Like many elements of writing, understanding a concept can be a very different thing than actually applying and executing it in your writing.
Voice is no different. You can understand the idea of voice, but how do you develop it? How do you make your writing sound like YOU and not ___________ (fill in the blank with whoever you admire as a writer)? How do you make all of your characters have their own voice?
Developing your voice, possibly more than any other writing “skill” comes through practicing the craft of writing, but here are four creative writing voice exercises to help you get started.
1) Find the Emotion to Ignite your Voice
Finding the emotion behind a scene will help you to develop the voice for the scene. To get started, make a list of five strong emotions. For example: rage, passion, annoyance, frustration, or excitement.
Then, make a list of five everyday events like driving to school or work, doing the dishes, or brushing your teeth.
Choose one of the events and describe it neutrally without any emotion. Then, choose an emotion from your list and describe that event again so that it reflects your chosen emotion. These scenes will be fairly different and will reflect a change in style and tone, both of which are key elements of your voice.
You can also do this exercise using your current work in progress (WIP). Write these scenes from different character’s perspectives. As a happy bonus, you might learn something new about your characters too.
2) Define a Clear Audience
Who are you writing to or for? A five year old child, a university professor, a group of your peers, or maybe even, yourself? The answer to this question will impact quite a bit about your voice in terms of overall length, sentence length, vocabulary, subject matter, details, and emotion.
To play with this aspect of voice, take the scene you wrote in exercise #1 and define your audience. Re-write it for your new audience. Again, note how you change the details to fit the audience.
3) Use the power of imitation
When we read, whether we like it or not, we tend to soak up the words and style of whoever we are reading which is why reading widely is so important to writing well. We aren’t just reading these writers, we’re using them.
As Stephen King, in his book On Writing,
“When I read Ray Bradbury as a kid, I wrote like Ray Bradbury–everything green and wondrous and seen through a lens smeared with the grease of nostalgia. When I read James M. Cain, everything I wrote came out clipped and stripped and hardboiled. When I read Lovecraft, my prose became luxurious and Byzantine. I wrote stories in my teenage years where all these styles merged, creating a kind of hilarious stew. This sort of stylistic blending is a necessary part of developing one’s own style” (147).
If it worked for Stephen King, it can work for all of us.
You can also imitate authors’ voices and style intentionally. Go grab a non-fiction book and a classic novel off your shelf. Open up to any page and choose a long sentence. Imitate it. Use the same construction, but change the subject matter.
What do you find out about your own style?
If you want to imitate more than a single sentence, go for an entire passage. Try this with the following passage which is full of attitude and voice. It’s from page one of Libba Bray’s novel Going Bovine. The chapter is titled “In Which I Introduce Myself.”
“The best day of my life happened when I was five and almost died at Disney World. I’m sixteen now, so you can imagine that’s left me with quite a few days of major suckage. Like Career Day? Really? Do we need to devote an entire six hours of the high school year to having ‘life counselors’ tell you all the jobs you could potentially blow at? Is there a reason for dodgeball? Pep rallies? Rad soda commercials featuring Parker Day’s smug, fake-tanned face? I ask you. But back to the best day of my life, Disney, and my near death experience. I know what you’re thinking: WTF? Who dies at Disney World?” (1).
This passage is funny. She uses fragments, slang, rhetorical questions, listing, repetition, a colon, exaggeration, second person, and swearing.
Have you ever tried to play with these elements? Try it now, but change the subject matter to the best/worst meal you ever ate, most boring afternoon or class, or your own idea. Steal the power of Bray’s voice and style to help figure out your own.
4) Write often and Play with Words
During World War II, telegraph operators used Morse code to communicate. They’d tap out their messages. Enemy decoders would “hear” these messages and eventually they were able to identify who was sending the message due to their signature tapping style.
The coders had to tap out messages ALL THE TIME, enough that they “tapped with voice.” Had they only transmitted messages once a month, they wouldn’t have developed their signature style.
Writing is the same. In order to find your voice, to polish it, you need to USE it.
Experiment. Play with words. Write a little bit everyday, write in different voices. Who are you on the page?
And, perhaps even more fun, who are your characters on the page?
This strategy is my favorite one because I can just write, one of my favorite activities.
Developing your voice takes time, so be patient, practice and keep reading. Your efforts will be well worth it.
What is your favorite strategy for developing your voice? Or have you even thought of developing it? Share in the comments below.