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Language Voice

Nail Your Literary Voice with Powerful Word Choices

Literary Voice

“It was a pleasure to burn.” The first line of Fahrenheit 451 is a zinger, and it sets the tone for the entire piece of dystopian fiction. It gives us, in five words, all we need to know about Montag, our protagonist turned unlikely hero.

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Understanding Tone, Mood, and Literary Voice

The concept of tone, and its sister element mood, can be hard for new writers to capture, and this often can lead to inauthentic writing, i.e. It was a dark and stormy night. Mastering these elements allows writers to develop their own personal style or literary voice.

Word Search: Learn about Tone and Mood from Good Writers

I often tell my students (who range from 6th graders just beginning their writing journey in a middle school reader/writer workshop, to adults in the creative writing workshops I teach) to look at the words and phrases an author uses. This is where we’ll find the tone. How do those words and phrases make you feel? That’s mood. These elements join together to create an atmosphere. Atmosphere becomes part of the author’s literary voice, or personal style.

Let’s dissect Bradbury’s opening line, “It was a pleasure to burn.”

The key words here:
#1 – Pleasure
#2 – Burn

Holy smokes, no pun intended, but let’s just let those key words sink in. Say the key words out loud, paying attention to where your mind goes.

This is what happens for me:
Pleasure – I see images of contentment, happiness, even rapture.
Burn – I see fire, smoke, destruction.

In this short line, I am momentarily content, then quickly drawn toward imagery of flames; a pull that leaves me feeling conflicted, maybe a little icky.

This, for me, is how a writer gets tone and mood right. Bradbury both intrigues and disturbs his reader in one sentence, which is just perfect.

Bradbury continues: “It was a special pleasure to see things eaten, to see things blackened and changed. With the brass nozzle in his fists, with this great python spitting its venomous kerosene upon the world, the blood pounded in his head, and his hands were the hands of some amazing conductor playing all the symphonies of blazing and burning to bring down the tatters and charcoal ruins of history.”

At this point, I would ask my students to underline the words or phrases that evoke the tone. Answers may vary here, but generally, their work should look something like this:

“It was a special pleasure to see things eaten, to see things blackened and changed. With the brass nozzle in his fists, with this great python spitting its venomous kerosene upon the world, the blood pounded in his head, and his hands were the hands of some amazing conductor playing all the symphonies of blazing and burning to bring down the tatters and charcoal ruins of history.”

Again, Bradbury starts with the word “pleasure,” and not just any old pleasure, but a special pleasure. Then he jumps back to a dark place; destruction and danger, images of snakes and pounding blood, but also power, with the choice of the words “conductor” and “ruins of history.” I read this passage, and I feel like I’ve had a shot of espresso.

Let’s look at another author. This passage is from Marie-Helene Bertino’s 2 A.M. at The Cat’s Pajamas:

“Madeleine stares through the window into the courtyard. On most days she feels something staring back: a God or a mother-shaped benevolent force. Today, nothing reciprocates. The streamers on the chained bicycles lift in the indifferent breeze. She is alone in old stockings she’s repaired twice but still run. Life will be nothing but errands and gray nights.”

Bertino’s somber tone brings us inside the mind of her lonely protagonist. Though Madeleine often sees comforting images when she stares out the window, through the key words I’ve underlined in the second half of the passage, we feel her utter loneliness, and in the final key words, her hopelessness about the future.  

Finally, Tim O’Brien expertly captures the secrets and deceit of a troubled marriage in In the Lake of the Woods:

“All around them, the fog moved in low and fat off the lake, and their voices would seem to flow away for a time and then returned to them from somewhere in the woods beyond the porch. It was an echo. partly. But inside the echo there was also a voice not quite their own – like a whisper or a nearby breathing, something feathery and alive.”

Something is coming for this couple; it’s wrapped in fog and echo, and it’s not going to be good.

Use Your Words: Applying What We’ve Learned

Try these exercises to strengthen tone and mood in your own fiction.

Exercise 1:

Select a short passage from something you’ve written. Read it over. What words and phrases jump out to you? Circle or highlight them. What tone is evoked? What feeling do you get from this tone?

If you prefer not to analyze your own writing, you can complete this exercise with a peer.

Exercise 2:

Listen to a piece of atmospheric music of your choice and jot down 5-10 words or phrases that come to mind. Then use one of the words or phrases to create an opening sentence. Write a few paragraphs, trying to incorporate your chosen words/phrases into your writing.

You might also add a photo. I paired a photo with a piece of music in order to introduce tone and mood to my sixth graders. The photo prompt I gave them featured three pre-teen boys skipping rocks on the surface of a pond. I asked students to look at the photo while listening to a happy instrumental tune I found randomly on Spotify, a piece with jingling piano keys playing high notes.

One student wrote down the following words: “calming, relaxing, damp, trickle, water.” Check out the opening paragraph from her story about bird brothers, Perry and Stu:

“The leaves were still damp from the morning dew as Perry awoke from his nest bed high in the treetops. He leapt from branch to branch until he reached his brother, Stu. Stu was sleeping peacefully. Perry and his brother Stu lived with both parents in the depths of a rainforest, but it wasn’t always as relaxing as it sounds. There was always the hustle and bustle of everyone trying to get where they needed to go before the morning downpour, and every animal had to learn their place. Today was the students’ turn to earn their wings. Perry flew his little brother down to a clearing in the forest where all the other birds had gathered. ‘Settle down now. Settle down,’ said their teacher Mr. Cloud. ‘You’re all here to earn your place in the rainforest by graduating from flying school. Today you’ll be flying around this forest. Our volunteers will show you the way. Good luck! On your mark. Get Set. Fly!’”  

Two things I’ll point out about this student’s writing: the first is that the story doesn’t have anything to do with the photo prompt. This isn’t the intention of the exercise; the students use the words that come to mind to create the story. If the photo were to creep into their subconscious, that’s fine too, but in this case the story took a whimsical turn. The second point I’ll make is that this student recreated the lighthearted atmosphere of the photo and the jovial piece of music just by incorporating the words she’d written down. Other words she used, like “peacefully,” “leapt,” and “fly” contribute to the tone she’s set.

Exercise 3:

Watch a no-dialogue short film like this one and recreate it in short story form. Pay special attention to the background music, props, setting and the movements of the character. How do these elements come together to create the tone? How can you capture that tone and the overall mood of the piece?  

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Final Word: How Is This Going to Make You a Better Writer?

The act of being aware of your words is what gives the words power. I’m not saying that you have to write this way all the time, hyper-aware of your feelings and anticipating the readers’ reactions. Not at all. But atmospheric writing comes with practice, and will often happen in the revision process; this is all part of how you develop your distinctive literary voice.

Kristen Falso-Capaldi is the recipient of a 2018 Assets for Artists grant in creative writing. Her writing has appeared in Good Housekeeping, Volume 1 Brooklyn, Joyland and on The Other Stories Podcast, and her short play, Threshold, debuted at the 2016 ten-minute play festival at the Sandra Feinstein Gamm Theatre. She teaches writing to students from age 11 to adult.

Kristen can be found online at www.kristenfalsocapaldi.com