One of the hardest elements to explain to aspiring writers is voice. It’s not enough to say ‘voice is how you tell the story’. In fact, where voice is concerned, it’s easier to show, not tell, and the most effective way to show is by reading aloud. Most of my favourite writers are outstanding users of voice.
For the purposes of this piece, I tried to list everything I believe goes into creating an effective voice. Not so easy. My own best writing comes intuitively, not by means of a conscious intellectual process. Voice emerges from characters and story. Still, here goes:
1. Point of view (first, second, third – tight third, looser third, omniscient narrator – other, such as diaries and documents, visions, dreams)
a) one POV
b) different POVs for different sections
2. Tense (present, past, other)
a) one tense throughout
b) more than one tense
3. Vocabulary / language
a) limited or extensive; does it depend on the POV character?
b) formal or informal
c) modern, archaic, historical
d) idiom – perhaps particular to a character
f) characteristic turns of phrase
g) dialogue vs narrative – different?
4. Sentence structure
a) short, long, varied
b) complete or incomplete sentences, fragments
c) other stylistic quirks, eg preferred punctuation
5. Paragraph length
That all looks a bit bald and dry, but those are some of the elements you’ll use to create the voice (or voices) for your novel. And boy, does it make a difference when you do it well! Getting the voice right is critical to producing a story that leaps off the page and, in particular, to making characters real. Expertly used, the right voice can create a whole world.
A flair for voice can lift your work from competent to great. A writer who has the gift can grab us from the first paragraph. Here are some examples:
The lapping of water in his ears. That was the first thing. The lapping of water, the rustling of trees, the odd click and twitter of a bird.
Logen opened his eyes a crack. Light, blurry bright through leaves. This was death? Then why did it hurt so much? His whole left side was throbbing. He tried to take a proper breath, choked, coughed up water, spat out mud. He groaned, flopped over on his hands and knees, dragged himself up out of the river, gasped through clenched teeth, rolled onto his back in the moss and slime and rotten sticks at the water’s edge.
He lay there a moment, staring up at the grey sky beyond the black branches, breath wheezing in his raw throat.
“I am still alive,” he croaked to himself.
(From The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie)
Lest anyone should suppose that I am a cuckoo’s child, got on the wrong side of the blanket by lusty peasant stock and sold into indenture in a shortfallen season, I may say that I am House-born and reared in the Night Court proper, for all the good it did me.
It is hard for me to resent my parents, although I envy them their naivete. No one even told them, when I was born, that they gifted me with an ill-luck name. Phèdre, they called me, neither one knowing that it is a Hellene name, and cursed.
(Opening of Kushiel’s Dart by Jacqueline Carey)
Well, we lay there in the remains of the hay cave that we had collapsed around us with our energetics. We looked both of us like an unholy marriage of hedgehogs and goldilockses. I laughed and laughed at the relief of it, and she laughed at me and my laughter.
“By the Leddy,” she said, “you have the kitment of a full man, you have, however short a stump you are the rest of you.”
(from first page of Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan)
In both Tender Morsels and The Blade Itself the writers use different voices for different sections. Kushiel’s Dart has a single, very distinctive voice throughout. All three novels provide great lessons in the way effective use of voice can deepen character and draw the reader into the world of the story. Apply the list to those examples and it’s clear what tools each writer uses to create that unique voice.
There’s no simple, cut and paste solution to voice. It’s one of the hardest aspects of writing to master. Breaking the components down into a list is all very well. Using them to construct the perfect voice or voices for your story requires instinct as well as intellect.
Think about the kind of story you are telling. What is most important – plot? Character development and relationships? World building? Is it epic, small-scale, domestic? Consider what factors might govern voice for the POV character(s). Write a sample passage and read it aloud. Does it draw the reader quickly into the world of the book? Create the atmosphere you want? Do we identify with a character immediately?
Ideally, the perfect voice will evolve as the story evolves in your mind. Sometimes your decisions about voice will be based on story factors – certain kinds of voice make it easier to write complex, multi-strand stories, while others enable you to delve deep into the psyche of one or two principal characters. But often voice will come intuitively – you may not realise until later how clever you’ve been! In the final analysis, it pays to trust your gut feeling.
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