Writing Excuses Episode 35: Voice, Tone and Style

Everyone says you can’t teach style–each writer just has to figure it out on his or her own.  Well, we here at Writing Excuses have never met an ultimatum we didn’t immediately challenge, so today we take it head on. Can you teach style? Can you learn tone? What makes each writer’s voice unique?


Take a scene and write it as Dan would write it, then write it as Brandon would write it, and then write it as Howard would write it.

31 thoughts on “Writing Excuses Episode 35: Voice, Tone and Style”

  1. Adapting voice, tone, and style is actually what us translators get to do every day! And man, practice is the only thing that works. Also, lots of floundering.

  2. if howard reenacted the confession of love scene from the second star wars in Schlock Mercenary I’m pretty sure I would die laughing. Just thinking about is making me crack up.

  3. Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! As a new writer I have been going out of my way to avoid the word “said”. Thanks to your genius advice, I can now use it without shame (where appropriate) and shift my worrying onto something more important. Love these podcasts. I look forward to them every week. Keep up the great work.

  4. Great podcast guys!

    Jim Van Pelt wrote a post that this cast reminded me about. It deals with an exercise that helps identify writing rhythms.


    @M: Lots of folks have received the bad advice the guys addressed about “said” and “asked.” The rule should be, as they state, to use “said” and “asked.” Screamed, shouted, groaned, whispered, etc. become crutches. The reader should be able to infer the shout either by the words chosen, their context, or the actions of the character when saying them.

  5. Can you believe I actually had to wait two whole days to comment on this episode? I managed to hear it two days past through my necklace steeped in ancient power!

    As with any rule, beware of the words ‘never’ or ‘always.’ I think if ‘he shouted’ is right for the scene, then use it. Don’t always use it, but also don’t coompletely avoid it.

    Tone in literature is not much different than how you can view a movie and tell it is by Steven Spielberg or Terry Gilliam or Guy Ritchie. All can make funny, adventurous films, but you can’t say they make films the same way.!

  6. Another good tool is wordle. You can copy and paste as much of a scene as you want to into their cloud creator and it will create a word cloud with the most used words being the biggest. If the biggest things are character names and such you’re doing fine, if it’s an adjective or joining word you may want to go back through your manuscript and start pruning.

  7. My journalism ethics (I know oxymoron right?) professor actually gave some really good advise about this too.
    In stories adverbs and passive sentences should be avoided when possible. Saying something is “very unique” is redundant and actually weakens the description.

    One of the first things he pointed out was the way Ian Flemming wrote several of the Bond books. He used simple tense verbs in active-voice so often that it’s hard to find anything else, but the result was strong. I doubt there are more than two or three people in the Northern Hemisphere who haven’t of James Bond.

  8. An amusing analogue to phrases like “very unique” are words like “prestigious.” It’s usually best to avoid phrases like “prestigious institution,” because if the institution is truly prestigious you don’t have to actually SAY that it’s prestigious, because everyone will already know.

  9. As well, I have fretted over “said” since my high school English classes. That tip alone is worth the price of admission.

  10. agreed agreed. My english teacher used to have this list of “banned” words. Not profanity but just simple words. Some stuff was good to have up there (like VERY) but I do think SAID and ASKED made the list.

  11. Honestly? I ignore almost everything my high school English teachers ever told me. And it consistently amazes me how many people hold to this “don’t say said” thing. We actually had a discussion about it in a creative writing workshop last night.

    Dan, you’re going to have a bunch of people mimicking your vampire bunny book for this writing prompt. Howard, I’m not even going to TRY to mimic you… Stick figures okay? They’re an art, really. One can make them astoundingly expressive, provided one is so inclined. ;)

  12. I thought this was an interesting topic. I wrote a response but found it was going to be much too large for a comment. So I’ve blogged it and address this question: is it dangerous as a writer to try to improve your style?

    As for said-bookisms: a number of writers told me to avoid them at all costs. One day, for kicks, I counted said-bookisms per page in some books I love. I found that excellent stories sported quite a number of them. What’s more, I didn’t notice them as a reader. I don’t know that they’re the devil some make them out to be.

    Also, I’m reading Dan’s vampire bunny story. Enjoying it. I’m betting, however, that his serial killer novel is not written in that same style. So sometimes I suspect style and voice vary quite a bit from book to book.

