you know it.  That’s because I see
you.  I see you like God sees you. . . .”       

            from “The Peanut Butter Shot”

Crude language.  Short punchy sentences like jabs to
the face.  You don’t like this guy.  But you’re curious to find out
what’s going to happen to him because you get a sense of what kind of a person
he is.  Yeah, reader, that’s how I get you.  That’s how I take you

And then there is this paragraph (Sorry Lisabet, I know
you’ve seen this paragraph about fifty times at least  by now, I just
really like it) which begins one of my vampire stories

“ . . . . Blood has a range of taste, as scent has a range
of aroma. Blood has a high level taste and an under taste. It is a blending of
elements like music. This is also the way of scent. The under aroma will show
you there is a trail and betrays to you the direction. If the scent becomes
fresher you are following the creature that produced it, so you must use the
under scent to know which direction is older and which is newer. It is as
though the  air is filled with singing
voices and you are picking out a single voice. The high scent

will tell you about the individual, the condition of the individual,
if it is injured or sick, horny or filled with fear. It will tell you how to catch
him, where he is likely to run to. To acquire the high scent the animal, or myself, must pause to
commune with the air and pay attention. Close the eyes. Hold the nose still and
just so. Let the night air speak. It is the same with the deep taste of blood,
except that scent is on the move, and if you are tasting the blood – well. It
is no longer on the move. . . . .” 

         (Opening Paragraph “The Lady and the

There is a lot going on in this paragraph.  There is a
deliberate styling of Diction + Tone = Voice.  This is the voice of a
sensitive young woman while at the same time being the voice of a practiced
predator and hunter of humans.  An affection for the night, an ironic
humor.  An absence of empathy.  She never says she’s dangerous, she
never boasts, but by the end of the paragraph she doesn’t have to.

People write things their own way.  But in my case what
I love is language and the sound of language.  Its why I want to see
characters get a voice.  It’s how I love them.



  1. The Moose

    Need to print this and study. Refuse to comment by my first impressions.

  2. Lisabet Sarai

    It never fails to amaze (and annoy) me, Garce, that you consider yourself an amateur.

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