Who hasn’t either had or heard the argument: “It wasn’t what you said, it was your tone of voice”? Tone of voice is one of the most powerful communication tools we have in conversation. Words in themselves can mean a million things, but add tone of voice and there’s no mistaking the intention. That argument probably started because the other party said something apparently innocent but poisoned it with the barbs of emotion that tone of voice can add.
As I embark on the ship of parenthood, I’m struggling with tone of voice when I read aloud to Sebastian. I pick up a novel, and I start to read, but the stage directions always come after the lines. For example, here’s the latest passage in Rose Tremain’s “The Road Home”:
“Asylum-seeker, are you?”
He uttered these words as though they disgusted him, as though they made him want to bring up some of the food that had soured his breath.
Now, when I read the first line, I had no idea how to say it. The policeman character had only just stepped out onto the page, so I had no roadmap for whether he was a kindly chap or a cynical one; whether he was keen to help or ready to suspect. His only previous lines had been fairly chirpy: “Wake up, Sir. Police” and “Steady on! No tricks, thank you kindly. Up you get!” So it wasn’t until I had read this line that I discovered he was not a fan of asylum-seekers, not in the slightest bit inclined to help and probably a reader of the Daily Mail.
When we write, it is perfectly respectable to describe in this way. An ordinary adult reader (and let’s face it, Tremain probably doesn’t get read aloud to one-month-olds very often) can deal with the fact that they take in the words and then apply the tone after the fact.
But it’s worth thinking about. Writing has long been recognised for lacking the nuances of the spoken word – emails and letters can easily be misconstrued and writers have always looked for ways to indicate intent in a smooth and effortless manner which would be unnecessary if only there were some way to print tone of voice.
My own particular challenge is sarcasm. I use it a lot myself, and my characters use it too. And yet, I get readers who miss that, and who completely misread my stories because they think the sarcastic character is either stupid or weak.
I don’t have an answer. Tremain’s description of the policeman, for all that it fell too late to help Sebastian’s comprehension, is a pretty good example of how to show (not tell) the character’s emotions and tone of voice, but you don’t always want to break up dialogue with a lengthy description, especially if it’s quick-fire, as sarcastic repartee so often is. So, I’m still looking for a shorthand for certain tones – cynical, sardonic, frustrated, sympathetic … and, most of all, sarcastic.