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.
Watch this clip from The Fresh Prince. Soooo many raw emotions. So many small signals of one emotion blending into another. Powerful!
Dry Throat/Loss of Voice/Hoarse Voice – These can be symptoms for a variety of things from innocuous allergies to very serious illnesses. However, when used to convey emotion, having a suddenly dry throat or hoarse voice conveys nervousness, anxiety, panic, fear, stress, etc. A common cause for a dry throat is constant swallowing from being anxious or nervous. Those characters who carry tension in the throat or jaw may struggle with this.
Articulation – How well a person can express themselves, or they express themselves differently can show lots of emotion. We typically skip over or omit in fiction the ums and ahs, however, those stumbles can show nervousness, anxiety, fear, vulnerability, excitement, surprise, overwhelmed, etc. Showing someone search for a word, or go around in circles trying to say something that’s simple – it all shows emotion.
Effective use of pauses, incorrect words, forget words, backtrack and reword things repeatedly, can show emotion. Combine this with a higher or lower pitch, with a sped up or slowed down speech, or even volume – have the voice get progressively quieter or louder. Mix and match these things for greater effect.
Stuttering/Mumbling – We stumble and mumble when we’re nervous, tired, apprehensive, afraid, etc. There’s a number of emotions this could show. We can trip over our words unsure of how exactly to express ourselves or become hyper aware of body language and self-correct endlessly when we sense our words are having a negative or undesired affect.
Listen to how Matt Damon’s voice gets lower, quieter, when he talks about the wrench and why he chose the wrench. Can you hear the vulnerability there? Hear the contrast in the lighter, almost playful-dismissive tone Damon uses juxtaposed against Williams’ even, radio-FM DJ voice. It carries conviction without being confrontational. Just listen to the changes in Damon’s voice near the end when it’s repeated – it’s not your fault. He goes from joking, defiant, angry, and then vulnerable and it’s all through his voice.
Intensity – You can use an assertive tone, a playful tone, an authoritative tone, a declarative tone. I follow two actors on social media who both like to post inspirational/motivational videos. One punctuates his speech with various noises, laughs, varied cadence, and comical expressions to get his point across. Always on point and way deeper than you expect. The other actor taps into an intensity that includes being loud, that includes faster speech, lots of cadence, and is punctuated by sharp movements and clipped words. You can show passion, excitement, frustration, redemptive anger, stress, sadness, joy, fear — all kinds of things by varying the intensity.
Next time you’re in a group or public place, listen for the changes in voices that signal emotions. Or do the same with a movie or TV scene. How does their voice change? How does the pitch, cadence, tone, tempo, articulation, etc. change to affect meaning in the speaker or those they’re speaking to.
Do you incorporate a character’s voice into your story to add emotional depth?