Gross Anatomy of a Novel: Voice

Gross Anatomy of a Novel: Voice



Firsts in Fiction

Gross Anatomy of a Novel: Voice

Continuing our look at Gross Anatomy of a Novel, this week we discuss Voice. First, let’s define “Voice.” Voice is one of the trickiest aspects of writing fiction. One thing the best writers have in common is a unique way of writing. When you pick up a Stephen King book, you know it’s a King book. Dean Koontz sounds like Dean Koontz in every novel he writes. You can read a passage of Fitzgerald and know exactly who wrote it. However, as new writers, we begin by emulating our favorites. That’s fine. It’s like singing someone else’s song. Eventually, though, we have to write our own music. To help with that, here is a quick look at the different types of “voices” in fiction.

  1. Remember that there is a difference between the voice of the narrator and the voice of other characters present in the story. This is most clearly seen in first person, where the narrator is the protagonist, and the author therefore writes in the voice of this character. Most of our examples are taken from first person novels (though not all). However in third person, the narrator often becomes a character of their own, speaking primarily in the natural “voice” or “style” of the author. This author’s voice (which is generally a combination and preferred rhythm of moving between these voices) is what becomes their distinctive style.


  1. Natural Voice
    1. Straightforward, everyday language.
    2. Most popular voice, most popular novels primarily fall into this category.
    3. J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye
      1. If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll 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.
      2. Al: Since this is first person narrative, the voice is that of the character. The point-of-view character is the narrator.
    4. Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men
      1. There might not of even been no money.
        That’s possible.
        But you don’t believe it.
        Bell thought about it. No, he said. Probably I don’t.
    5. Richard Russo’s Straight Man
      1. Truth be told, I’m not an easy man. I can be an entertaining one, though it’s been my experience that most people don’t want to be entertained. They want to be comforted. And, of course, my idea of entertaining might not be yours. I’m in complete agreement with all those people who say, regarding movies, “I just want to be entertained.” This populist position is much derided by my academic colleagues as simple minded and unsophisticated, evidence of questionable analytical and critical acuity. But I agree with the premise, and I too just want to be entertained. That I am almost never entertained by what entertains other people who just want to be entertained doesn’t make us philosophically incompatible. It just means we shouldn’t go to movies together.
  2. “Chatter” (Sub-voice of Natural)
    1. Heightened, high energy voice (any affected or colloquial—slang—use of language, whether gangsta or professorial)
    2. Chuck Palanuik’s Choke
      1. If you’re going to read this, don’t bother.
        After a couple of pages, you won’t want to be here. So forget it. Go away. Get out while you’re still in one piece.
        Save yourself.
        There has to be something better on television. Or since you have so much time on your hands, maybe you could take a night course. You could make something out of yourself. Treat yourself to a dinner out. Color your hair.
        You’re not getting any younger.
        What happens here is first going to *tick* you off. After that it gets worse and worse.
        What you’re getting here is a stupid story about a stupid little boy. A stupid true life story about nobody you’d ever want to meet. Picture this little spaz being about waist high with a handful of blond hair…
    3. Lyrical Voice
      1. Lyrical Voice poetic and sensory; taste, smell, sight, sound, feel.
      2. Focus on imagery, rhythm.
      3. Slows down the prose, useful for distraction from tense moments, or to heighten silences, romantic moments, etc.
      4. Marcel Proust’s Swann’s Way
        • 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; their perfume spread as unctuous, as delimited in its form as if I were standing before the altar of the Virgin, and the flowers, themselves adorned also, each held out with a distracted air its sparkling bunch of stamens, delicate radiating ribs in the flamboyant style like those which, in the church, perforated the balustrade of the rood screen or the mullions of the window and blossomed out into the white flesh of a strawberry flower.
  3. Oratorical Voice
    1. To be read and sung, the voice of speeches
    2. Makes use of contrasts (I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him)
    3. Parallel structure (I have a dream that … I have a dream that…)
    4. Lists of three (Education, edification, and emancipation).
    5. Combine and contrast lists (contrast a third item with the first two: “We shall negotiate for it, sacrifice for it, but never surrender for it.”)
    6. Best if not overused
    7. Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities
      1. 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.
    8. Ecclesiastes 3:1-8
      1. There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven: a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to uproot, a time to kill and a time to heal, a time to tear down and a time to build, a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance, a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them, a time to embrace and a time to refrain, a time to search and a time to give up, a time to keep and a time to throw away, a time to tear and a time to mend, a time to be silent and a time to speak, a time to love and a time to hate, a time for war and a time for peace.
  4. Deconstructed Voice
    1. Fractured, unconventional, broken narrative
    2. Missing scenes, missing punctuation
    3. Structure has been taken apart and put together in another way for effect
    4. David Markson’s Vanishing Point
      1. 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 francs for a fresh coat of paint—Leaving for Picasso’s amusement years later the question of what the man had cost himself.
        I can’t listen to music too often. It makes you want to say stupid, nice things.
        Said Lenin.
    5. Cormac McCarthy’s punctuation in No Country for Old Men
      1. I aint never seen you there.
        How could you of seen me there if I aint never been there?
        I couldn’t. I was just saying I aint. I was agreein with you.
        Moss shook his head.
        They ate. He watched her.
        I reckon you’re on your way to California.
        How did you know that?
        That’s the direction you’re headed in.
        Well that’s where I’m going.
  5. Moving between voices
    1. Just as your speech changes when your emotions fluctuate, so should the voice change with the tone of the prose. What voice best represents the feeling of the work at that particular moment?
    2. Write the same scene in different voices. Which one sounds the most appropriate? Why?
    3. Switch voices when you switch perspectives. Voice can help demonstrate how a character views the world, and how he/she interacts with that world.

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