Image: Matthew Loffhagen
Not every great author writes with a distinctive voice; some are happy to allow their presence to drift out of the reader’s consciousness and that’s a completely valid form of storytelling. But it’s also true that the right voice can turn a story from good to great, and that some stories need to be told in a certain way to have the impact they deserve.
If that’s the kind of story you’re writing then you need to work on your voice. You need a way of interacting with the reader so distinctive that every time they recognize the tone and rhythm of your style, they’re instantly enveloped by all the themes and feelings they’ve come to associate with it.
To get that kind of voice you need to answer 3 questions, but before you do so, a word of warning.
When setting out to write in a particular voice it can be useful to develop a persona. This is a character (not quite you) whose way of writing you can develop and refine.
We all have a distinct way of talking. Whether it’s the way we structure our sentences, the level of formality we prefer, or the phrases or devices we favor. It can be tempting to just allow these preferences to take over, and often that will give you a distinctive voice as an author, but you’ll reach a point where you find it difficult to write any other way.
By simply deciding that you are writing as an authorial persona you give yourself the ability to step out of that role when you need to, and write as another ‘character’. Remember that your voice is a performance, not just ‘the way you write’. The former is craft; something you’ve built to tell stories better. The latter is laziness, and you’ll very quickly find yourself using it to excuse clumsy sentences and avoid difficult redrafts.
Happily, knowing that you’re now answering for your persona should make the three vital questions behind a strong, distinctive voice easier to answer.
1. What are you saying?
The linguistic experimentation needed to craft a voice that stands out needs to come from some kind of surety. That doesn’t mean you need to know the answers to the questions you’re asking your readers, but you do need to know what those questions are.
Chuck Palahniuk has one of the most distinctive authorial voices in contemporary writing. His emotionally detached summaries, morose monologues, and propensity for lists are difficult to mistake.
Think of a rock polisher, one of those drums… Polishing those ugly rocks into gemstones. That’s the earth. Why it goes around. We’re the rocks. And what happens to us—the drama and pain and joy and war and sickness and victory and abuse— why, that’s just the water and sand to erode us.
Palahniuk’s voice is crafted to influence the reader. The lists, clipped phrasing and almost clinical descriptions imbue the story with a sense of nihilism that Palahniuk (usually) courts and then invalidates. In Haunted this voice distances the reader from the growing horror of the story, reaching a crescendo where the characters no longer register as humans to the reader or to each other.
What’s your mission statement? How do you want the reader to feel? The emotions you use your voice to invoke will stick with readers, so that the next time they open one of your books it all comes flooding back. How do you want your readers to feel on the tenth page of a new work? What devices can you use to elicit that feeling?
Palahniuk’s voice works because he uses it to invoke specific emotions while encouraging the opposite intellectual experience. The reader is reminded of the necessity and value of humanity by the emotional absence they feel when it is repressed. That trick works over and over again because the emotional response Palahniuk needs can stay the same.
Choose the emotional track you want to travel down and research literature and music in that vein, picking out the idiosyncrasies you see repeated. Why music? Because rhythm is important. If you want to be able to make readers happy, I recommend a weekend spent picking apart Electric Light Orchestra’s Mr. Blue Sky. If you want to learn suspense, consult Edward Grieg’s In the Hall of the Mountain King. See how their rhythms work, when they surprise the listener or hint at what’s coming, and then try to apply that ebb and flow to the way you present events in your story.
Voice evolves over time, so don’t worry if you can’t perfectly harness rhythm the first time – or even in the first decade. Any advances you can make will help forge a strong authorial voice.
2. Who are you?
That is, who is your persona? It’s not enough to just know what you’re saying, you also have to understand who you’re saying it as.
H.G. Wells wrote some of the most compelling science fiction ever, but he wrote it as a scientist. Wells luxuriates in description and exploration so much that you almost get the sense he resents attaching a narrative. His characters feel fear ‘off screen’ because he wants to focus on the ideas he’s presenting.
At times I suffer from the strangest sense of detachment from myself and the world about me; I seem to watch it all from the outside, from somewhere inconceivably remote, out of time, out of space, out of the stress and tragedy of it all.
Wells favors description to put the reader in the midst of events. Any excitement or elaboration is reserved for the events and environments of the story rather than the characters. In The War of the Worldsthe character even breaks off from a life or death situation to reminisce about the science of Martian life:
The planet Mars, I scarcely need remind the reader, revolves about the sun at a mean distance of 140,000,000 miles, and the light and heat it receives from the sun is barely half of that received by this world. It must be, if the nebular hypothesis has any truth, older than our world…
Wells is a scientist presenting thought experiments, but he takes his reader with him because he writes confidently and firmly from this perspective. His voice is very different to how a reader would instinctively think, but it’s apparent as a valid and interesting viewpoint.
Identify the unique identity you’re writing as and then consider how that identity is expressed. Where is the sense of that person or role strongest, and why? Develop the devices that express the desired voice and avoid the ones that don’t.
3. Who are you talking to?
Now you know what you’re saying and who you’re speaking as, it’s time to think about your reader. Or, rather, it’s time to decide on the persona you’re writing for.
It’s down to the author to define their relationship with the reader, to use their voice to establish a tone the reader will use as an anchor point during their experience.
Contrast the voices of Palahniuk and Terry Pratchett. Pratchett embraces over-explanation and colloquialisms. He makes the reader feel comfortable by involving them in an indulgent storytelling style. Many of his narratives hinge on the value of some form of (literal) parochialism, and so he needs the reader to feel at home so they become wrapped up in the value of maintaining that home:
The Ankh-Morpork Central Post Office had a gaunt frontage. It was a building designed for a purpose. It was, therefore, more or less, a big box to employ people in… Some cheap pillars had been sliced in half and stuck on the outside, some niches had been carved for some miscellaneous stone nymphs… and thus Architecture had been created.
Pratchett positions the reader as a friend. A cosy acquaintance to whom he is telling a story in no great hurry. Palahniuk is very nearly the exact opposite:
Because its only intangible ideas, concepts, beliefs, fantasies that last. Stone crumbles. Wood rots. … If you can change the way people think. The way they see themselves. The way they see the world. You can change the way people live their lives. That’s the only lasting thing you can create.
Palahniuk’s voice is desperate, sometimes hurried, as if he only has the reader for a moment. The relationship is closer to the wild apostles at a speakers’ corner and their audience. When a book begins, Palahniuk speaks as if he has no real faith that the reader will agree with him. This makes the experience of his stories more abject, more detached, further highlighting the value of emotional connection while making the reader feel as if any conclusions they reach are their own.
So what type of involvement will help your story? Once you know what you’re saying, who’s saying it, and who you’re saying it to, your voice will begin to evolve.
Indulge then examine
To get really good you need to study your technique, but first you have to practice. Pick a subject at random and try applying your voice to it. Do this five or ten times then read back. See what devices you chose and which worked, then write another five or ten passages and apply what you know. Practice makes perfect, but don’t be afraid of experimentation. Your voice is a constantly changing thing and you should be attempting to understand it enough to direct it, not trying to nail it down. Once you begin making an active attempt to craft a voice you’ll be surprised how quickly it comes together.
If you think your voice might benefit from the inclusion of accent or dialect, try our article When Can You Include Accent And Dialect In Your Dialogue? Or if you want to go one step further and turn your persona into a character check out Does The First Person Point Of View Make People Care?
Have you noticed any idiosyncrasies in your authorial voice, or do you have any tips that have worked for you? Either way I’d love to hear from you in the comments.