menu Menu
NARRATION #5: Voice 
People keep talking about the voice of certain authors. But does anyone know what it means? Let's try figuring it out together.
Posted on 11 November 2021 0 Comments
NARRATION #6: Motivation Previous NARRATION #4: Focalisation Next

Let Your Voice Be Heard

(Disclaimer: Everything I present here has been influenced by essays, articles and books I read as a student. I don’t want to claim anything as my original thought. Still, going back to find out who said what seems too much to tackle at the moment. Don’t think of this as me teaching my original wisdom. Think of it as sharing what I’ve learned.)

Writing is a form of art. And as with all art, it does things to us that cannot be fully dissected or even understood. So, when people talk about an author’s voice, it doesn’t do much good to say: “Wait a minute! How exactly do you use the term voice here?” – Still, that’s exactly what I’ll try to do in the next couple of paragraphs.

The voice of a writer is like their fingerprint. There might be someone out there with a similar one, but no two ones will ever be the same. The same way you can tell a van Gogh when you see one, or a nocturne by Chopin when you hear it, you can also say: “No one comes to the point like Hemingway” or “This marvellous whodunnit could only have been written by Dame Agatha.”

More importantly, recognising voice in other writers will help you recognise your own voice. Once you know what it is that makes your writing special, you can hone that craft. This way, you can offer your readers the essence of you, instead of just the watered-down version.

So, let’s get into it: What do we mean, when we speak about voice?

Style

Let’s describe one writing phenomenon nobody really understands by another writing phenomenon nobody really understands either. Sounds fun, right? – Well, it doesn’t have to be as bad as I make it sound. Because style can be divided into certain parameters, in my opinion.

Keep in mind that none of the following is agreed upon (or frankly, even discussed) in academia. This is just my way of looking at this whole situation. If it helps you in your writing, I’m happy nonetheless.

Choice of Words

We already talked about this in my post on the Six Functions of Language. Which words we choose in combination with which other words creates a texture and atmosphere that can add a new perspective to your text.

Sometimes it can also estrange or (worse) bore your reader. Think of Arthur Conan Doyle’s overuse of the word “ejaculated” and Stephen King’s overuse of the word “said”.

Word choice can vary because of different reasons: Maybe you’re writing historical fiction instead of contemporary. Maybe you’re writing in another time than other authors have or in another language. Maybe you are a pretentious snob that likes to show off the thesaurus you got for Christmas. – That’s something you have to know for yourself.

Bear in mind, though, what effect this will have on your reader. Does using a certain word make it harder for them to understand a text? Why might that be a good thing? Could a word choice lend authenticity to your writing or create irony?

A great writing exercise is trying to write the same story using different words. Post in the comments what cool things you could come up with. Here’s me giving a pretentious revamp to Jack and Jill.

Jakob, alongside Jillian, travelled up the small mountain. Their objective: retrieve a jug of Adam’s ale.

Choice of Syntax

Style becomes most apparent when we talk about syntax and grammar. You will never mistake Hemingway for James Joyce. Not, because their word choice is so different – but because their sentences work totally different: One of them enjoys short, pragmatic phrases. The other one likes elaborate phrases and sub-clauses, twisting subjects and words alike.

Once again, the question is not: Which choice of syntax is best? But rather: Which choice of syntax has the desired effect on my reader?

Take this passage from Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ Autumn of the Patriarch:

She had said I’m tired of begging God to overthrow my son, because all this business of living in the presidential palace is like having the lights on all the time, sir, and she had said it with the same naturalness with which on one national holiday she had made her way through the guard of honor with a basket of empty bottles and reached the presidential limousine that was leading the parade of celebration in an uproar of ovations and martial music and storms of flowers and she shoved the basket through the window and shouted to her son that since you’ll be passing right by take advantage and return these bottles to the store on the corner, poor mother.

Granted, this is taken from dialogue. But still, we can see the effect of syntax: It seems tired, exhausted even. It doesn’t allow the reader to rest the same way the poor mother isn’t allowed to rest either. Most of all, it gives the impression that it isn’t premeditated. – In this instance, Marquez’ style might be described as running, exhausting and immediate.

Just for fun, see what changes when we change up just a bit of syntax. Nothing tragic – only a few periods and main-clauses:

She had said: “I’m tired of begging God to overthrow my son. All this business of living in the presidential palace is like having the lights on all the time.” She had said it with the same naturalness with which on one national holiday she had made her way through the guard of honor with a basket of empty bottles: The presidential limousine was leading the parade of celebration in an uproar of ovations and martial music and storms of flowers. When she reached it, she shoved the basket through the window and shouted to her son: “Since you’ll be passing right by, take advantage and return these bottles to the store on the corner.” Poor mother.

It’s still far from Hemingway. But even this simple change made it easier to follow along. As always, you’ll have to balance authenticity and comfort, compromise between allowing your reader space to breathe and thrilling them as much as possible.

