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Trying to have a character express hesitation and uncertainty with the tone of their voice. Like the verbal equivalent of an eye roll or an awkward smile. I'd like to say they're employing vocal fry, by lowering their pitch and stretching their voice until it buzzes or rattles a little bit. But I'm concerned the term "vocal fry" isn't common enough to read smoothly if I just write that. For example, I think this is pretty awkward:

"Ha, yeah," she said with vocal fry.

I could avoid the terminology and describe it more literally, does that come across more clearly?

"Yeah," she said, stretching out the word until it buzzed in her throat.

I think it would be best if just "fry" was something that everyone understood, but unfortunately I think it's too unfamiliar:

"Yeah," she said with a low fry.

What is a good broadly-understandable way to describe this kind of speech/tone?

EDIT

FYI, if you're not familiar, here's the Wikipedia article on this kind of vocal style: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vocal_fry_register

The article contains an audio example that is easy to play. Source file: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Vocal-Fry-May-Undermine-the-Success-of-Young-Women-in-the-Labor-Market-pone.0097506.s005.oga

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    Vocal fry might not be read smoothly... I see what you did there.
    – Boba Fit
    May 15, 2023 at 18:26
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    I'm a native speaker and I read a lot, but I have literally never heard or seen the term "vocal fry" before, and I had no clue what it meant before reading your description of it. I would expect using it to not only be awkward, but confusing and meaningless for most of your readers.
    – Douglas
    May 16, 2023 at 6:24
  • If the voice sounds like a sizzling frying pan, say so. Probably, I'm guessing that's not what you mean by 'vocal fry' however. May 16, 2023 at 14:07
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    Could you put into your answer an link to an audio demonstration of a vocal fry. Without this, no definition can help a person who has no prior knowledge of what sound your term refers to cannot understand it's meaning. The phrase "Vocal Fry" is quite obscure to the common reader, and it is probably best if you use phonetic spelling in the quoted dialog for a written work, rather than the use the term.
    – hszmv
    May 16, 2023 at 18:56
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    @Douglas vocal fry is probably quite known to listeners of metal music, where it is a common technique to produce a distortion of the voice to make it sound more aggressive (fry scream), which simplified is the same as described above, just with more pressure (and technique). May 17, 2023 at 9:41

3 Answers 3

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As writers, we often have a clear image in our heads that we want to transmit to the mind of our readers. But creating the exact same imagination in the mind of the reader is usually impossible. Words aren't exact. We all imagine a cup differently, for example, depending on the cups we have encountered and what they meant to us. Even attempting to create a vague similarity would require so many words, that reading your novel would no longer be fun to anyone, because your descriptions would suffocate the narrative completely.

Fortunately, it is completely unnecessary to evoke your imagination in the mind of the reader. You have enjoyed all the fiction you have read without ever understanding those texts in the way their author intended. And you can do the same. Allow the reader to create their own image, to their own liking, and reduce your narrative to the essential.

As for how, there are three options:

  1. Just tell us how the character feels:

Barbara hesitated. "Yeah, I guess," she said uncertainly.

  1. Describe how she speaks, but use common terms that the majority of readers will understand:

"Yeah," she said, her voice husky and shaky.

  1. Combine the above:

Barbara hesitated. "Yeah", she said huskily, her voice shaky from uncertainty.


English is not my mother tongue. I'm sure you can write it better than I did.

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    The author is dead, long live the content. Let the readers experience the work in their own way and interpret based on their own personal experiences. No matter how detailed you do these action beats, some readers will skim over them because most often they are there just to keep track of who's speaking. May 16, 2023 at 14:40
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"Yeah," she said, stretching out the word until it buzzed in her throat.

That seems a good description that would be easily understood. It's a bit long-winded, though.

You could indicate the stretching-out simply by elongating the word:

“Yeaaaaaahhhhhhhh…” she said.

That wouldn't indicate the exact sound, but it would demonstrate the hesitation, which seems to be the important thing. You could of course mention the sound too, if you wanted:

“Yeaaaaaahhhhhhhh…” she rasped.

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    I think this is a really good suggestion, which I also see commonly used in everyday "chat" speech. May 17, 2023 at 9:43
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    I've seen this kind of thing in online chat discussion, but I'm not sure I'd do this in a book. It's a little too informal, and editors tend to not like that. May 17, 2023 at 13:58
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One technique is to use a simile describing the speaker's voice

"Yeah, like I can't really say," she said, in an insouciant tone, creaking like an iron gate.

"Yeah, like I can't really say," he said, swallowing the end of every word, as if unsure of his point.

Another technique is to share the POV character's reaction to the speaker's voice.

"Yeah, like I can't really say," he said, with such indifference that I couldn't understand what he said, let alone he bothered to reply.

"Yeah, like, I can't really say." Uncertainty, hesitancy, mired her words. I couldn't tell if she was making a statement or asking a question.

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