Voice is one of the most difficult writing terms to define and pinpoint. We might know it when we see it, but what’s voice made of, really?
You hear so often that agents and editors want “new voices” and “compelling voices” and voice voice voice. So what is voice? How do you cultivate it? And how many rhetorical questions do you think can I fit into one post?
Voice, at its most basic level, is the sensibility with which an author writes. It’s a perspective, an outlook on the world, a personality and style that is recognizable even out of context. You could drop randomly into a David Sedaris story or an Ernest Hemingway novel and probably guess the author within a few paragraphs because they have strong, unique voices.
An author’s voice is often imitated (think: Tolkien), but a truly original voice can never be duplicated.
So what makes a good voice? How do you cultivate one?
Among the essential elements:
At its heart, voice is about style. And not just style in the sense of punctuation and how the prose looks on the page (though that can play a role), but style in the sense of a flow, a rhythm, a cadence to the writing, a vocabulary, lexicon, and slang the author is drawing upon.
A voice can be wordy (William Faulkner) or it can be spare (Cormac McCarthy). It can be stylish and magical (Jeanette Winterson) or it can be wry and gritty (Elmore Leonard). It can be tied to unique locations (Toni Morrison) or it can be almost wholly invented (Anthony Burgess). But whatever the flavor of the writing, a good voice has a recognizable style.
A good voice has a personality of its own, even when the novel is written in third person. There’s an outlook that is expressed in a voice. It’s a unique way of seeing the world and choosing which details to focus on and highlight and a first draft of how the reader will process the reality of the book. Think of how Catch-22 captured the absurdity of WW-II by boiling down irrational rules and presenting them at face value, or Stephen Colbert’s TV character, always seeing things and arguing from an invented perspective.
There’s a tone to a good voice, whether it’s magical (J.K. Rowling) or slightly sinister (Roald Dahl) or hyper-aware (John Green).
A good voice is consistent throughout a novel. It may get darker or lighter or funnier or sadder, but it doesn’t suddenly shift wildly from whimsical to GRUESOME MURDER. (Unless, of course, the voice is capable of it). A good voice is never lost when the plot shifts.
Even the strongest voices don’t over-do it. Voices are not made up of repeated verbal tics (“You know,” “like,” “so I mean,” “I was all,” etc.) but are much more nuanced than that. They are not transcribed real-life dialogue, they give the impression of a real-life voice while remaining a unique construct.
A good voice envelops the reader within the world of a book. It puts us in a certain frame of mind and lets us see the world through someone else’s perspective, and provides not just the details of that world but also gives a sense of the character of the world. Basically: see J.K. Rowling.
From Bryan Russell (aka Ink) (full comment below): “For me, one of the absolutely key elements of voice is authority. With a great voice you know the writer is in control, so in control that the writer vanishes and you see only the story… A great voice carries you through the story, compels you through the story. I think all great voices have that… There’s a sureness to a great voice. The words are simply right and the rhythms of the prose are buoyant. You won’t sink, not with these voices.”
Above all, a good voice is unique and can’t be duplicated. It is also extremely contagious. And this is the hardest thing about starting off a novel: we have thousands of authors’ voices swimming around our heads, many of them quite powerful, and they are only too happy to take up residence in our current Work in Progress. But that’s okay! Don’t sweat it if it doesn’t come right away: We all have to find our voice, and one of the best ways to do that is to just write, even if what you’re starting with is derivative. You may need to keep writing until you find the voice. Just remember to revise revise revise the opening in said voice once you have it.
And this is the key to finding the voice: your voice is in you. It’s not you per se, but it’s made up of bits and pieces of you. It may be the expression of your sense of humor or your whimsy or your cynicism or frustration or hopes or honesty, distilled down or dialed up into a voice. We should never make the mistake as readers of equating an author with their voice, but they’re wrapped up together in a complicated and real way. We leave fingerprints all over our work. That part of you in your work is what makes it something that no one else can duplicate.
What do you think? What do you think makes for a good voice, and what are some of your favorites?
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Art: The Singer in Pink by Jean-Louis Forain