For the last two weeks, we’ve been discussing different aspects of “voice.” Your voice is the unique sound to your writing that sets your story apart from everyone else’s. They say there are only a handful of basic stories. It’s how we tell them that distinguishes them.
Some writers elevate the idea of “voice” to some mythic super-power that you either have or you don’t, like x-ray vision. That there’s dangerous territory. I believe voice is simpler than that. It’s just the way your express yourself. In real life, your voice is a mixture of physical aspects (how your vocal chords are shaped) and intangible expressive choices (what you choose to say or the sounds you choose to make with those vocal chords). In writing, your voice is a combination of the technical prowess you display (with your word choice, sentence-construction, rhythm, and descriptive flair) and what you choose to express with that technical skill (the ideas you choose to describe, explore, or question).
Whether or not your voice grabs the attention of other readers depends on many things, from shared experience to breath-catching imagery. And the best ways to explore and strengthen your writing voice are very similar to trying to establish your singing voice, for example. As a novice singer, your training will include exercises to strengthen the physical aspects of your vocal chords and respiratory system. Your training will also include singing in a variety of genres, techniques, and styles as you build versatility and find the sounds that feel most “natural” to you. Eventually, most singers develop their own style and sound that they believe best fits what they’re trying to express.
Finding your writing voice is a lot like that. That’s why reading and writing widely, in many genres and styles, is so important as you’re developing as a writer, and why even advanced writers continue to read and write often and in many directions.
Your voice is continually changing. It is not a static thing (pun intended). You don’t wake up one day and say, “Ah, there it is. I now have a voice. It’s perfect as is. I don’t need to change a thing.” On the contrary, your voice is not a destination in and of itself. It is a tool, not the final product.
Your voice can and will change over time. More importantly, your voice can – and should – change from story to story. Do you ever plan to tell the same story twice? Probably not. Each story has its own life, its own purpose, its own heart, its own mind. Therefore it will have its own voice, too.
All of this talk of “voice” sounds nice and vague, and about as useful as a wax bicycle. How do you explore voice in your own writing?
One of the most immediately gratifying ways is to take a single scene and write it multiple times from the point of view of several different characters. This exercise lets you see instantly how a character’s own voice can color their version of the story. “But those voices will be the characters’ voices, not my own,” you might be protesting. Um, yeah. Think about that for a moment. Did you invent the character? Did you invent his/her voice? Then it’s yours.
In any story, making your characters sound like individuals is critical. Nothing makes a story fall flat like characters who all sound the same. If the bad guy and the hero both spout sparkling dialogue with nifty turns of phrase and spot-on literary allusions, how is the reader going to tell them apart? And if they sound the same, why should your reader care about either one? After a while, your reader begins to suspect that all your characters are just thinly veiled versions of you, and that begins to feel forced and pretentious, no matter how brilliant your word-choice and sentence construction are. So as important as it is to find your own voice, it’s equally important to make sure each of your characters has their own voice, too.
Here is an exercise in voice:
A thief has just robbed a convenience store, and there were witnesses. Write a one- or two-page description of the robbery four different times, each one from the point of view of a different person in the store:
· The teenage skateboarder who was getting a soda at the time.
· The business woman grabbing her latte on her way to work.
· The middle-aged cashier, who was filling in for his brother-in-law.
· The robber. (You choose who he/she is.)
As you write their reports of the robbery, pay attention to their word choice, the cadence of their spoken speech, the details they notice, the emotion they express. Do they talk fast or deliberately? Scattered or methodical? Hysterical or bored? Do they focus on physical details or emotional impressions?
As you explore each character’s telling of the story, you will learn aspects of that character’s voice. And the more you learn about your characters’ voices, the more you’ll learn about your own as an author.