Narrative Voice: Vocabulary Choice and Tone (Part One)

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August 10, 2021

If your characters are the lens through which the reader experiences your story, and you the writer are the glassmaker, then vocabulary makes up the grains of sand which create the glass.  Likewise, tone is the mold into which you pour your hot glass to set the lens.

Some grains will be hard, rough, imperfect; and, poured into a straight-edged mold, would make a wonderful lens for, say, a gritty detective story. Some will be dark, and smooth, and sharp, combined in a rough mold that produces a lens that is uneven and hard to see through, making it suitable for gothic romance. Some will be filled with glitter, poured into a star-shaped mold, ideal for magic and fantasy. 

Your combination of Voice, Vocabulary and Tone create the Narrative Voice that is unique to your work and your book.

What is “Voice”? 

Character Voice – the words, idioms, metaphors, and sentence structures that the characters choose to think and speak. These structures are rooted in your characters' dialogue and reflect their background, education, and culture. 

Narrative Voice - the words, idioms, metaphors, and sentence structures that the narrator chooses. If the narration is relayed in second or third person, the narrative voice might not match the main character’s dialogue and thought patterns because the narrator's voice comes from a different person or entity.

What is “Vocabulary Choice”? 

The words you select to describe things are often freighted with associations and meanings that can elicit emotions and understanding. Vocabulary also influences tone (which we'll talk about in the next post) and can be crafted to suit the age range and the genre-savviness of your intended readership.  

For example: think about the word “hot”. This is a general catch-all word that even young readers understand. Depending on your audience's age range and your chosen genre, you might describe a landscape as “hot, and parched, and cracked, like the palms of the old men who shielded their eyes from the unforgiving sunlight.” Or you might say it was “hot and lush as a greenhouse.” 

In the first case, the word "hot" describes something that is hot and dry and worn out. In the second, it refers to a type of hot that helps things to grow. How the word is interpreted depends on context and the other words that surround it.

If I say the weather was arid, I’m saying it was hot, but also dry and parched, which is pretty specific. If I say it’s humid, then the air is damp and heavy. Deciding to use "hot", "hot and humid", or "humid" are all choices you make as a writer; and, depending on how they're used, your choice tells the reader something about your narrator's perspective.

Word choice affects more than just the picture you want to paint for the reader; it also tells them what kind of world they’re in, and whether the narrator is the kind of person who would prefer to use “hot” when “sweltering”, “fevered”, or “blazing” may invoke not only a specific meaning, but also a specific feeling.  “Hot” is warm, but “sizzling” sounds dangerous.


Think about the last story you read. What sort of words do the characters use? What do those words tell you about their social status, their feelings? Now, think about the narrator. Is one of the characters telling the story? If so, what do their word choices tell you about their perspective? Does their language suggest they enjoy telling the story? Are they sad or afraid? Are they reliable? If the story is told in third person, how does language help you to imagine the landscape, the way the characters feel, or the mood?

Tune in next time for the second part of this topic, where we discuss Tone.


Narrative Voice: Vocabulary Choice and Tone is the seventh post in an nine part series. 

Also in this series:

Part 1: Who Is Telling Your Story

Part 2: Using More Than One Narrator

Part 3: Creating a Narrative Voice

Part 4: What is an Unreliable Narrator

Part 5: Creating Your Unreliable Narrator

Part 6: Narrative Voice: Point of View and Tenses

Part 7: Narrative Voice: Vocabulary Choice and Tone (Part One)

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