Tone and Voice in Flash Fiction

I’ve talked a little about David Shields’ seminal book Reality Hunger in past posts. Today I want to respond to another quotation from that same book. Here’s a statement quoted in his chapter about flash fiction:

“Even as they’re exploring extremely serious and complex material, short-short writers frequently use a certain mock modesty to give the work a tossed-off tone and disarm the reader. The reader thinks he’s reading a diary entry, when in fact it’s a lyric essay or prose poem.”

Shields goes on to cite examples, one of which being “Morning News” by Jerome Stern

Although I certainly agree with Shields that this “mock modesty” is common in flash fiction, I’m unsure that it’s fair to say that microfiction utilizes this technique across the board.

This does, however, bring up the topic of tone in flash fiction. As writers, we have to ensure we don’t confuse our tone with our literary voice. One of the best ways to ensure we don’t confuse the two is by having a proper definition of each term.

Tone is the writer’s attitude toward his subject, his audience or himself. One can have a sarcastic tone. One can be flippant or somber or self-reflecting or abrasive. All of these are examples of a writer’s tone in a particular piece.

Literary voice, on the other hand, is the distinctive style a writer has. Hemingway was known for his concise style. It made him have a distinct voice. Douglas Adams is known for his humorous approach to science fiction. F. Scott Fitzgerald is known for his flowery prose.

So how can we confuse tone and literary voice? Well, left unchecked, our stories can all share the same tone, and run the risk of becoming formulaic. For example, I love using irony in my microfictions. But If I’m not careful, I will use it in all my stories, and pretty soon they’ll all read in a very predictable manner.

Have you ever enjoyed the first track of an album, only to find that each subsequent song sounded exactly the same? As writers, we have to ensure we vary our tone from piece to piece while maintaining our distinct voice.

How do you find this at play in your writing? Do you gravitate toward a certain tone in your work? If so, how do you avoid falling into a rut? What makes your literary voice distinctly you? Respond in the comment section below!


21 thoughts on “Tone and Voice in Flash Fiction

  1. Excellent, informative post. I agree about the need for tone to change otherwise stories from the same writer can bore the reader. It’s something I need to be more aware of in my work.

    Like

    1. I’ve found that reading a LOT and a wide variety helps with this. We mimic those we read most often when we write, even if we don’t try to. The best authors were extremely well read, such as Tolkien. And if you read enough literature, you find that Tolkien was very very good at pulling pieces of other literature and crafting his own story (i.e. the ring of Gyges from Plato’s Republic, Eomer, son of king Offa of Angel from Beowulf, ect). I believe the more you read, the more you have to draw from when you write.

      ~Rachel E.
      Short Tale Shrew Editor

      Liked by 3 people

      1. Good point. I read a mix of fiction and non-fiction. I use a lot of humor in my blogs, because that’s, like, real life. Like a diary entry. I like my stories to be more like a conversation that I’m having with a close friend…serious and introspective.

        Like

    1. Its always a good thing to be self-aware in writing and to be able to look at your work and critique it honestly. I like to go back after a few weeks or months, and after I’ve written other things, and re-read my writing. I usually have a more objective perspective then. 🙂

      ~Rachel E.
      Short Tale Shrew Editor

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for an interesting read. I think I may be defective in some respects because when I focus on tone, my stories tend to go blue in the face from the strangling effects of that focus. When I happen to achieve some affect or tone or whatever, it’s more a case of “tone happens” than anything else. I don’t recommend this approach to anyone! Thanks again.

    Like

    1. I wonder if perhaps listening to music while you write would help? Music sets the tone for movies, and has a rich history of telling a story itself (think “Peter and the Wolf”). I have occasionally used this method, usually with classical music or sound tracks.

      ~Rachel E.
      Short Tale Shrew Editor

      Like

  3. I want to temper this by saying that this is not a plug for my work, but one of the things I write are stories for other people with words they submit. They also submit a theme they want it written in. I actually started doing this for people to try and stretch my tone limitations. The goal was to have each piece maintain my voice but alter the tone and present a fresh story. I am still really struggling with it though and I agree that finding a variance of tone is necessary to be a well rounded writer. No one likes a one trick pony.

    Like

    1. What an interesting and unique idea! Exploring different methods of practice is a good way to keep from feeling too burned out. It also helps the writing experience avoid feeling too tedious.

      ~Rachel E.
      Short Tale Shrew Editor

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Often, our dialogue is shaped by how we think ourselves. Unchecked, I tend to write a character’s thoughts in a way that reads like my journal or like my thoughts when I’m trying to fall asleep at night. Its good to be aware of that fact! Try reading some dialogue-heavy books to get some ideas how classic, successful authors do it. Jane Austen is an excellent and not too heady author who includes a good deal of dialogue, and is one of my personal favorites.

      ~Rachel E.
      Short Tale Shrew Editor

      Liked by 1 person

  4. A good post – and a necessary one. I really don’t have to worry about my style. I have a retro style – I’ll drop words or phrases here and there that perhaps are not used anymore (other than by a 30s flapper!); but tone, I do worry about quite often. And I have found that one of the best ways for taking care of tone is creating a soundtrack for your project. Each project should have a very different soundtrack than the others. I will get an idea, think about the idea and tone and try to match it with a playlist of music. A series I am writing on WordPress right now has a SciFi bent – so the music of a German electronic artist from the 70s – Riechmann – was the right choice. Then Bowie’s “Low” album had the same vibe for me. Cold and electronic was what my main character and story needed. But then I decided to write another story about a youngest child who decides to tell his family he is going to kill himself. So – I found Dustin McGowan’s music (warm, melodic piano music) perfect for that story. I am someone who has to listen to music when I write and those soundtracks I create keep me and my tone in line. When I am writing a series or novel, I only listen to the soundtrack I created for that particular project. And I’ll add to it as I go along, or if something else is needed.

    Thanks again for your post.

    Like

  5. My voice is more dramatic, sometimes stoic. AlthouhgI sometimes have to remind my self to give more emotions to my characters whenever I’m narating a scene that involves that particular character but in all I’m drama queen.

    Like

  6. Very interesting post that brings up a good point! A lot of the great writers changed their “tone” throughout their works (i.e. Melville between White Jacket and Moby-Dick) and it’s definitely important advice to be wary of one’s own writing style!

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s