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On Fantasy – Pt. III: Tone and Voice


This is the second part of Wyatt and Walt’s ongoing series on writing in the fantasy genre. To read Part I, click here. To read Part II, click here.

We turn now to tone and voice, two somewhat amorphous but (in our opinion) extremely important aspects of any story. In essence, tone and voice determine the way in which a story is presented—they help frame word choice, sentence length, grammar, and almost any other stylistic decisions an author might make.

Tone and voice have become exceedingly important in modern fiction, breaking new ground with post-modern writers and continuing to influence contemporary writers today. There was a concerted effort to “break out” of the mold of traditional narrative constructions and move toward a vernacular and style more in-line with the cultural movements of the day. Thus you have devices such as irony and sarcasm by the earliest post-modern writers, along with deliberate fracturing of story-lines, and “plot-less” or exceedingly convoluted narratives.

Irony and sarcasm, over time, seemed to lose some of their usefulness (David Foster Wallace wrote a lot about the insidiousness of irony, and we encourage you to check out his writing if you haven’t—he’s one of the writers who inspired us to write). But many of the other inventions of the post-modernists remain.

Which is all well and good for contemporary fiction. A compelling tone or funny voice can draw a reader into a narrative. For the contemporary fiction that we write, we often find that we have to discover the tone and voice with which we tell a story before it really takes off for us; that is, we spend 80% of our time writing to find our voice—once we have it, the narrative tends to proceed at a much quicker pace. If you consider everything that tone and voice touch within a narrative (as granular as individual word choices and as a broad as how the story is structured), it’s no surprise that it’s an integral part of the writing process.

So what about fantasy? What’s the appropriate tone for a completely made-up world? What sort of voice does a story-teller adopt?

It’s a question we have yet to fully answer (and may be part of the reason why it’s taken us so long to write this novel). Without spilling too many beans, our novel takes place in a “classical” era. This would seem to compel us to utilize a more “classical” or “ancient” tone. And yet within that broad categorization, there might be different approaches we could take.

We could stick strictly to classical writing; think something along the lines of a Greek tragedy. But we’re pretty sure we don’t have the historical chops for this, and we’re not convinced such a story would even be readable. We thus turn to other authors for inspiration.

Robert Graves’ I, Claudius, has been helpful. The novel, an early post-modern work, is told from the point of view of the Roman Emperor Claudius as an auto-biography. While our novel is not told as an auto-biography, we have found the blending of a more ancient “voice” with a more modern “tone” instructive. While we seem firmly rooted in Roman antiquity while reading the book, it’s told in a manner that is more akin to a modern story.

Equally instructive has been Joseph Crowley’s Little, Big. While not a “classical” narrative in the strictest sense, Little, Big is certainly fantastical, and employs several post-modern tricks along with absolutely gorgeous, eye-watering prose. Crowley has helped show us that even in a story that takes place at some point in the past, it’s possible to utilize post-modern tricks like fractured narratives and a more “modern” voice.

Frankly, the list for us goes on and on. Frank Herbert’s Dune, anything by Cormac McCarthy, Milton’s Paradise Lost—we’ve found ourselves searching, desperately, for a tone and voice to tell this story. The result is that each chapter we complete is fragmentary, and our subsequent edits extensive. We write the chapter, strip it to its bones, and search among the wreckage for signs of life.

It’s been very difficult, because the way we’re telling this story is not the way we’d typically tell a story; it’s not a straight-forward, “formalist” narrative, nor is it a post-modern exhibition where we present all the bells and whistles beneath the narrative to the reader.

It’s something new for us, and that makes it exciting. But it’s also required a tremendous amount of work.

The good news is that we’re finally getting there, thanks to the help of the writers mentioned above. For us, the search for the proper way to tell the story has been a great reminder of the knowledge that can be gleaned from writers we love. This seems particularly true when, as a writer, you’re confronted with the scary notion of doing something entirely “new.” You look back on those who inspired you to write in the first place, grab hold of their lessons, close your eyes, and step out into the unknown.

Let us know your thoughts below. What writers have the best tone, do you think? What are the qualities of voice that you look for in a book, and does it change depending on the genre?

Thanks for reading!

W & W Sawday


One thought on “On Fantasy – Pt. III: Tone and Voice

  1. Pingback: On Fantasy – Pt. V: The Nitty-Gritty of World Building | W & W Sawday

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