Voice in writing: what is it and how should you use it?


Voice in writing
Voice: louder isn’t necessarily better…
“You don’t get a second chance to make a first impression” is possibly one of the most commonly given pieces of advice to prospective job interviewees. At least part of the first impression you give comes from your voice – its volume, pitch, tone, speed, and, unsurprisingly, the words themselves.

Well, it’s exactly the same with writing. Your voice, or the specific, almost indefinable way in which your words are put together, will help a reader (or literary agent) decide within a matter of seconds whether or not they can be bothered to turn to page two.

So what is voice? How do you know yours is a good one? And how can you find it if you have no idea where it’s gone?

What is voice?

Voice was one of the weekly topics covered by my self-editing course, and, to me, the single most useful thing we learnt.

Many elements contribute to voice and these are just some of them:

  • Atmosphere – whether you want the reader to instantly feel the story is spooky or funny or sad.
  • Whether a character or separate narrator (or some combination) is telling the story – you might want the voice to differ drastically between characters / narrators (should you write from the perspective of more than one). Whether you want to write from a first person or third person perspective (broadly “I went” compared to “Kirsty went”) will also have a bearing on how you employ voice.
  • Where the storyteller is “standing” in a figurative sense, i.e. whether they are experiencing events along with the reader or looking back, and who they are telling their story to (and why) – do they know, and therefore, allude to later events of the book, or is everything as much of a surprise to them as it is to the reader?
  • Dialect – do you want this to be more authentic to the character or (potentially) easier for the reader to get to grips with quickly?
  • Rhythm of your prose – sentence length and structure, how varied they are, any patterns you employ.
  • To what extent the character’s thoughts and emotions colour the prose – psychic distance (i.e. how far inside the character’s head the reader gets) is closely linked to voice. I plan to cover it more fully in a future post, but read this very useful blog if you want to find out more (incidentally it is by Emma Darwin, one of our course tutors).
  • The types of words you use – big ones, small ones, descriptive ones, functional ones, commonplace ones, unusual ones etc etc.
  • The things you focus on – people or objects, colours or shapes, the big picture or small details, the whole forest or an individual tree.

In short, voice comprises both the style and substance of your writing. It is the thing that makes a reader want to read on for a reason they can’t quite put their finger on – essentially, they like both what the storyteller is saying and how they are saying it.

So how did we use this information to enrich our writing on the course?

Voice – what did I learn?

Before the course, I already knew what voice was, at least theoretically, and I knew that mine was reasonably good (or “idiosyncratic” as my year 10 English teacher put it) but I had never really thought about it, or experimented with it in any way. I mentioned in a previous blog post that I have always favoured writing in third person, and this is the perspective I have chosen for my book.

So when we were told that our week 3 exercise was to take a two-character passage from our book and to make three versions of it (third person, and then first person from the perspective of each of the characters), I was very excited about the challenge and what I could make of it. The purpose of the exercise was to see how our voice differed from extract to extract.

Here’s what I did:

Third person (as in my book draft)

Sadie frowned as she scanned the pack.

‘Tell you what?’

She already knew what her friend wanted though. Her pulse raced as she reached towards the cards. She picked them up, looked at them one by one. Five cards. Five ambiguous cards. Lora beamed.

‘Tell me whether I’ll see my baby again.’

Sadie patted around the blanket for the bottle, unwilling to look up from the cards, to see the look on her friend’s face. Her mouth felt dry – she needed more brandy. The magician. She had always liked that card, liked to pretend it was her. Fortune telling was magic, was it not? The brandy slicked her tongue but her lips still rubbed like parchment. The empress. Perhaps a Peruvian empress? She looked exotic in the picture, a bit like Lora’s sister but less surly. The next card was justice. She put it to the back. The hermit. The moon. What did they mean?

Sadie had asked a question once before. Three pence, no refunds. The answer had been no in her case. Lora wanted to see her child again – her friend Lora who was always so happy. She didn’t look happy now though, biting her bottom lip, a crease of skin between her eyebrows. Perhaps that was a good thing. Use your skills to get what you want, the old man had said. Sadie wanted happiness. She looked up at her friend.

‘No, I don’t think you will.’

First person (Sadie)

’Tell you what?’

I didn’t need to ask that but I wanted to buy some time, to delay a moment longer. My heart raced, my temples began to burn. I picked up the pack of cards, slowly, slowly. There were five. Five cards that I stared at but didn’t really see. I glanced at Lora. She was smiling.

Why did she have to be smiling?

‘Tell me whether I’ll see my baby again’, she said.

Just as I had thought. Where was the brandy? Perhaps I’d let liquor make my decision for me. I opened the canteen, tipped it back. I was parched anyway, tongue like a paper bag. I flicked through the cards again, anything but see the look on Lora’s face. The magician. I swallowed a smile. I’ve always liked that one – fortune telling is magic, is it not? I licked my brandy-laced lips. The empress. Exotic, Peruvian perhaps. Better not tell Lora the empress looks like her sister, that’d snatch the smile from her face. The next card was justice. I put it to the back. The hermit, the moon. What did they mean, really?

I had asked a question once, a long time ago. Handed over my coins but the answer was no. I looked up at my friend. So happy usually, but not today. Why should the answer be any different for her? She bit her bottom lip, creased her eyebrows. Use your skills to get what you want, the old man had told me. I wanted to be happy, like Lora.
I took a breath, my pulse slowed.

‘No, I don’t think you will.’

First person (Lora)

It was just a bunch of symbols really. Nonsensical magic-type stuff. But Sadie glanced from card to card, searching for an answer or reading something I couldn’t. She obviously hadn’t found it this time. She looked confused, distracted. I wasn’t sure if she’d heard my question but she looked up.

‘Tell you what?’

I clutched the blanket to my neck. It was itchy, but better itchy than cold. I looked back at her, forcing a grin I didn’t want to give. Just ask the question for God’s sake. She’s your friend.

‘Tell me whether I’ll see my baby again.’

There. She had to answer now. She had to say yes. The cards always said yes. I waited. Sadie clawed at the lid of the canteen, glugged back my brandy. The air inside the tent was hot with the fumes of her breath, my breath. I didn’t want any more to drink though. I just wanted my answer.

Sadie looked at a card, smiled, looked at the next one. Why was it taking her so long? The canteen lay on the camp bed between us, soaking the blanket, water droplets reflecting the lantern light. I wanted to reach for it but I couldn’t, not until Sadie answered. I waited, nails digging into palms. The cards always said yes, didn’t they? She stopped shuffling, looked up. She took a deep breath.

‘No, I don’t think you will.’

***

That single exercise took less than an hour and yet it taught me so much – one of the main things being that I should use “close-in” psychic distance a lot more when I get down to the nitty gritty of editing my book. This will hopefully add to the distinctive flavour of each character’s voice even though I am writing my book in third person. I thought I was doing a pretty decent job of using psychic distance effectively until I read my original third person piece straight after my first person pieces – it felt rather flat and dull in comparison.

I also realised how useful it is to consider the wants and needs of the other characters in any given scene – you might not want them to be the focus but how do their emotions colour any interactions they have with the main character? Finally, the most important thing it taught me is to experiment, experiment and experiment some more! Write in first person and third person, in past tense and present tense. Write scenes about characters you love and characters you hate. Write comedy even though you hate laughing, and tragedy even though you can’t bear to cry. Much like your speaking voice, the more you practise, the more confident your writing voice will become. And much like your speaking voice, should you lose it, well, that’s nothing a tot of whisky, honey and lemon won’t solve…

-Kirsty

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