Choice of Structure

If we take it on the next level, we need to talk about the overall structure of your novel: Is it split into chapters? How long are these? Is there a prologue? Do those chapters have names? Are they ordered chronologically? What does the author leave out? – You get my drift.

Just compare Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell to The Hunger Games. One skips entire years of plot, works with footnotes and is divided into neat parts – almost like a scholarly work; the other tells you nearly everything happening, has a number of very short chapters and gets right to the point. – Neither of them are wrong, as they both serve their readers’ best interest.

In the end, choosing words, syntax and structure comes down to two questions: What do you enjoy writing? and What kind of style does your story demand?

If it is true that content dictates form (and it absolutely is), then we also need to consider the opposite: form dictates content. You’ll soon find that you are drawn to those kinds of stories that allow your favourite writing styles to flourish and that your writing style also influences the arcs of those stories.

Tone

If style is determined by decisions on the level of the text, tone happens on a level above that: It is more about how you (or rather your narrator) views the narration itself. Don’t worry – I’ll try to explain.

Relation to the Text

We never “just” tell a story or write down a text. If we did, we could as well be machines. When we write – and yes, I’m conflating writers and narrators now for the sake of not going crazy -, we position ourselves to our own text, making it clear to potential readers how we see it.

Charles Dickens was popular for his very own relation to the text: He wrote about social misgivings with earnesty and also a lot of irony. He basically made “social justice” during that time palatable. The Chronicles of Narnia are enjoyed by thousands of children, because it takes itself seriously (while it might berate the readers every now and then). Twilight, in a way, was mocked for its sincerity and how it refused to see its own flaws – despite many other issues with the story and with society.

Think of it this way: If you tell your friend about your date, you’ll carry a certain position to your story. Your storytelling choices determine whether she will laugh with you or pity you. – She will listen for and pick up cues in your narration to do so.

The closer you are to your own text, the closer your reader will feel to it, too. There’s a reason The Picture of Dorian Gray has appreciators, but little die-hard fans, while Twilight has die-hard fans, but little appreciators. – Just read them, and you’ll understand.

Choice of Themes

As I’ve stated before: I don’t think you actively choose a theme for your story. You will find themes in your stories and bring them into the light. But that doesn’t mean that authors don’t have favourite themes. And most of the time, we’re unaware.

I once said to a collaborator: “Your story ideas so often concern themselves with money, corruption and liberation from societal pressure.” He hadn’t noticed before. Which, of course, made me question the stories I’m drawn to. I’ve found my go-to themes are dignity, parent-child relationships, pride and revenge. – Our experiences determine who we become as a person and as a writer – if we know it or not.

The important thing is: Don’t stress yourself to find your themes. Let them happen naturally. Whether you stumble upon them through readers or a psycho-therapist doesn’t matter. Once you found them, however, you can focus on them and find a way to improve your writing (and maybe your personal life.)

Choice of Narrator

We’ve talked about narrators at length already. So, I won’t push this category to the limit. I’ll just say this: The choice of your narrator influences the tone of your story immensely. If content dictates form, then narrator dictates tone.

You’ll find that many authors go back to the same type of narrator over and over again: Charles Dickens liked to write in third person without focalisation. Stephen Fry likes to use third-person limited with overbearing geniuses as the character we see the story through. Other authors tend to favour first-person.

Once again, this doesn’t have to mean anything to you. You don’t have to decide now which narrator and focalisation you’ll use for the rest of your career. But you’ll find that your personal preferences will lend themselves to certain types of narration. And if you know your strengths – why not use them?

Personality

As I said before, writing is a form of art. And art eludes everyone. Not just its consumer, but its producer as well. You can influence your voice, but you can never control it. – That’s because it has so much to do with your personality as a writer and as a person.

When I write at length about style and tone, I don’t do so to prescribe you certain decisions you have to make. Most of these choices happen subconsciously. I just want you to be aware of them – at least in parts. That way, you can troubleshoot when you need to.

Anytime else, just trust in the spark that fuels your voice and write. Other people will decide what your voice actually is.

What Can We Learn from this?

This post hasn’t been as in-depth or informational as others have been. It’s a difficult subject and my thoughts aren’t quite finished. Still, I think there are some lessons to take away.

  1. Voice is elusive. Don’t try to capture and control it, or you’ll end up killing it in the process.
  2. Your choice of words, syntax and structure determine your style. Choose wisely to achieve the effect you want to achieve.
  3. Think about your own relationship with your text. Because your readers certainly will.
  4. Don’t worry too much about themes or anything like that. Once they’ll come to you, you’ll see them and adjust appropriately.
  5. Your choice of narrator is one of the key elements of your voice. Keep that in mind if you’re struggling to get the story jump off the page.
  6. In the end, it comes down to your personality. And as with personality in real life: You might have an idea what type of person you are – but others will see you any way they choose.
  7. Write what and how you like. Your voice will emerge naturally.

Happy writing,
F.G.

author author advice fiction how to write narration narrator storytelling voice writer writing writing advice


Previous Next

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Cancel Post Comment

keyboard_arrow_up