Elements of Story: Voice

Today I’m starting a new blog series about various elements of storytelling. It’ll be an occasional feature whenever I feel like rambling about some specific part of writing craft.

This article is about one of the most elusive but integral parts of writing: voice. You’ll see it popping up a lot in agent MSWLs or in mentor notes on various contests. But what is it?

Voice is simply how you string words together. It’s the rhythm of your writing. Much like pop music has a different feel than the score to an action movie, although they share the same basic elements. Both can be in the same key and the same time signature. They’re both composed of notes on their basic level, just as a book is nothing but a series of words.

But top-40 pop music is generally lighter, catchier, using familiar rhythms and patterns to create those earworms you just can’t get out of your head (no matter how hard you try… GA GA OOH LA LA). Action movie music is more intense, with a larger, broader sound. It tends to use a full symphony, and has a different rise and fall in the melody to pull you through those heroic fight scenes.

Voice is like that.

A lot of your book’s voice will depend on your story’s point of view and who is speaking. A first-person narrative will be told through the thoughts of your protagonist, and should have word choices that sound specific to that person. Different people phrase things in varying ways. While one character might say, “That’s gross, dude,” another might comment, “Well, that is rather revolting.” Did you get a mental picture of those two characters just from that phrasing alone? That’s the power of voice.

If you’re in first-person POV, voice is your best friend. It’s the difference between having an acquaintance tell you a story that has you on the edge of your seat, versus reading a textbook.

A small detour:

Part of the reason I chose to write this article was because of Andy Weir’s The Martian. I (finally) got around to reading it recently, and it’s an absolute study in voice. Why am I enraptured by this man’s very mathematical account of how much dirt he needs to grow X amount of potatoes to provide Y amount of calories for Z number of days? This had the potential to be the most brain-numbingly dull novel I’ve ever read, and yet I’m glued to it.

Why? Voice. The narrator’s side comments and phrasing make him likeable. I’m rooting for him. His narrative is peppered with colloquial phrases like “hell yeah” that make it sound like a friend regaling you with his harrowing adventure.

So how do I find my voice?

This is trickier. Generally, the best advice is to stop trying. I know that sounds counterintuitive, but often what’s getting in the way of your voice is trying too hard to sound like someone else.

Try setting a timer for 20 minutes. Then pick a well-known, simple story (fairy tales work well for this). Start the timer and re-tell the story in your words. Keep writing. Don’t stop. Just let the words spill out however they will for 20 minutes.

When the timer goes off, read what you’ve written. How does it flow? Do you use longer phrases, with lots of gerunds (-ing phrases) and compound sentences? Or do you write matter-of-fact, concise prose? Pay attention to the rhythm and flow and word choice. It’ll probably be messy, but that’s not the point here. What I want you to do is notice the general style that you naturally gravitate toward.

By writing quickly and in a stream-of-consciousness manner, you’re getting out of your own way and seeing how your brain strings together sentences if left to its own devices.

It can also help to find a genre that fits your natural writing voice fairly well. I like to write pretty prose with a lyrical, classical rhythm that is well-suited to fairy tales or gothic fiction. If you’re most comfortable writing in colloquial, casual modern speech, maybe a contemporary novel, urban fantasy, or near-future sci-fi would be more fitting. If you write in brief, to-the-point sentences, maybe a thriller might be more your speed.

That’s not to say you can’t vary up your voice and branch out, but when you’re just starting to develop your voice, it can be an easier stepping-stone to practice with something that’s a good fit for your “default” style.

Another exercise is to pick two characters from wildly different backgrounds. Maybe one is an overenthusiastic teenager, while the other is a retired college professor. Look around the room you’re sitting in, put yourself in those characters’ shoes, and write a description of that room from each person’s perspective. Pay attention to word choice, phrasing, and what each character notices most about that room. (This is a good exercise in character development, too – bonus!)

Now read both descriptions and see how the voice of each character shines through. Do they use different terminology, or frame their phrases in different ways?

Expand that out into your story. If you’re writing in a close point-of-view, you want your readers to see the story through the focal character’s eyes, through their thoughts.

This can even be used in a more omniscient or cinematic third-person POV just by tweaking the word choice ever so slightly based on which character is in the center of the frame at that moment. Though the story is essentially being told by a narrator, those minor word choice differences will help connect a reader to each character’s voice. While the camera points to the more terse character, you might describe something as “ugly”. If the focus is on a more hyperbolic or wordy character you might use the term “hideous”.

In short, voice is how a story sounds, how it flows, the personality. It’s the difference between a song played by rote by an amateur musician, and the little bits of improvisation and flair given to a piece by a practiced artist.

And just like music, it’s going to take practice. Write a lot (like… a LOT), but more importantly, read a lot. Pay attention to the word choice of your favorite authors. Do they write in short, impactful fragments, or slow-paced, luxurious prose that sprawls across the page? How does that affect the flow of the story?

Best of luck! Finding your own voice can be tricky, but once it “clicks”, you’ll find its one of your greatest writing tools.

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