Understanding the concept of “voice” in writing can be tough because voice itself can be hard to define. Last summer I found the best explanation of it in the book True Stories by Rebecca Rule and Susan Wheeler.
They wrote, “Voice…is like sex appeal in a person: You know it when you see it, but you probably can’t explain it” (178).
Yep, think “Thor” (or fill in the blank with whoever you think has great sex appeal).
I know this doesn’t necessarily “define” voice, but it’s an accurate description of it. I know when I’m reading a piece full of voice, and I also absolutely know when a piece lacks voice. It’s like reading an encyclopedia entry. Boring.
Let me give you some examples of two very different stories with very different voices.
Snarky voice from Sarah Dessen’s Keeping the Moon:
“I fake smiled at her, crossing my arms more tightly over my chest.
‘Oh, that’s even worse,’ she said. Another sigh. ‘With your hair color and that thing in your lip you look terrible even when you’re smiling.’ She came closer, her sneakers making squeaky mouse noises on the concrete. Like everything else, they were brand new. ‘Honey, you know this is for the best. You couldn’t stay by yourself at the house all summer. You’d be lonely.’
‘I have friends, Mom,’ I said.”
Woah – this girl is pissed and not exactly impressed with her mother. We know exactly what a teen “fake smile” looks like. The details she shares about her mother such as the noises her shoes make and how “everything” is brand new build the foundation for solid character development.
In another example of stellar voice, Elizabeth Gilbert writes in a formal, historical voice in The Signature of All Things:
“For the first five years of her life, Alma Whittaker was indeed a mere passenger in the world–as we all are passengers in such early youth–and so her story was not yet noble, nor was it particularly interesting, beyond the fact that where can i buy bupropion in uk this homely toddler passed her days without illness or incident, surrounded by a degree of wealth nearly unknown in America of that time, even within elegant Philadelphia. How her father came to be in possession of such great wealth is a story worth telling here, while we wait for the girl to grow up and catch our interest again.”
This lengthy passage is only TWO sentences. Gilbert relies on longer more complex sentence structure and a more sophisticated vocabulary with words and phrasing such as: a mere passenger in the world, noble, homely, elegant, and a degree of wealth to create a sense of formality and history.
We know that this will be an epic historical saga, spanning several generations, and the voice reflects this massive undertaking. I’m currently halfway through this book and am LOVING it – the writing is incredible.
The two passages above also provide examples of the two different types of voices: character’s voice and author’s voice.
Character’s Voice – This type of voice is predominant in first-person narratives like Sarah Dessen’s story. It’s created through how character’s speak, their actions (“fake smiled”), details they notice (“squeaky mouse noises”), and their overall attitudes.
In fiction the voice can change from character to character, and it should. As readers, we should know when each character is speaking or reacting to a situation. While the daughter in Dessen’s story is annoyed and snotty, the mother has a somewhat condescending voice when she says, “You know this is for the best” as if she knows what her daughter is thinking when clearly she doesn’t have a clue.
While the voices of each character can (and should change) in a story, the author’s voice will be consistent throughout. The example from Elizabeth Gilbert is written in this more formal style which exactly matches the character, Henry Whittaker (Alma’s father), who wants nothing more than to be recognized as a gentleman rather than the son of a poor laborer. The entire novel is written in this voice to reflect the time period and characters.
The style and voice supports one of the major plot lines and the characters’ emotions and goals which is the second type of voice, Author’s Voice or Authorial Voice.
This is how you write and tell the story that makes it authentically original and “you.” It’s the overall structure of the story, the descriptions and the details included. A strong authorial voice will add feelings, thoughts, humor, and an overall tone.
It’s also how the author puts sentences together. In the above examples, Dessen’s sentences are short; Gilberts are much longer.
Playing with voice is one of the fun parts of writing because you get to discover who YOU are on the page, and you also get to play with characters and their voices. Have fun with this.
To begin to play with both character voice and authorial voice, go back to your work in progress. Try to read it with fresh eyes and see if you can identify a strong narrative voice. What is the attitude and emotion behind the words? Do the details and descriptions support the voice? Does your sentence structure support the voice? How might you strengthen it?