Today I’m on a plane flying to Readercon! So the lovely Terri Guiliano Long offered me a guest post. Ain’t she great?. Check out her very informative blog and her debut novel, In Leah’s Wake. (Good name.) 😉
When discussing stories or novels, we often talk about voice. The voice carried the story, we say. Or I loved the writer’s voice. But what exactly is the writer’s voice?
Often, by “voice” we actually mean style – the distinctive way the writer uses language. This makes sense, considering that style is the most overt, so noticeable, aspect of voice. Voice also incorporates tone, diction and narrative structure, as well as the author’s authority – or her control over the subject and writing – and values.
Like speakers, writers have multiple voices. Say, you’re discussing your new job. Conversing with your boss would be worlds away from talking to your best friend. With the boss, you might adopt a slightly deferential tone, perhaps peppering the conversation with industry lingo; you’d discuss rules, expectations, technical issues. The boss’s halitosis – the first thing you’d blurt to a friend – wouldn’t likely come up.
The same goes for writing. An effective voice is attuned to the writer’s message, purpose, story and readers. Here, because I hope to get my points across without sounding stuffy, I’m using a chatty instructional voice. If I wrote this same piece for a technical journal, I’d use formal diction and a more distant, authoritative tone.
With fiction, each genre tends to have its own conventions. For literary fiction, readers expect authors to use figurative language and organic structures. Thriller readers, on the other hand, don’t usually care about flowery prose. They expect vivid writing, of course, but it’s the taut, suspenseful plotting that draws them in.
It’s not that we can’t break rules. We can – and the best writers often do. Remember, though: rule breaking, disregard for expectations, turns certain readers off. That’s OK. To tell your story maybe you need to break rules. Or maybe yours is a hybrid – a literary thriller, for example, that by its very nature ignores convention. Go ahead, break the rules; but to avoid alienating readers, do so only if you have a good reason.
So – we should alter voice to suit our genre, story and readers. But how do we do it?
Let’s begin with style. To alter your writing style, simply change your language and the way you structure your sentences. As already mentioned, lyrical prose, which works beautifully for literary fiction, would feel out of place in a police procedural, where the language is usually simpler and the sentences tighter and more direct.
To change your tone, try pacing the story differently. To speed the pace, use simpler sentences and cut the inessential detail; do the opposite if you want to slow down. Changing diction also changes tone. Chatty language feels conversational – this style works particularly well for chick-lit – while hard or incendiary language can make the writing sound angry or edgy. Watch:
Mary wandered merrily down the street, absently dragging her jacket.
Mary drifted down the street like a bumbling idiot, dragging her jacket.
These sentences say essentially the same thing, but the tone and diction paint very different pictures. Compare the generosity of the first narrator with the critical tone of the second. Depending upon the narrative distance – how closely the writer aligns with the narrator – tone may reflect on the character-narrator or the author herself.
Structure refers to a story’s internal logic, or the relationship among the various parts. Complexly plotted stories are often linear – they progress in an easy-to-follow pattern from A to B to C. Altering structure – progressing from end to beginning, moving in circles, writing organically – can give a story a very different look and feel.
Authority refers to the writer’s confidence or control, and comes across in what he knows – or doesn’t know – about his story. Authority establishes trust in the reader. If a story’s time or locale is unfamiliar, for example, it’s important to provide enough detail to plunge readers into the time or place. Having authority means doing our homework. Yes, it’s fun to write, to be immersed in the story. To write a compelling, authoritative story, we must know what we’re talking about. Spending ample time developing our characters, location and plot gives us control over our material.
Who would you rather listen to? A wishy-washy speaker who isn’t quite sure what she’s talking about? Or a credible speaker, who lulls and takes you out of yourself?
Unlike other elements of voice, values – religious, political, philosophical beliefs – because they’re part of us – our core values make us the person we are – are much harder to change. It’s important to remember that close readers read between lines. Careful readers watch for patterns and in the search for meaning, within a story’s language and patterns, discover hidden values.
Consider the example above. Depending upon context, the sentence, “Mary drifted down the street like a bumbling idiot” may show the personality or mood of a narrative character. If the authorial and narrative voices are the same – there is no distance between author and character – it may say more about the writer. Best to be aware of this – and take pains to write clearly and say precisely what you mean.
Be aware of and get comfortable with your narrative voice. Have fun, experiment. Try changing various elements and notice what an enormous difference it makes.
Terri has taught writing at Boston College since 1996. Her debut novel, In Leah’s Wake, was released in 2010. On Tuesday, 7/17, she joins the Indie Book Collective in “Menage A Blog,” a flirt-to-the-finish blog tour. Which character from In Leah’s Wake do you most resemble? Will, the strong-willed family protector? Or Zoe, the mom who’d do anything for her kids? Or maybe you’re more like Leah, the rebellious, fiercely independent teen. Or her handsome, rule-defying boyfriend, Todd. Or are you like twelve-year-old Justine, sweet, smart, struggling to hold her family together. Or Jerry Johnson, the town cop who, above all, wants to save everyone? Visit Terri’s blog (www.tglong.com/blog) on 7/17 and find out!