How we say things communicates as much or more than what our words say. Deep point of view takes show-don’t-tell to new extremes, and I’ve found it helpful to pause and take things in from new angles and perspectives because there are a great many things we overlook or take for granted.
When we communicate in real life, we use quite a lot of non-verbal cues to convey emotion. We parse the meaning in speech from body language (gestures, expressions, etc.), from content, and voice.
Tone of voice is incredibly powerful and often overlooked in fiction. We’re tempted to shortcut things – he exclaimed, she whispered, she said anxiously. Sometimes our voices change unconsciously, but the change can be heard, and sometimes it’s intentional. When intentional, we can affect our voice to convey emotion or attempt to invoke it in another person.
Ever seen a young girl try and wheedle something from her father? This lilting, half-pleading, higher pitched voice is affected. “Daddy… Can I have…”
Think about the phrase “get out.” Said with a loud assertive voice – Get Out! You know the speaker wants those with them to leave. Get out said in a playful light tone might indicate surprise or incredulity.
How a voice sounds is about more than volume, but also consider speed, pauses, cadence, pitch, etc. Punctuation can also play a role in this by hinting at pauses, words trailing off, etc.
Try listening to this clip – just listen. Can you pick out the voice changes? The emotion in the both Ethan Hawke’s and Robin Williams’ voices?
Let’s have a deeper look at some aspects you can play with when adding voice details. Remember, you can mix and match these. Surprise readers with emotions they don’t see coming but that also give a greater depth to your characters.
Shaky Voice – This can affect both the pitch and volume. It can tattle on nervousness, overstimulation, exhaustion. It could also be described as a tremble where it might show being cold or afraid. There’s a rhythmic wobble to the voice, and it can affect the neck, jaw, tongue and face as well.
Change in Pitch – There are lots of emotions that might cause us to change the pitch of our voice. When there’s romantic interest, our pitch can change dramatically to show interest, deference, or vulnerability. A sudden higher pitch can signal nervousness or anxiety. Suddenly lowering the pitch can indicate vulnerability, a desire to hide.
Her lithe body pressed against his chest, her every curve flattened against his torso.
“Everything OK?” His voice cracked on the last word.
Can you guess at what this character ↑ is feeling? Just tone of voice.
Cadence – It’s when you choose to go louder or softer, faster or slower, etc. Monotone voices can show boredom, nervousness, lack of enthusiasm. Choosing to use a rising inflection at the end of every phrase, whether it’s actually a question, or not — is pretty annoying.
Volume – We get really quiet for a variety of reasons including feeling vulnerable or overwhelmed, nervous, anxious, tired, fearful, etc. We similarly get loud for good reason too, sometimes just to be heard over another noise, to clarify ourselves, frustration, nervous, angry, etc. Ever expected someone to be really mad at you and instead they go quiet? That’s super unnerving isn’t it. This is often paired with cadence, we get quiet and our speech speeds up, or our voice gets low and very quiet, etc.