Voice is a vital element that can make or break a story. It sets a tone, an expectation for what’s to come, and should capture the reader’s attention on page one. Ask five writers for a definition of voice and you may get five very different answers. But some basic influencing factors remain constant: whether you’re writing in first, second, or third person; whether that point of view is close or distant; and whether you choose to tell your story in past or present tense.
To take it further, you must consider factors such as the age, education, and life experience of your character. Is he snarky? Shy? Eloquent? An eternal optimist, or bitter and defensive?
These qualities will determine the language you use, every sentence infused with the main character’s personality. The reader should get a strong sense of who this person is without the author having to say, “John was bitter and defensive.” How about: “John stood on the stoop in a pair of faded long johns, cussing out the neighbor brat for trampling his long-dead lawn.”
On the flip side, there can be such a thing as too much voice. Have you ever read a book and put it down again because the voice was overwhelming or felt forced? Trying to strike a natural balance in your own writing is often a matter of trial and error. During this process, the urge to toss your laptop through a window is perfectly normal (or so I’ve heard).
For a more effective study in voice than I could ever hope to convey, I pulled four of my favorite books from the shelves to offer four distinct examples of voice.
Cynthia Voigt, HOMECOMING
“Surrounded by sleepers, Dicey sat content. The car was a cave within which they were safe. It held them together; and it protected them from outside forces, the cold, the damp, people.”
What we see: Sparse, simple language, straightforward and practical like Dicey herself, a thirteen-year-old girl who becomes responsible for her three younger siblings when their mother abandons them in a mall parking lot.
Judy Blume, TALES OF A FOURTH GRADE NOTHING
“Fudge was supposed to fall asleep before we sat down to dinner. But just in case, my mother put a million little toys in his crib to keep him busy. I don’t know who my mother thought she was fooling. Because we all know that Fudge can climb out of his crib any old time he wants to.”
What we see: Doesn’t this just scream nine-year-old boy? It’s first person, contemporary and informal, the phrasing skillfully conveying “classic, put-upon older brother.”
Susan Cooper, OVER SEA, UNDER STONE
“The thunder rolled quietly, far out over the sea, but the rain fell with grey insistence, blurring the windows as it washed down outside. The children wandered aimlessly about the house. Before lunch they tried going for a walk in the rain, but came back damp and depressed.”
What we see: Told in third person, the language is much more formal and richly descriptive. She paints an atmosphere of mystery long dormant, promising adventures to come.
Lloyd Alexander, THE BOOK OF THREE
“Taran wanted to make a sword; but Coll, charged with the practical side of his education, decided on horseshoes. And so it had been horseshoes all morning long.”
What we see: In the very first line of the book, the author gives you a sense that Taran is young and impulsive, that the story is not likely set in the modern world, and it will contain both adventure and a lively sense of humor.
Grab a few books from your shelves at home and browse through them to see how your favorite authors have tackled the issue of voice. It’s the best way I know to master an elusive but critical skill. It’s also a fun reminder of why those books laid claim to your heart from the very first page.
Growing up, Christine Hayes loved reading stories about creatures that curl your toes and legends that send a shiver down your spine. Now she loves writing about them, too. Her debut novel, MOTHMAN’S CURSE, was released in June 2015 through Roaring Brook Press/Macmillan. Christine seeks inspiration by haunting flea markets and estate sales, searching for cool vintage finds with a story to tell. While earning her degree in music she visited Asia for the first time, and later moved there with her family for several years. She has been addicted to travel ever since. Christine and her clan now live in northern Utah. Find her online at www.christinehayesbooks.com.