Voice 1–Mechanics

From the Director…Voice 1–Mechanics

You’re in one of our local indie book stores, because that’s where you usually shop for books.  You’re browsing, picking up books on the bargain table or pulling them off the shelves.  Or perhaps you are in one of our libraries.

Maybe you began by seeing what was available from your favorite authors.  Or you went to a specific section—mystery or fantasy or literary.  Perhaps you chose a book at random because you were intrigued by the title or enticed by the cover art.

You haven’t read a word in it yet, but now you open it up.  Some of us open in the middle and read a random page.  Some of us open to the first page.  We read a few sentences, a paragraph, even a few pages.  What is it that draws us in, that makes us know that this book is worth our time?

Primarily, it’s a very difficult-to-define element that readers don’t think about or have a name for.  Writers agonize over it and call it Voice.

Voice is not just how a character sounds in dialogue.  Voice is also the voice of the narrator, who may be a character, if the book is a memoir or first-person novel, but who also is that nameless ethereal voice that is telling the story and that the reader hears in his head.

We all remember powerful voices that stay with us long after the book is read.  My personal favorites:  It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known. (A Tale of Two Cities).  May the Lord grant me the grace to be the transparent witness of the happenings that took place in the abbey whose name it is only right and pious now to omit, toward the end of the year of our Lord 1327. . .(The Name of the Rose)

As you can see, I love formal historical voices that sound like they have echoed through centuries.  But maybe you like a modern, snappier, even snarkier voice.  I am writing this book because John is the dullest man I know and I am tired of hanging out with such a fool: this book will spice up his dull existence and I will benefit from the excitement. (Coffee with John Heartbreak)

We can see from these examples how Voice determines the tone, the identity, the very soul of the story.

Now it’s always easy to recognize a strong, unique voice in another’s writing, but not so easy to create such a voice in our own.  I read one agent’s blog, and he said that voice was the most difficult element to teach.  That, of course, made me determined to teach it.

I believe that the elements of creating a strong Voice fall into two categories: Mechanics and Emotion.

The mechanical elements of voice include vocabulary and syntax.  Vocabulary is the words the writer selects, and the syntax is the arrangement of those words in the sentence.  Suppose we use different words and syntax for our first two examples.  I’m doing a better thing than I’ve ever done and going to a better place than I’ve ever been to.  Or, God help me tell what really happened in 1327 in that abbey, whose name we will keep a secret.

What created the difference?  The words we chose and the way we arranged them. (To maintain a strong historical voice in my own manuscript, I kept the vocabulary authentic. I looked up every word in the Oxford Historical Thesaurus and did not use any word not in use by 1600.)

The mechanical aspects of Voice also include the rhythm of the sentences, the use of unique metaphors, the punctuation.  Notice how the repetition in A Tale of Two Cities heightens the drama and adds a liturgical intonation.  For this is a statement of monument, spoken by a character who has made a great transformational journey and found redemption and who now faces his execution.  The example from The Name of the Rose has a similar tone and tells us that we are going to be told a story of importance and horror.

The problems that I see with beginning writers is that their voice does not sound unique or colorful or alive.  There are never any contractions, or striking metaphors, and the characters sound like wooden dolls.  Yet even in the examples above, where the language is so formal, we still find passion and drama and urgency.

In a future column, I will cover the second element of voice, emotion, and how it conveys that very important concept called narrative tension.