Your Book Is Crying Out For A Volta – Here’s How To Deliver

Standout Books is supported by its audience, if you click and purchase from any of the links on this page, we may receive a small commission at no extra cost to you. We only recommend products we have personally vetted. As an Amazon Associate we earn from qualifying purchases.

Good writers are always looking for ways to improve their craft, but great writers are prepared to beg, borrow and steal so long as it gets them the best advice and the most effective devices for telling their story. That’s why in this article I’m going to mug poetry, rifle through its pockets, and bring you back the volta, a tried-and-tested narrative device that can help your prose.

Considering the volta when plotting or editing your story can make for far more effective writing (especially in conjunction with the quadrant method, which I’ll touch on later). More good news: it’s actually a pretty simple device to implement.

So what is a volta, anyway?

A volta is a deliberate turn in an argument – the moment at which a new viewpoint is introduced, recontextualizing the facts and opinions already expressed in a way that gives them new meaning. Traditionally, the volta is introduced with some variant of ‘but’, although this doesn’t have to be the case. Use of the volta can vary in nature and subtlety; in the example below, for example, the volta is very clear.

Yes they eat our crops, yes they destroy our villages, but in the Valley of Leporia, we worship the giant rabbits, and so they cannot be harmed.

Here, the volta recontextualizes the points already made by arguing that they’re irrelevant. W, X and Y are true, but because of Z, they don’t matter. This is the most direct type of volta, amounting to something very similar to an about-face. The example below shows a slightly different use of the device.

Yes she’s mean, yes she’s relentless, but at this point in the championship, isn’t that exactly what we need from a coach?

Here, the volta recontextualizes negative traits as potential positives. In this second quote, it’s easier to see the volta’s worth as an artistic device. It’s not just about reversing your position, but about folding a prior argument into a counter-argument to make it stronger.

Benefits of the volta

The volta is most commonly understood as an aspect of a sonnet poem. These poems follow a set structure, often built around the vital ‘turn’ in an argument. Shakespeare’s ‘Sonnet 130’ is a famous example.

My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips’ red;
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damask’d, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound;
I grant I never saw a goddess go;
My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground.
And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
As any she belied with false compare.

In this poem, Shakespeare mocks the hyperbolic conventions of love poetry by eschewing common exaggerations and laying claim to a deeper, more sincere love.

To do this, Shakespeare uses the volta as a fulcrum – the turn in argument comes right at the end of the piece, but it’s at the intellectual heart of the poem (hence why some refer to the volta as the ‘soul’ of a sonnet).

The volta originated in sonnet writing, but it has a place in exhilarating prose. Click To Tweet

The logic here is actually similar to that of incongruity-resolution theory and its use in joke-telling; the reader is not initially presented with the real argument, but rather drawn into a specific understanding of the situation before them. When the author then pulls off the turn they’ve been planning all along, their argument hits the reader with an immediacy and force that helps drive it home.

Consider the quote below as an example of a statement that doesn’t build to its volta.

As much as I hate that man right now, you gotta love that suit.

Matt Groening, ‘Colonel Homer’ from The Simpsons

This statement, spoken by a son about his well-dressed but potentially adulterous father, follows the same structure of point and counter-point, but doesn’t utilize a volta in the way described above. The use of ‘as much as’ prepares the reader for the idea that whatever the initial idea is, they can expect it to be contradicted or recontextualized.

The line is still effective (and funny, in context), but illustrates how the volta stands apart as a distinguishable device. It’s not just a way to present ideas, but a rhetorical device with unique applications.

The volta as a persuasive tool

One of the key benefits of the volta is that using it in your writing allows you to give space to initial thoughts and feelings. This can be used to shift the reader into a particular state of understanding, or even steer their opinion.

One of the most direct ways to use a volta for persuasion is by addressing and therefore diminishing potential counter-arguments to your actual point. Consider, for example, the sentences from earlier:

Yes they eat our crops, yes they destroy our villages, but in the Valley of Leporia, we worship the giant rabbits, and so they cannot be harmed.

By first acknowledging the counter-points to the idea that the giant rabbits can’t be harmed, the speaker makes it harder to reiterate them and makes it feel as if they’ve been answered. No-one can reply ‘But they’re eating the crops!’, because that point has already been addressed.

The speaker also has the chance to diminish counter-arguments by presenting them in this way; someone genuinely making a point about the crops might have spoken more about them, emphasizing their importance and the lack of other food sources, but it’s now harder to make that point. The basic idea has been addressed and dismissed, meaning that a counter-argument has to return to and restate this point, boring the audience, before it can be built on.

This is even more pronounced in the second example. Here, the initial points aren’t just dismissed, they’re presented as positives.

Yes she’s mean, yes she’s relentless, but at this point in the championship, isn’t that exactly what we need from a coach?

Emphasizing these potential negatives therefore requires an opposing voice to disentangle them from the new, positive association. It’s a tricky linguistic and logical maneuver that makes a point feel more convincing.