  13. Because of the difference in terminology, and because I still refuse to believe that “said-bookisms” is a real term, I looked them up. Here’s Tom Swifties (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tom_Swifties) and here’s Said-bookisms (http://www.writesf.com/08_Lesson_05_Perils.html). It looks like Tow Swifties are more specifically puns, kind of a subset of Said-bookisms, which would make “Said-bookisms” the correct phrase in this instance. But because “Said-bookisms” is a really dumb name, I’m going to keep calling them Tom Swifties anyway. Because remember: no matter what John Brown says, I am always right.

  14. I’d say John has a point, that voice and style vary with with what story you’re telling (and not just necessarily “I wrote this book first and that book second, so that book is better than this one”). Of course, that probably touches on the “character voice” element that was mentioned in the podcast as distinct from author voice. I think it’s fair to say they’re different, but I think they also bleed into one another.

    The short story that I am, ahem, supposed to be working on right now (what, procrastinating? me?) is one I deliberately set out to write in a masculine voice, as the two perspective characters are males. I do the same things stylistically that I always do, but the voice is definitely different than some of my other stories. (Actually, from a technical standpoint, I don’t know what I DID do differently. Maybe I’ll rewrite a bit of it from a female perspective one day, just to experiment.)

    Again, some of that difference might be that the story is told by this character rather than that character, but it’s still related to author voice – something the author is doing that makes you read the story a certain way.

    Dan: I finished Blacker Darkness, which I am trying very, very hard not to think of as the Vampire Bunny book. It was loads of fun.

  15. Evil undead bunny master. Let’s be sure to use his full title.

    Just a heads up in case anyone will be in the area and available, Friday, Oct 10th at Dragons Keep http://dragonskeep.com/dsk_cms/ is the release party for Howard’s latest book, and Dan and Brandon will be there to record a podcast. Plans are for around 5 PM right now, but you don’t want to risk it.
    Come on over and pelt Dan with bacon, Brandon with adulation, and Howard with money.

  16. I want to take this opportunity to thank you guys for some persistently great writing advice: although I write newsletters, grants and scientific papers instead of fiction, your talking points still apply nicely to me.

    That said, there are few scientific papers where said-bookisms really pop up.

    And fewer still where I get to talk about evil undead bunnies or Han Solo’s relational wit.

  17. Hmm. Hey, WEKM – is there a synonym for money that sounds sort of like “bacon” and “adulation”? ‘Cuz you had, okay, maybe not a rhyme, but at least some pretty catchy assonance going on there.

    Clearly, since I am worrying about this, I am either far too tired or Dan’s book has been a bad influence on me. Darn you, John Keats! *waves fist*

  18. “Come on over and pelt Dan with bacon, Brandon with adulation, and Howard with money.”

    Man, I totally got the best end of that deal.

  19. Of course! Income and adoring crowds are mere trivalties.

    (Being an aspiring writer, of course, I HAVE to believe that. ;) )

  20. I tried to work that line after I first wrote it but every pass just made it worse, so I just went back to the original.
    I successfully pelted with bacon, adulation and money tonight. However, I seemed to hit each of them with all three.
    Oh well, maybe I can keep it straight next time.

    By the way, the recording of the podcasts tonight was a brilliant and joyful thing to watch. Be on the lookout for “monkey noises” in the future…

  21. Not that anybody will read this, but here we are.

    I would like to share something that C.S. Bezas told me. She said that you generally develop your voice at about 100,000 words.

    As for said/asked, use them when you feel like. Because your character’s inflection will shine through if your reader has ever heard anybody speak before. Julie Wright hit this home when she said “Don’t use -ly verbs when describing dialogue.”

    Btw, Dan was there for both of them.

  22. That was great fun and very, very (oops, sorry!) informative, I feel that I learned as much from that cast as I have from any so far.

    Thank you.

  23. Hey guys. I just finished the 35 shows of Season 1. Great content! Thanks for taking your time and putting in the effort to share your knowledge and experience with us. Maybe one day I’ll be bold enough to take some my ideas (75 pages of notes for one epic fantasy idea and 2 sets of notes for different short stories) and put them down in writing. It’s a … bold… scratch that, scarey idea for an accountant. My “language” tends to revolve around financials and reams of paper crammed full of numbers… not words. I have been told by some friends that are aspiring writers that I write dialogue well (I just suck with describing the surrounding environment).

    Thanks again.


  24. Ivan,

    Consider Elmore Leonard: he leaves out all the descriptions and sticks to just dialogue, “leaving out all the parts people skip anyway”. Do that.

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