So let’s talk about voice. Now, I’m the last person to pretend to be an expert on voice, but I suspect if you asked 100 writers for a definition, you’d get 105 different answers….maybe more. I figure, why not add another one and really confuse things? For me, one of the better explanations I’ve come across is voice is created by a writer’s word choice and sentence structure.
Now, I know what you’re thinking: Thanks for the news flash, JD. Your explanation is about as helpful as telling us sentences are made up of words and punctuation.
Yeah, I get it. Saying voice comes down to word choice and sentence structure is pretty vague. Let me try to flesh that out a little. Start with the opening of this post. What words did I choose and how did I arrange the sentences? Did it have any effect on how you picture me as a real person? Do you think of me as a very formal professorial type, with my white hair and pressed suit – explaining the technical intricacies of voice as I tap my pointer on the lesson written across the chalkboard? Or did you picture someone wearing a pair of open-toed sandals and a faded t-shirt, who just plopped down next to you at the corner café to chat about writing and the world in general?The latter person is much more easy-going and approachable. Which is what I was going for in this post, so hopefully that comes across. Nowhere in the opening did I specifically say I was easy-going and approachable. So then how do you get that mental picture of me? It’s because of the word choice and the sentence structure I used.
Some examples from my introduction:
“Hi there!” A very informal greeting with an energetic tone. Not the kind of thing a stuffy professor type might say.
“So let’s talk about voice.” Again, a very informal way to introduce a topic. You can almost see my friendly smile as I invite you to our little chat.
“Now, I know what you’re thinking:” Can you see me nodding my head as I hold up my hands disarmingly?
These word choices paint a picture of someone who’s approachable and open to a friendly discussion. At least that was the intention.
In your own writing, your voice is going to come across in two ways:
1) Character’s voice. This is the voice (the mental picture) of your individual characters. Is this character stern, funny, approachable or gruff? A lot of the character’s voice will come across in the dialogue they use (but it’s not just the dialogue that creates voice as we’ll see later).
Here’s an example of some voicey dialogue from the MG novel Holes by Louis Sachar.
“You are to dig one hole each day, including Saturdays and Sundays. Each hole must be five feet deep, and five feet across in every direction. Your shovel is your measuring stick. Breakfast is served at 4:30.”
How do you picture the person that said this? Are they warm and friendly? Easy going and relaxed? Or do you see an authority figure, used to giving commands with precision and efficiency?
Clearly it’s the authority figure. In this case the speaker is even named Mr. Sir – although I didn’t include that in the excerpt and you don’t need it to picture this person. In fact there is no physical description of the person at all, but you still get a very good idea of what this person is like. The sentences are short and commanding, the words simple and direct. We hear Mr. Sir’s voice (his personality) through his word choice and sentence structure.
Isn’t it amazing how quickly you get a picture of what Mr. Sir is like from just a few lines of dialogue? Even more importantly, there are no clunky dialogue tags. The author didn’t add things like “he said sternly” or “he said, glaring angrily at the boys”. There’s no need for that. You get the picture immediately from the dialogue alone.
That, my friends, is voice.
Now, as important as character voice is, that’s generally not what writers mean when they say they are trying to develop their writer’s voice. Let’s move on to the second kind of voice.
2) Writer’s voice. This is the voice the reader gets from your writing. You can think of it is as your writing style or tone. Again this is conveyed based on your word choice and sentence structure.
Keep in mind we want our readers to experience our story as one of our characters. Notice I didn’t say “experience our story through one of our characters.” We don’t want our readers looking through a character. Instead, we want the reader to really feel like they are actually in the story. They are the character – they become the person seeing, hearing and feeling the things that happen. This also ties into point of view, but that’s a separate discussion.
My point is the reader will be experiencing your story as a character. That character has a voice. Even during narration scenes, it is from the character’s point of view that the story is told. And here’s the really important part. As a reader, I should feel like that character is a real person that I might meet on the street. Just somebody I bumped into and they started telling me this fantastic tale of heroes or friendship or tragedy. That person on the street has a personality and a voice. That should come through in your writing.
If it’s a Middle Grade protagonist, then they would relate a story using words and structures that are different from a YA protagonist. Even within that there would be variations for snarky, geeky or melodramatic characters (and their voices). Whatever the case though, that voice should come out loud and clear in your writing.
I know, I know…someone is going to ask why we can’t have an older more sophisticated narrator telling the story of a younger protagonist? Well, you can. There’s nothing wrong with that. However the narrator in this case is a character as well. If it’s an older more sophisticated narrator, then that narrator’s voice needs to come across consistently in the writing. It can’t be a grown up voice in one paragraph only to slide down into youthful silliness in the next.