The volta folds argument into counter-argument for convincing writing. Click To Tweet

Worry not, though; this device doesn’t have to be insidious. The volta gained such popularity because it didn’t just give the illusion of considering someone else’s point of view, but actually allowed space for argument and counter-argument. Eavan Boland, author of A Woman Without a Country and A Poet’s Dublin, argues that structuring a story around a volta replicates the experience of thought and debate.

The original form of the sonnet, the Petrarchan, made a shadow play of eight lines [the octave] against six [the sestet]. Of all the form’s claims, this may be the most ingenious. The octave sets out the problems, the perceptions, the wishes of the poet. The sestet does something different: it makes a swift, wonderfully compact turn on the hidden meanings of ‘but’ and ‘yet’ and ‘wait for a moment’. The sestet answers the octave, but neither politely nor smoothly. And this simple engine of proposition and rebuttal has allowed the sonnet over centuries, in the hands of very different poets, to replicate over and over again the magic of inner argument.

– Eavan Boland, The Making of a Sonnet

This ‘magic’ can make stories written around a volta feel organic and real, engaging the reader and providing a more fulfilling experience than stories which present their core idea immediately and without pretext.

That’s not to say that the volta has to even be about completely changing one’s argument – sometimes, it just offers a new outlook. In Emma Lazarus’ The New Colossus, the volta takes the form of a new idea and a change of narrator.

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

The volta here is far subtler than a ‘but’ followed by contradiction, instead shifting the reader’s understanding of the subject from an exterior, third-person view of a personified idea to a bold, first-person interaction with it. The idea of the volta’s ‘turn’ isn’t that it necessarily repudiates what went before, but that the reader’s understanding is somehow changed or altered – it’s a rhetorical shift that helps drive home an argument, either by reversal or new emphasis.

This is what makes the volta such a useful device, and why it can elevate your story if used correctly.

The volta’s place in your story

The key thing to understand about using the volta is that it’s a device that shows itself late in your story but influences it from the start.

One of the most common errors when writing a story is to ‘front-load’ the ideas. The ideas behind a story are its driving force, and many authors are so focused on their themes that they immediately place them front and center.

Often, this can work, but it also has the potential to make the reader feel overwhelmed, or even to put them off your story. I mentioned earlier how the text preceding a volta settles the reader into a specific way of thinking. This may be a set of assumptions you want them to make, or even just basic ideas you’d like them to grasp. The New Colossus establishes its subject, building awe and grandeur before turning the narration over to her, while ‘Sonnet 130’ piles up seeming insult after seeming insult before reflecting that none of them matter.

This process is important, because it gives shape and weight to your argument. Imagine a version of ‘Sonnet 130’ that begins with the idea that the speaker loves their subject deeper than silly exaggeration. In fact, don’t bother, because it’s easy enough to whip up:

By heaven, I think my love as rare
As any my mistress belied with false compare.
Because her eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips’ red;
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damask’d, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound;
I grant I never saw a goddess go;
My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground.

The facts are the same, but the rhetorical edge is completely lost. In the same way, it’s important for authors to understand the main thrust of their argument and the ways they can build to presenting it to keep the reader engaged.

The volta shows itself late in your story but influences it from the start. Click To Tweet

Many famous ‘twists’ take the form of a volta, and few are more famous that the revelation in Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club. Here, the protagonist learns a key fact about a supposed friend that shines new light on everything that’s happened so far. Crucially, Palahniuk’s twist isn’t a single moment, but a true volta – a change in voice and tone that alters how the reader understands the story so far. Most of what the protagonist has previously wanted becomes threatening, and his allies and support structures reveal their true, threatening nature.

Palahniuk is able to do this because the book is structured around the volta. It’s not just a moment of revelation – that’s easy – but the moment at which the book alters in pace and tone, and slips into arguing against many of the points it previously established.

The same is true of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl – again, there’s a twist moment, but it’s not just a reveal. Revealing the narrator as untrustworthy turns the reader back on everything they’d assumed, and is followed by a blistering monologue attacking many of the assumptions the author has invited about the character.

In this way, the volta isn’t an isolated point in the story, but the point at which the whole story changes in a substantial way. It is, however, the moment where this change hits the reader, and it can hit with the weight of a juggernaut if you let it.

Preparing the volta

The effectiveness of the volta depends on your preparations before it happens – it lands with the impact of the assumptions and safeties you’re ripping away as you introduce it. This is why the volta is most effective when you consider it in your plotting; knowing when and how you’re going to ‘turn’, to challenge the reader with new context, allows you to keep building up the assumptions and, crucially, to bring them to a head at the same time.

The volta shouldn’t be scattered or extended – it’s a swerve, a wake-up call, and that means that everything you’re telling the reader to re-examine should hit them at once.

In ‘The Four Donald Trumps You Meet on Earth’, writer Wendy Molyneux presents a timeline of events in the second person, suggesting them as theoretical but highly relatable examples of a wider problem. Later in the article, however, Molyneux reveals the second-person narration as an artifice.

