It’s become something of an adage that every literary agent (or publisher, or editor, or reader…) is looking for is a fresh and distinctive Voice. But what, exactly, is Voice?
Depending on where you look, you’ll find any number of people offering definitions, ranging from Rachelle Gardner:
Your writer’s voice is the expression of YOU on the page.
To Leah McLellan:
Your personality comes out in your writing. Your voice is a combination of your attitude, your tone, and your personal style.
Or Darcy Pattison:
Voice is something subconscious that appears as a result of style; that is, a consideration of vocabulary, sentences, punctuation, rhythms, and formality.
None of those definitions are wrong, but nor do they really nail the description. Perhaps, like pornography, a distinctive Voice is hard to define, you just know it when you see (hear?) it.
I’m not the first person on Writer Unboxed to talk about Voice, and I will definitely not be the last. There are fantastic essays here on the site by Meg Rosoff, Mike Swift, and Donald Maass, amongst others. And I’m not going to attempt to define the indefinable. Instead, I want to talk about one specific aspect of Voice:
Often when people talk about Voice, they talk about vocabulary and sentence structure and rhythm; about style. And that is definitely a large part of what we mean when we talk about Voice. But there’s another element as well. Allow me to share a paragraph from Donald Maass’s essay:
The thing is, every novelist already has a voice. It may be comic, deadpan, dry, pulpy, shrill, objective, distant, intimate, arty or a thousand other things. It comes through in the story that an author chooses to tell and the way in which they choose to tell it. (emphasis mine)
A big part of finding and maintaining a strong, distinctive authorial voice is telling the story from the perspective that feels most “natural”–most “right”–for you. Your choice of perspective will depend on your background, your experiences, your core beliefs, and your mindset, and it is the first step in making the story that you tell authentically yours.
Several years ago, Stephen Fry was asked for his take on the difference between American and British comedy. This is part of his answer: (You can watch the whole thing here.)
When it comes to comedy, it’s satisfactorily, I think, obvious that the American comic hero is a wise-cracker who is above his material, and who is above the idiots around him. … You know that scene in Animal House where there, uh… there is a fellow playing folk music on guitar? And John Belushi picks up the guitar and destroys it. He just smashes it and waggles is eyebrows at the camera, and everyone thinks: God, he’s so great. Well, the British comedian would want to be the folk singer.
Leaving aside the American vs British aspect (although Fry’s reasoning as to why this is the case is fascinating), the fact is that some people feel more comfortable telling the story from the perspective of the eyebrow-waggling, wise-cracking hero, whereas others prefer to tell the story from the perspective of the poor, suffering guitarist whose life is a long series of disappointments.
Now, sometimes that choice seems obvious. And it’s definitely a stylistic choice. But, make no mistake, it’s also a representation of your Voice.
Would you choose to tell the story of a brave a
nd courageous man protecting his world from alien invasion? Or of an alien conscript, forced to do a job he hates so he can one day return to the lady alien he left behind, only to be summarily punched in the face by Will Smith?
On that note, let’s think about the Voice of movies. Whose voice is it that we’re experiencing? Regardless of the screenwriter or the actors, it’s the director’s Voice which is most evident in a finished movie. The director chooses the shots; the focus; the lighting. She directs the actors as to where to stand, and how to say their lines. She makes decisions about costuming and set design and music. It is the director’s Voice we see when we watch a film.
Regardless of how many movies a director makes, their Voice tends to remain consistent. If we go see a Michael Bay movie, we know to expect explosions and scantily-clad women in unnatural poses. If we sit down to watch an M. Night Shyamalan movie, we know to expect close-ups of actor’s faces and a twist ending. Those are aspects of the directors’ Voices, and their films wouldn’t feel like their films without them.
Imagine, if you will, the movie Titanic, as directed by Quentin Tarantino.
Or Transformers, as directed by John Hughes.
As writers, we don’t have access to music or lighting or soft focus. All we have are words. But before we worry about vocabulary and sentence structure, we need to figure out where we stand; whose story are we telling, and how are we telling it?
How does perspective influence your authorial voice? Would you rather write about John Belushi or the guitarist? Or someone else entirely?
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