Of all the elements of fiction, voice and style are perhaps the trickiest to teach. Nonetheless, Steve and I tackle the subject this week and seek to demystify a topic that has stymied writers for centuries. You can listen below, or download the file here. Remember, you can always find Steve and I on Facebook, Twitter, iTunes, and Stitcher.
When writers talk about voice, they mean an author’s unique style of crafting words and phrases, of establishing images and rhythm. When you read Hemingway, you know you’re reading Hemingway. When you read Fitzgerald, you know you’re reading Fitzgerald. When you read someone else, you’re likely to compare them (or at least portions of what they’ve written), to other famous writers.
By way of example, Ben Blatt did a textual analysis of three popular YA series to make a few conclusions about each author’s voice. He also provided some very handy, very enlightening side-by-side comparisons of each author’s most common sentences, words, adverbs, sentence starters, etc. If you want to get a good sense of voice, this is an outstanding resource to help demystify what can be a confusing topic.
In the same way, our fiction should seek to establish a unique voice, a unique and original way of putting words and images together. However, if truth be told, all authors use a variety of voices throughout their work. Some scenes will be more distant, more subtle. Others will be more packed with imagery. Still others will adopt a formal voice that sounds like someone giving a speech. This is not a bad thing. In fact, it’s encouraged. Moving from voice to voice can help keep a novel moving forward. It can provide enough change to keep the reader’s interest.
There are several standard voices writers use and move between.
Natural Voice is marked by colloquial speech. It’s pretty informal, and will use contraction. For the most part, you’ll see standard sentence constructions, but you’ll also find the occasional run-on or fragment sentence. A good example of this comes from the first line of J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye:
“If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.”
Cormac McCarthy, in his novel No Country for Old Men, relied heavily on a stripped-down natural voice to carry the bulk of the story.
“There might not or even been no money.
But you dont believe it.
Bell thought about it. No, he said. Probably I dont.”
Chatter is a sub-category of Natural Voice. It’s predominantly characterized by shorter, choppier sentences. It delivers a faster, more punctuated voice, and is best used for moments of heightened emotion: agitation, frustration, anger, fear, etc. Chuck Palanuik utilizes this often in his writing, and it’s very clear in his novel Choke.
“If you’re going to read this, don’t bother. After a couple pages, you won’t want to be here. So forget it. Go away. Get out while you’re still in one piece. Save yourself.”
The Lyrical Voice is a very poetic style. It relies heavily on imagery and rhythm. Writers will make use of figurative language frequently in the lyrical voice, and often will try to set up certain smybols through the use of figurative language. In Swann’s Way by Marcel Proust, we see a fantastic example of this voice.
“I found it all humming with the smell of the hawthorns. The hedge formed a series of chapels that disappeared under the litter of their flowers, heaped into wayside altars; below them, the sun was laying down a grid of brightness on the ground, as if it had just passed through a stained glass window…”
Cormac McCarthy also utilizes it in No Country for Old Men in this passage.
“When he woke it was 1:06 by the digital clock on the bedside table. He lay there looking at the ceiling, the raw glare of the vaporlamp outside bathing the bedroom in a cold and bluish light. Like a winger moon. Or some other kind of moon. Something stellar and alien in its light that he’d come to feel comfortable with. Anything but sleep in the dark.”
The Oratorical Voice is used mainly in speeches. Still, there are moments in fiction when you want to adopt a more formal voice like this. Perhaps your character is rallying his troops. Or perhaps she is delivering her acceptance speech after being elected President of the United States. Regardless, you’ll find a very formal voice marked by elevated diction. These passages will be wordier, and may span several paragraphs of pages. This voice utilizes parallelism, and will often list things in threes. Notice how Charles Dickens uses contrasts in this voice to begin A Tale of Two Cities.
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times; it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness; it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity; it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness; it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair; we had everything before us, we had nothing before us; we were all going directly to Heaven, we were all going the other way.”
Deconstructed Voice is much like Chatter, only choppier and more fragmented. The sentences are often very short, and grammar rules are almost ignored. This is very much stream-of-consciousness, where the exact thoughts of a character are poured onto the page with virtually no filter. It can be hard to follow as a result, but can also be very effective in communication heightened states of emotion. Consider this example from David Markson’s Vanishing Point.
“Keats. Wondering aloud where Shakespeare was sitting when he wrote To be or not to be. Now and again, PIcasso used the whitewashed walls of rented villas to sketch on. Once a landlord demanded fifty fancs for a fresh coat of paint–Leaving for Picasso’s amusement years later the question of what the man had cost himself.”
While your use of these voices can help your writing, each of them will serve to further reinforce your original voice, your unique way of telling a story worth telling.
Until next week, good writing.