The Right Voice Will Put Anyone Under A Spell
Updated: Apr 8, 2021
Consider the sirens. Those mythical beings that lured sailors to violent deaths with only the sound of their voices. The really crazy thing is that the sailors knew damn well they were going to die, but they went anyway. Writing works exactly the same way. Our voice lures our readers. Perhaps into violent waters to be dashed upon sharp rocks, hopefully just through a good story, but if it's not good, as long as the voice is, they'll be drawn through it anyway.
Voice in writing, specifically in narrative prose, is a special area of interest for me. With that in mind I’m going to offer today’s blog post to the new writers out there who want to write but aren’t really sure how to get their inside stuff on an outside page.
Welcome to 'voice'.
Voice is arguably the most important element of good writing. What is ‘voice’? Ask one hundred writers, get one hundred different answers. What writers are talking about when they speak of 'voice' is how the words on the page hit the reader's ear. That provides the reader with information they're not always aware they're getting. Essentially narrative voice is an unwritten message to the reader conveyed using emotion. That’s an awfully scant number of words to describe what is, admittedly, an enormous topic of infinite proportions.
There are a lot of story elements any writer has to consider; arc, conflict, denouement, balance of exposition to scene, character development, setting, time advancement, I could go on but the biggest is voice. Those are a lot of terms specific to story writing and if you’re not familiar with them I suggest Googling them (following with the phrase 'in fiction' or whatever genre you're interested in) and seeing what you find.
This blog post has a voice. How are you receiving it? Does it sound a little relaxed, intelligent, conversational? It should hit your reader’s “ear” with all those elements. (If it doesn't, I've failed.) This is my comfortable narrative voice. Writing this way is fairly effortless. (It only became difficult when I pointed it out in this narrative. Go figure.) It’s that way because I’ve been writing in it for almost twenty years.
In fiction, I frequently find myself in need of an entirely different voice, and I am able to do that (see my story Relentless for an example) because I understand the elements in voice that require change in order to convincingly change the voice in a piece. But before I figured all that out, I had to develop a voice.
How do you do that? Short answer: By stealing.
Longer answer: When you read (and you have to read if you want to write) your little writerly brainparts are taking note of syntax and register and all sorts of things about that author’s voice that you like. As you play around with learning to write you end up piecing those little parts together and it forms your own voice. This form of thievery is not only legal but encouraged.
That’s not to say you should plagiarize all your favorite phrases from the work you read. Please don’t do that. But if you notice that a favorite author frequently puts words together in an appealing way, steal the formula. Is it their use of metaphor? Is it the way they’re pairing their adverbs and nouns? Is it their sentence construction? Look at those phrases that really make you go, “Wow!” as you read them over four or five times before moving on. Take note of anything like that, good or bad, as you read (taking actual notes is unbelievably helpful here). Then try it. Well, the good stuff. Take the bad as a lesson in what not to do. If you do this stuff enough you'll find your own unique voice and your foundation as a writer.
Good voice in writing is essential no matter what you want to write, but if you want to write fiction, you need an outstanding one. Voice is what keeps readers turning the page. Most of us build our voice from instinct. There’s nothing wrong with this and in fact I would argue it should be done this way, but if you can define that instinct, you can control it.
And once you can do that, well, you can make it do anything you like.