Jello to the Wall: Nailing Voice
The following is an excerpt from my critical paper I submitted to Antioch University of Los Angeles as part of the requirements for attaining my MFA in Fiction Writing. It focuses on the fifth of seven different techniques for creating compelling first lines.
By my count, twenty-four of the first 100 lines focused on establishing a clear, strong voice, but I cringe when I say this. Voice can be so tricky to nail down, and one could make a fine case that all 100 establish clear voices. But some lines are so brief (Moby Dick, The Invisible Man, etc.) that the voice of the author comes later. You might say (and you’d have a point) that the sheer pithiness of those lines is voice. I wouldn’t disagree. However, if I was all inclusive in that sense, all 100 would begin by establishing voice. Instead, I was a little choosier in my approach and selected only lines that rang with a certain timbre, a memorable voice that was as distinguishable as the character that possesses it.
The first line of fiction is like the first impression on a blind date. You may spend hours selecting the right outfit, the right shoes, the right cologne, but all of it can be undone the minute you open your mouth. Fiction, though read with eyes, is really dependant on the ear. The typeface and jacket cover may initially attract the eye, as the right outfit and cologne might impress a date, but the words on the page have a particular challenge—taking black words on a white page and making the ring in the ear of the reader. This, perhaps more than anything else, is voice—when we read a sentence and, rather than being conscious of the words on the page, it’s as if it’s being read to us, or spoken to us.
For this reason, it is imperative that the voice is clear. This is not to say that the narrator must speak like a Harvard-educated Ph.D., unless, of course, the first person narrator is exactly that. Simply put—the voice of the narrator should be clear—the diction might reflect the desired intonation.
Twain was a master of voice. In Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, he begins, “You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain’t no matter” (100BestLines.asp 12). While this line doesn’t immediately establish a clear setting or conflict, it sets up the voice of the narrator immediately. We get a sense of how he speaks. Based on this we can make certain assumptions about the character (as we’re wont to do); we might guess about his age, his education level, and in a deeper sense, whether or not we can trust him. The issue of whether we assume correctly or not is irrelevant—the important part is that we read on to test those assumptions.
When done well, the established voice will not only give us an idea of who is speaking, but of how they view the world. This can often combine to create conflict. Consider Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, “Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board” (100BestLines.asp 44). The voice here—one of apparent longing—establishes a type of tension: whatever the character wants seems distant and out of reach. That, likely, will be how the character views the world.
We can compare and contrast two of the most famous opening lines in fiction in context of voice and still find massive discrepancies. Compare, “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”—a lengthy, complex run-on sentence with elevated diction and lofty prose, a sure-fire deep literary read—and “Call me Ishmael,”—quite the opposite, succinct and plain (100BestLines.asp 9, 1). Yet both of these lines have lived in literary fame since the mid 1850s. I would argue that Dickens’ opening is more engaging, that the contradictions and juxtapositions establish a unique voice that will focus on nuances and draw attention to inconsistencies in the events of the novel and thereby pass judgment. Melville, on the other hand, well, what do we do with three words? But the American Book Review’s list of 100 best lines from novels lists Melville’s as number one. Dickens places a measly ninth, barely in the top ten (100BestLines.asp). Regardless, Dickens does a masterful job of establishing a strong setting.