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Improve Your Authorial Voice Not By Writing, But By Watching

Since Writer Unboxed is focusing on voice this month, I thought I’d add an unconventional riff to the awesome contributions already put forth.

I love reading prose fiction — but in my heart of hearts, I’m a movie junkie. It’s a brilliant way to economically tell stories, and I enjoy the creative constraints the medium has: running time, MPAA ratings, budget. The mission? To cram as much narrative — both spoken and unspoken — into the frame as possible.

Notice that I said “unspoken.” That’s key. I believe prose fiction writers can easily learn about voice by watching and studying movies — especially when they pay attention to those unspoken bits.

Writing great books and short stories hinges greatly on your authorial voice — but always remember that your voice requires tonal flexibility. This can be defined by a character’s point of view, the pacing of a scene, or what’s happening in that scene. Thoughtful characters and slower-paced scenes can permit a more lyrical authorial voice; peppy characters and action sequences often demand something else.

Now I can’t tell you how to craft your voice; like Barbara [1], I believe your personal world view defines most of that. I also believe that the best authorial voices don’t attract attention to themselves. But if you’re looking for ways to appropriately use your voice for characters and scenes, I suggest popping in a DVD, muting the volume, and watching what unfolds.

Don’t watch the actors. Try to ignore the blitz-cut editing. Forget trying to decipher what’s being said. Instead, look for what’s happening in the frame overall — mostly the use of colors, color saturation and lighting. In the hands of filmmaking masters, these techniques represent the invisible art of cinema: the ability to wordlessly evoke emotion. To me, they represent the “voice” of the overall film, or a particular scene.

I think there’s wisdom there … and if you look for patterns, you’ll find them. For instance, most films these days depict workplace interiors — no matter how much sunshine is streaming through the locale’s windows — as cold, emotionless, antiseptic places. Filmmakers achieve this by clever lighting, or by processing the film (or digital footage) in such a way to suck the color from the moving images. The result is often a gray- or blue-tinged scene, with its characters looking as happy as a herd of zombies.

This is an immediate, visually tonal manipulation of the story. A word of dialogue may never be uttered, and yet we’re emotionally steered in a particular direction. Our brains “get it,” even if we as viewers never consciously get it.

Contrast that with movie scenes that take place in a happy home. There’s often lots of lush, warm-colored wood, and amber, creamy tones in the frame. Subconsciously, our brains do the math: our society associates this palate of colors with warmth and comfort. Again, the “voice” of the unfolding narrative invisibly connects the overall setting with how the audience should be feeling.

We’ve all seen the original Star Wars movie. Contrast the earthy, oil-stained interior of heroic Han Solo’s Millennium Falcon spaceship with the spartan hallways of the villains’ Death Star battle station. This visual information alone conveys everything we need to know: the good guys are scrappy, underfunded ragamuffins … and the bad guys are (literally) as imperious as it gets.

If you can make the esoteric leap from the visual voice of cinema to the narrative voice of prose fiction, you’ll notice ways to appropriately use your authorial voice when handling specific characters, scenes or events within a scene. Just as oil stains would be forbidden in the halls of the Death Star, certain words and writerly observations would appear incongruous in particular scenes.

Is a violence-packed action sequence best served by lyrical, multisyllabic flowery prose? Probably not. Does a contemplative scene work best with clipped, one- or two-word paragraphs? Probably not. Using creative flexibility in your narrative’s tone, vocabulary and sentence structure is absolutely critical to capturing the emotional core of your story. You may have a distinctive authorial voice, but be sure to tweak it as needed, depending on what’s happening in your tale.

If you can do that, you’ll control the invisible — yet critical — art of emotionally moving people.

So pop in a few DVDs, and dial down the volume. See what fimmaking maestros do with color, set design and other visual cues, and try applying those tonal techniques to your own writing voice.

About J.C. Hutchins [2]

J.C. Hutchins crafts award-winning transmedia narratives, screenplays and novels for companies such as 20th Century Fox, A&E, Cinemax, Discovery, FOX Broadcasting, Infiniti and Macmillan Publishers. His latest creative endeavor is The 33, a monthly episodic ebook series.