And then you write a tweet about how Donald Trump is making you a loon because you’ve had to deal with him over and over again in your life, and someone from The Atlantic asks you to write a personal essay about it. You don’t write essays, you write fart jokes, but you give it a try. You write it in second person, which is a kind of writing that you are pretty sure people look down on, but screw it, you’re old now, and you’ve got money in the bank and kids and you are too tired to care what anybody thinks about your second-person narrative voice. “Who cares what readers of The Atlantic think about my second-person narrative voice?” you whisper to your cats, while secretly deeply caring.

– Wendy Molyneux, ‘The Four Donald Trumps You Meet on Earth’ from The Atlantic

In this moment, all the hypothetical situations that Molyneux has described become truly real, not just representative, and the pain and stress radiating from them lands with full force. It’s a moment that emphasizes just how relevant her points have been, and provides the remainder of the article with fresh energy and urgency. As a gifted writer, Molyneux marries this effect to her subject matter – theoretical experiences are pulled together into a real life right as disparate examples of toxic masculinity are suggested as aspects of a single individual; in her volta, Molyneux’s writing is a practical example of her ideological point.

In considering your volta, you gift yourself the ability to plan far in advance and make this moment as powerful as possible. Not only that, but you put yourself in a position to make structure a strength rather than a burden.

Structure and the volta

In The Quadrant Method Is The Key To Amazing Storytelling, I described Dan Harmon’s simple instructions for telling a compelling story that revolves around a core concept. This concept is divided multiple times, splitting along lines that pit interesting aspects against each other (for example, ‘marriage’ becomes ‘happy marriage’ and ‘unhappy marriage’), until four quadrants are formed.

The interesting thing is that these quadrants form a structural blueprint for a deeply satisfying story – the way the idea is split and forced into different states creates a journey; one the human mind instinctively understands. For more on this, you can check out the article, but for now, the key fact is that it’s a technique that works well with the volta.

Why? Because the quadrant method stresses the importance of changing states, positing them as the main beats in your story – the first and most important waypoints in arranging your structure. As an example of how the method works, I split a core idea into the following quadrants:

  • Happy marriage with wife hypnotized,
  • Unhappy marriage with wife hypnotized,
  • Unhappy marriage with husband hypnotized,
  • Happy marriage with husband hypnotized.

The intent is that the author then works to move from one quadrant to the next, creating a story. Here’s a short example:

With our own circles, there are a few more options. Let’s experiment with our ‘marriage’ quadrants. Since the wife starts off hypnotized, let’s use her as the protagonist. So she begins the story hypnotized and happy in her marriage. The next quadrant demands she becomes unhappy, so let’s follow the natural pathway and have her realize she’s been hypnotized to cater to her husband’s every whim. In the next quadrant, he’s hypnotized, so how does our protagonist get us there?

Perhaps, in revenge, she hypnotizes him right back. That creates the necessity for her to find out how – can’t you just see the scene where, suspicious that her thoughts are not her own, she ventures down into his ‘workshop’ and finds an insidious, swirling pendant?

This is a moment of revelation, the fulcrum and ‘soul’ of the story, but a smart author also recognizes it as a natural volta. This is where the story can turn, and that knowledge is something you can naturally take advance of in your writing. How can you bring everything to a head in this moment? How can you show change in form and content?

Pace is a good answer. Books like Fight Club speed up as they approach the volta and then slow down a little, making it clear that things have changed. You could also alter focus or perspective – this is a common trick in Richard Starks’ Parker books, where the story follows the protagonist until things go wrong and then splinters, following several different characters to either explore or explain the problem. Again, Stark marries form to content: the narrative runs as smoothly as the heist, right up until the point where both descend into chaos. Mood is another good way to supplement the impact of a volta – if it’s justified, some well-placed weltschmerz could do wonders.

Pace, tone and mood all bolster the volta‘s effectiveness.Click To Tweet

These devices may not be necessary, though, as just knowing where your volta occurs (and why it’s important) will naturally lead you to write in a way that makes the most of it.

Danger! Danger! High volta

The volta isn’t an artificial contrivance you can insert into your story, but a natural rhetorical device that grows more effective when carefully considered and placed with intent. It’s a simple thing to put into practice, and in marshalling your attention around when and where you adjust the reader’s perception, it will more than pay back the effort of getting to grips with its use.

Want to know more about how to structure your story? Check out The Quadrant Method Is The Key To Amazing Storytelling, A 3-minute Guide To The Snowflake Method By Randy Ingermanson and How To Decide If Your Plot Points Are Too Weak (And How To Fix Them). Has all this talk of narrative devices made you think of a topic you’d like to see us cover, or do you just want to expound on the many virtues of the Petrarchan sonnet? Let me know in the comments.


3 thoughts on “Your Book Is Crying Out For A Volta – Here’s How To Deliver”

  1. Fantastic piece, truly. Crystallised all the sense I’ve been trying to make of reveals and reversals into something clearer and more powerful. Thank you so much.

    Also, hate to be this guy but there’s a typo, I think? “aunhorse?” I only point it out because I loved the article so much and I want to know what you really meant.

    1. Hi Cassius,

      My pleasure, I’m really glad it was useful. Thanks for noting the typo – in a spontaneous moment of what can only be called centaurism, ‘author’ became ‘horse’ about halfway through.


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.