by Barb Ross. Last post from Key West. Traveling home to Portland soon.
Voice in fiction is defined as
- the author’s style, the quality that makes his or her writing unique, and which conveys the author’s attitude, personality, and character
- characteristic speech and thought patterns of the narrator of a work of fiction.
In writing and publishing circles, voice is often talked about in hushed tones as something undefinable and unteachable. It is the reason agents most often offer representation to authors, and the reason they most often reject them. “I didn’t fall in love with the voice,” or “the voice isn’t strong enough,” or “distinctive enough” or even “the voice didn’t speak to me,” are the kind of maddeningly vague rejections writers get. Editors say, “I can fix anything but voice.”
That duality, the author’s voice and the narrator’s voice, is certainly part of the challenge of talking about and teaching voice. Huck Finn’s character voice is strong and clear, but we can see through it to Mark Twain’s distinctive attitude, personality, and character as he pulls the strings. How did Twain do that?
Writers very often come to believe that voice equals
- narrator’s POV
- word choice
I believe voice equals
- narrator’s POV
- word choice
Let’s break it down.
Point of View
Lot’s of great stuff has been written about Point of View. From the mechanical–first person, close third person, third person multiple, and the much less frequently used
- multiple POVs, with one first person narrator and additional third person narrators
- second person narration. (You got up this morning. You kissed me good-bye. You went for run as you always do.)
- third person omniscient narration, common in the classics, but rarely used in commercial fiction today.
Once we have a narrator or narrators and we know which person (first, third, etc) they speak to the reader in, writers much inhabit that person (or those people when there are multiple narrators) in order to understand how they view the world, their experience, and language. Sometimes we know all of that before we start writing and sometimes the personality of the narrator becomes distinct as we write and revise.
We also have to know how far inside that narrating character we are. The current trend commercial fiction is to be deep inside the narrator’s skin. At the New England Crime Bake there is a fun event where agents and a published author sit at a round table with a group of writers seeking representation and each writer reads the first page of his or her manuscript. When I have participated, whenever the agent responds to the work with, “I’m not getting the narrator,” or “the character is not compelling,” my more practical, writerly advice is, “Go back and edit out all the distancing words- I felt, I thought, I saw. We don’t hear those words in our heads. Put it on the page as the character experiences it.”
Two thoughts about distance:
- The closest I ever felt to a narrator was in Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. She throws the so deep into Thomas Cromwell’s guts at the beginning of each scene it feels like you have to fight your way to the surface, Alien-style, to look around and see where you are, who else is there, and what is going on. It is remarkable.
- I’ve never been able to read Ann Cleeves’ first Shetland book Raven Black, even though I love her other books. One of the POV characters is an intellectually-challenged man who is practically a hermit. Cleeves so successfully gets you inside this character’s skin that I’ve found the space too claustrophobic to stay there for very long.
You all get what tense is. Choices are present, simple past and the much less frequently used (for good reason IMO, especially for a full-length novel) future and conditional.
Naturally you must use language appropriate to your narrator’s time in history, but that’s not what I’m talking about here.
You must also know when the story is being told. Is it being told as events unfold so the narrator has no more idea what will happen next than the reader does? (This will always be the case if you are writing in present tense.) Or, does the narrator have some distance? Has he refined the tale down to one of his best bar stories? Or are the events in the story in the distant past, perhaps when the narrator was a child? Has the narrator grown and changed as a result of what has happened? Does she view these past events with new insight?
It’s important to understand when the story is being told relative to the events being related.
Is the book serious or is it humorous? If it uses humor is it light and funny, or ironic, sardonic, or sarcastic? Or, is the tone earnest, pure, reportorial, intellectual? How much self-awareness does the narrator have about himself and his role in the events in the story? Is the narrator offering knowing insights or naivety?
- Short sentences or long?
- Formal construction or conversational language?
- Complex vocabulary or simple?
You’ve got this one. This is the prose, and of course, it all depends on who the narrator(s) is (are).
Now, on to my argument about confidence. I believe the “magic” in voice is the author’s command of the story and the story-telling. The narrator doesn’t have to be a confident person, but the author has to believe the story is worth the telling. The author has to whisper to the reader through the character, “Come with me. I know what I’m doing. This story will be worth your time. It will –entertain, amaze, challenge, amuse–you. I won’t let you down. I promise.”
This is where the duality of the authorial voice and the narrator’s voice come together, in the author’s absolute confidence that the story is good, seducing the reader into believing in the author and the story, too.
Where does that confidence come from?
Sometimes the voice is the first glimmer the author has of the story. A voice starts talking in our heads. I have friends who tell me entire books have poured out of them this way. It may have been their first book or their tenth, catching the author by surprise.
This has never happened to me. When I hear a voice telling a story, it always peters out and wanders away by page 50, or with a short story by the fourth scene. I would love to have it happen, and maybe it will someday, but not so far.
More often, the author and the narrator are both timid, and it’s only in the revising and revising, as the confidence of the author grows and the narrator’s personality becomes more distinct that the voice takes command. Either way, a strong voice has to be there by the end. Voice isn’t magic, but it is the special sauce that makes every piece of fiction work.
Do authors follow some mental checklist on these elements of voice? Not really. I often compare writing fiction to riding a bicycle. In the beginning you’re conscious of everything–balance, steering, braking, pedaling, road safety. But once you learn, you’re only conscious of the thing that’s most challenging–steering on a wandering path, braking on a hill, navigating city traffic. Most authors don’t consciously make all the choices above, but if something’s not working, it’s worth going back and reviewing them.
Readers and writers: What are your thoughts about voice? I would love to hear them.