In answer to my question about what makes a good workshop or blog topic, Shelley wrote:
"I would want you to help me understand the difference between 'having voice' and 'finding voice' and, directly connected to story openings, understanding the difference between writing what I want and what the character wants to say."
First, what the heck is "voice?" Here's a definition adapted from a most excellent book, Self-editing for Fiction Writers: it is the way sentences read as prose. Or, how they sound in your head.
In Flogging the Quill, the voice you read/hear is mine. I can cut loose and do what I want, unrestricted by theme or venue or a character. I'm the character in FtQ. For example, in my post on the subject of overwriting, I wrote…
Take the following trudge from The Experiment by John Darnton. Minutia spreading like a blanket of Kudzu, Darnton writes…and writes…and writes…and…
In rewriting and self-editing that passage, I changed the word example to trudge, and a phrase about piling on details became minutia spreading like a blanket of Kudzu. My word choices created that voice and injected it with sarcasm. Because the word-choice decisions were filtered through my personality, it came out the way it did. Another writer aiming for the same meanings might have chosen far different wordings.
I think the voice you read/hear in a writer's work comes primarily from...
1. Word choices. Simple, but at the core of how a writer "sounds." Does the writer use passive versus active verbs? Are verb choices vivid? Are adverbs and adjectives used sparingly or lavishly? Are nouns abstract or specific? Is there rhythm, ebb and flow?This is where your narrative begins to diverge from all other writers.
2. Sentence and paragraph structure are elements of voice, but also style. Are sentences simple, complex or, best, a combination of those? Are paragraphs long and meandering or short and concise, or a mixture? And so on.
I think you develop/find/unearth voice through intensive self-editing, by "listening" to your own best way of saying things AFTER mastering the craft elements of writing (grammar, dialogue tags, description, characterization). The authors of Self-editing for Fiction Writers suggest reading your narrative aloud. Those sentences or words or phrases that give you little bursts of pleasure are your voice. Passages that make you wince need to be rewritten to reflect your voice.
But whose voice should you use in a narrative? Yours might not be
the right one. In omniscient point-of-view narratives the voice belongs
to the narrator
When you use the close third person point of view, you have an opportunity to reveal the character's emotional core
I believe that a writer can create the most vivid emotional experience for the reader when even the narrative is "said" in the character's voice, the story told using the character's word choices and narrative structure.
Taken to the limit, each section featuring a character in the close third person should read as though the character himself wrote it. To my mind, the more each character's section/chapter reads as though it was written by a different writer, the better. In reality, the voice you create for a character is still filtered through your personality, so there will be a hint of "you" in it no matter what. I don't think this is a bad thing.
To do this a writer must place a mental foot on his own narrative voice and pin it to the floor, down there with all the cables worming their way out of her computer. Then she must place her head inside the character's head and craft sentences the way the character would. This is a natural thing to do when in the first person, but it should feel the same even in the third.
I've posted on this before, but, to exemplify, how might these three characters express falling off a bicycle?
A five-year-old boy: The front wheel hit a rock and he fell off his bike. He skinned his knee and it bled a lot. His mom was gonna be mad about the rip in his pants.
A teen-age boy: The front wheel banged into a big fuckin' rock and the handlebars ripped out of his hands. He flew off the bike and crashed hard. The pavement trashed his jeans and skinned his knee, which bled like a stuck pig. It hurt like hell, and Jenny wasn't going to want to go to the show with him looking like this.
A middle-aged college professor: The front wheel impacted a large rock and the handlebars twisted from his grasp. He plunged over the falling bicycle, tail over teakettle, and slammed into the asphalt road. Like sandpaper, the black, gritty surface tore open his jeans and abraded the skin from his kneecap. It bled copiously and he cursed the rock, hoping he hadn't fractured the knee.
Okay, these are a little on the nose, but you get the picture. The
word choices are very different, the structures are different, even the
things they worry about differ. Virtually the same event happened to
I think this deals with the second part of Shelley's question
For me, novels that I read which are described as "literary" incorporate the author's voice a great deal, even when in a fairly close third person. If the voice is brilliant and entertaining and captivating, why not? No rules, just right.
Many commercial novels I read, especially thrillers and suspense,
seldom have much of any distinctive voice, even the narrator's. The
narrative is frequently pedestrian and straightforward
For what it's worth.
Free edit in exchange for posting permission. You send a sample that you have questions about and of which you'd like an edit. I won't post it without your permission.
© 2005 Ray Rhamey