Unless of course your narrating character happens to have some kind of dual personality. Which would be incredibly interesting now that I think about it, but also incredibly difficult to write. The narrator’s change in voice (from adult to child) would have to be clearly defined for the reader. Can you imagine the challenges involved in something like that? It’s hard enough to get one consistent voice for a character, imagine trying to cram two in.
But I digress and this post is getting way long. Let’s look at some more examples of voicey writing, before wrapping it up.
From Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
I retired into a corner and sat down on the floor. The spell by which I had been so far supported began to dissolve; reaction took place, and soon, so overwhelming was the grief that seized me, I sank prostrate with my face to the ground. Now I wept: Helen Burns was not here; nothing sustained me; left to myself I abandoned myself, and my tears watered the boards.
Wow. Not a single line of dialogue in there but you immediately have a picture of who Jane is and what her voice is like. Look at the word choices: dissolve, overwhelming, prostrate with my face to the ground, my tears watered the boards.
This isn’t a young child relating a happy story. This is a sophisticated (and admittedly wordy) character full of grief.
The sentence structure reinforces this picture. Complexity and formality are hallmarks of this character’s voice – so strong you can’t ignore it. In fact, every time I read passages from Jane Eyre, I actually feel like I should be doing more with my life. Seriously, I’m sitting up straighter in my chair right now because I’m afraid my high school English teacher might be standing behind me with a disapproving frown on her face.
Compare that to the playful voice expressed in Sid Fleischman’s, The Whipping Boy
This a scene where the tutor is scolding the young prince for not learning his lessons. The prince is unconcerned because he knows any punishment will end up going to his Whipping Boy. The upset tutor begins the dialogue.
“You fiddle-faddled scholar!” he bellowed. “one day you’ll be king! And you still don’t know the alphabet from pig tracks!”
The prince snapped his fingers. “I can always get someone to read for me.”
“You can’t so much as write your name!”
“Pish-posh. I can always get someone to write my name for me.”
The tutor’s cheeks, swelling with anger, almost unhorsed the small spectacles saddling his nose. “It would be easier to educate a boiled cabbage! Prepare to be punished, Your Lordship!”
“Ten whacks at least,” said the prince. “And good and hard, if you please.”
You can almost see the smug little smirk on the prince’s face as he requests ten good whacks – he knows it’s the whipping boy who will have to take them. Do you have an accurate picture of what the prince is like? Do you know what kind of personality he has? What do you think he would say if someone told him to eat his vegetables before getting dessert?
From this one short interaction, you learn so much about the prince…and the style the story will be told in. This is far from the formal purple-prose we find in the passage from Jane Eyre. Both voices come through loud and clear though.
One last example, just because I can’t resist.
E.L. Konigsburg: From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler
Claudia knew that she could never pull off the old-fashioned kind of running away. That is, running away in the heat of anger with a knapsack on her back. She didn’t like discomfort; even picnics were untidy and inconvenient: all those insects and the sun melting the icing on the cupcakes. Therefore, she decided that her leaving home would not be just running from somewhere but would be running to somewhere. To a large place, a comfortable place, an indoor place, and preferably a beautiful place. And that’s why she decided upon the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.
Again we have an example without a single line of dialogue, but it conveys so much. Can you picture Claudia? Is she a rough and tumble tom-boy? Or is she a precocious girl striving to find her own independence and grow into a sophisticated young lady? That’s an easy call isn’t it? The words she uses and the way she puts them together (sentence structure) tells everything we need to know. Voice – it changes everything.
Ok, so time to wrap up. If you’ve stayed with me this long, then I’ve got a reward for you. As you were reading the example passages, you might have had this sinking feeling – oh no, my writing isn’t anything like any of those passages. Then panic sets in – I don’t have a voice!
Well, relax. There’s good news for you. Developing voice is something writers can work on. We can get better at it. Now that doesn’t mean we have to have a voice like Charlotte Bronte or E.L Konigsburg. No, not at all. Instead we should be striving to develop our own voice that fits our story.
If you write multiple genres and age categories, then your MG voice may be quite different from your YA voice. It takes time and effort to develop your voice – believe me, I know because I struggle with it every day I write. But if you focus on your word choice and sentence structure you will see your voice coming out in your writing.
If you write a line of dialogue for one of your characters, think about the word choice and sentence structure. Would the character say the house was “a massive towering structure of stone and fortified abutments”? Or would they just say the house was “a honking big shack”? You get very different mental pictures of the person depending on which description they used.
Keep practicing that and you will see your own voice develop. It can be done. Trust me.
There are even a few tips and exercises you might find useful – here’s a link to explain a little more about voice.
Thanks for sticking with me on such a long post. I would love to hear your thoughts on how you weave voice into your own writing. It’s such a complex topic.
All the best,