Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Diction Plus Tone Equals Voice

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 Ellis

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 down.

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 Unicorn”)

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. It's obvious from your writing just how much you love words. Your prose is poetic. Your fiction reaches deep inside of the reader and twiddles knobs we don't even know we have, then makes us feel what you want us to feel. That's such a gift, Garce. In a perfect world, you'd be making a fortune with your words. But as you well know from having sought God for so many years, it's not anywhere near perfect here. It's just an oddball collection of skin sacks filled with mostly water, who have delusions of grandeur due to our big brains.

    I began following this site just to read your words. Along the way I've found other writers whose work I enjoy also. But your words keep me coming back.

    1. Hi fiona!

      Hey - your words keep me coming back.

      When I feel a little down and my writing sucks and it isn't going well, I come and read your comments and it makes me want to take another swing at it. Thank you, I am much indebted to you, more than your know.


  2. I'm not sure I've ever told you how brilliant I find you. I should say it more often, because I think it all the time.

    1. Hi Giselle!

      I'm surprised, I mean I didn't think you read my stuff. I'm moved. Thank you.


  3. I agree wholeheartedly with Fiona and Giselle. And I also agree with what I see is your main point here, that a distinctive voice can make the difference between a ho-hum story and a sensational story.

    What I wonder, though, is whether that sort of voice can be deliberately crafted. Once you've found your character and heard his or her voice, sure, you can apply your author's scalpel to hone the effects, to amp up the critical aspects. But can you develop a memorable voice from scratch using conscious effort? I at least can't.

    Exposure starts:

    "I strip for the fun of it. Don’t let anyone tell you different. It’s not the money. I could make nearly as much working at the mill and keep my clothes on, but then I’d have to suck up to the bosses. Here at the Peacock, I’m the one in charge, and I like it that way."

    This is Stella Xanathakeos speaking - and she popped into my mind, with this opening paragraph, full-fledged. I have no idea where she came from, and I could never have created her by deliberate effort.

    1. Hi Lisabet!

      Nixie says hi, we're coming along fast now.

      I think Stella has a distinctive voice. I think the rewriting to the extent that we do it polishes the voice, but we get the voice from inside. It comes from a lifetime of listening to people talk the talk. Here in the south, especially among black folks, you hear people talk the way Muddy Waters sing. I write this stuff down whenever I hear it. Your mind stores all that stuff away and its there when you get that person you want.


  4. Add me to the list of admirers of your distinctive prose, Garce.

    We writers are lucky that what we do has rewards other than monetary. There's something about feeling a character's voice building in you, and giving it life with subtle nuances of your own personal authorial voice, that can give you a charge like what I imagine a musician feels in interpreting an intensely moving piece of music.

    Of course it would be be nice if the chances of making a living at either writing or music were much higher.

    1. Hi Sacchi!

      Yes, wouldn't it be nice if there were money in it. I think for somewriters there is, but its a very precarious way to make a living. I think that would be a fearful way sometimes too, because you're kind of at the mercy of your muse. Writer's block would have dire consequences for the well being of your family unless you have a rich spouse or a spouse with a good job.

      One of my fantasies is to marry a woman who writes the greatest erotica in the world and then be her great patron, while she demonstrates her gratitude to me as she becomes a superstar. Whoops. Did I say that?


    2. I think there's a story in this fantasy, Garce!

  5. Your razor-sharp insights are always valuable. Reading enough of your posts is a learning quest. Unreliable narrators are fun to work with. To make the bizarre genuine and comprehendible is a fine art.

    1. Hi Daddy X!

      The art of the genuine and comprehensible is what we all aspire to.


  6. Brilliant post, as usual, Garce. Your examples of your own work really illustrate the concept of viewpoint. I often use "The Tell-Tale Heart" as an example of an unreliable & scary narrator. It's all about the use of dashes. :)

  7. I like that you went into this issue of voice, Garce. One of the things I've noticed on the Grip is that I have a very distinctive "essay voice." I like that voice, and have been trying to explore it more. As far as characters, I do try to make them different and distinct, but there are certain qualities that any character I write is going to have. I don't think I know how to write a character that isn't a bit cerebral, for example—maybe that would be an interesting exercise sometime.

    Anyway, great examples. I really appreciate your comparison of erotica and horror. I think that's spot on.


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