How to Approach Voice

When you approach the topic of Voice of a novel and how to produce a pleasing Voice for fiction, especially as you revise, I think a helpful attitude is to think of the approaches as a continuum.

The Approach to Voice Continuum

The continuum runs from a Craft Approach (very left-brained, structured craft oriented skills that can be learned ) to an Emotional Approach (very right brained, dig deep into your soul and be yourself).

I’m trying very hard here to think of a name for the second approach that describes it in a fair manner: Gut Approach, Be Yourself Approach, Live Your Character Approach, Dig-Deep Approach. All of those sound faintly derogatory to me and I don’t mean that at all.

Likewise the first approach has equally dissatisfying monikers: Hack Approach, Formula Approach, Grammar-and-Editing Approach.

I don’t even like the right-brained, left-brained approaches, because those have unwelcome connotations, too. It’s just the continuum of ways you can approach Voice from structured to loose.

The problem is that when both extremes get criticism, there’s nothing left and voice becomes that nebulous thing that no one can talk about, they only recognize when they see it. And that isn’t helpful, because it gives writers no way in to make revisions. It gives us no tools, no strategies, no goals.

In other words, I’m going to teach about Voice and Scenes this fall and I need help in deciding how to discuss Voice. I’ve surveyed the land in front of me and see this continuum and how different teachers/writers might fall on that continuum. I just need ways to describe the continuum without choosing sides.

How would YOU describe the ends of the continuum? Which approach do you like? Any books to recommend on how to improve Voice (or Scenes), especially any that definitely take one approach or the other?

8 responses to “How to Approach Voice”

  1. I think of being on the unstructured end of the spectrum as taking the “intuitive approach” fwiw. But voice is the one thing I somewhat had from the start (I’ve heard a theory before that all writers get one skill for free, and have to work for all the rest :-)), so I don’t really know how to reach it.

    Craft for the more structured end doesn’t work for me because I think of myself as being focused on craft, too. Maybe “structured” and “intuitive”?

  2. You know, this may seem goofy (pun almost intended), but for talking about voice itself, you might use the album “Heigh-ho Mozart” as an example. If you haven’t heard it before, it’s all Disney songs recorded in the style of famous classical composers. Point being, the notes of the melodies don’t change — it’s the voice of each composer that makes the difference, even when the tune isn’t their own.

    Further, it’s not just a matter of playing a tune on a different instrument. You can’t plunk out “Zip-a-dee-do-dah” on a harpsichord and claim you’ve played it like Beethoven. Different composers have different rhythms, cadences, flourishes, and so forth, and when you put all those things together, the unique sound is instantly recognizable. Sometimes even the spaces between the notes are distinctive.

    To put it in literary terms, the plot (tune) may stay the same, but the voice (sound) can vary drastically depending on who tells the story (or arranges the song).

    “Heigh-ho Mozart” is a particular delight because often you don’t realize you can recognize a composer’s voice until you’ve heard it in a completely different context — removed from their own familiar notes. I think that’s what makes voice so tough to talk about in literature; you rarely get a chance to isolate an author’s voice from her own words.

  3. Part of the puzzle here is to identify what you mean by voice.

    My authorial voice informs my narrative voice, but they are two different things. My novel is told first person by an almost-11-year-old. It sounds different than the third-person contemporary fantasy that I’m working on now. Both of them share my sensibility about rhythm and word choice, but each is very different as well.

    In Sarah’s terms — Mozart’s voice is in both Don Giovanni and The Magic Flute, but those pieces sound different from one another as well because there is a unique story voice or narrative voice for each of them.

    If you’re talking about narrative voice, I think that can be planned and structured. If you’re talking about finding one’s own authorial voice — that seems to me to be more of a gut issue and the best thing that most writers can do is get out of their own way.

  4. Janni: Or Structured and Unstructured?

    Sarah: Yes the Heigh-Ho Mozart sounds interesting. I’ll look at that.

    Linda: Well, the whole problem of defining Voice is just the beginning of the difficulty. I”m not sure I know what you mean by authorial voice v. narrative voice, either.

    This is rather my point. We don’t have vocabulary to talk about Voice. Must less help others discuss/find/create Voice.

    Narrative Voice: I’m assuming the voice created for a certain piece of writing, like your example of the 11 yo narrator.

    Authorial Voice: Is the natural Voice, rhythms, vocabulary choices, etc. of a certain person, some of which transcends the restraints of narrative voice?

    So–How do you “get out of your own way”? What does that look like in practical terms.

    I”m really wanting to know how people approach this. Jannie, it seems trusts intuitively her voice. Sarah recognizes voice in various forms/situations. And Linda, you seem to be intuitive in authorial voice, but structured in narrative voice?


  5. I tend to be more intuitive, but I’m in the midst of a multi-voice project now and finding myself working from both sides of the continuum. Since my characters are real people, I have the luxury of reading their own writing (letters, diaries, etc.) and getting a concrete feel for their real-life voices. I’m honestly not sure what side of the spectrum that puts me on. Probably intuitive, since I tend to just absorb the research rather than make notes. On the other hand, once I began writing and had to develop four voices simultaneously, I also made a chart to help remind myself of the differences between each narrator’s voice and keep each one consistent yet unique from the others. The chart includes spaces for things like personality, narrative tendencies, and style of speech. For example, one character is witty with a tendency toward mimicry and colorful language, while another is reserved, observant, and very precise in her speech. Now each voice comes pretty naturally, but a glance at that chart once in a while still helps refresh me and keep the narrators from muddying into one another.

    I agree with Darcy’s distinctions between narrative and authorial voice.

    A great example of an author juggling multiple narrative voices is Bronx Masquerade, by Nikki Grimes. I believe she has 18 different narrators.

    For authorial voice, folks like Donna Jo Napoli and Richard Peck come to my mind. Their main characters’ voices are unique from one book to the next, but there’s also an underlying combination of style and tone that shines through and identifies the author. It’s what keeps me eager for the next book they write, regardless of the subject or genre. Like siblings, each story is different, but there’s a family resemblance that appeals to me.

    It also seems to me that POV plays a significant role in how aware a reader will be of authorial vs. narrative voice. First person virtually demands that narrative voice take precedent — you want to hear from the character, not the author in that case. (I’ve often caught myself saying something my way instead of the character’s when I’m trying to write in first person.) Third person gives authors more freedom to let their own voice rise to the surface and speak directly to the reader.

  6. To me, in discussing voice, this is where writing and acting overlap in terms of the preparation one can use to do the job well.

    I’m in the ninth re-vision of an upper middle grade novel, told in first person by a seventh grader. In the beginning drafts I explore the voice and try not to overthink it that much–definitely a more intuitive approach for me at this stage.

    But with each revision, as the narrative structure of the novel (hopefully) needs less work, I am able to be more completely “in character” while writing. As I fine-tune the voice I don’t necessarily become more “structured” in my approach–I just have a different awareness of the character’s voice because I am more focused on it.

    Maybe focus, as in acting, is ultimately the key to nailing the voice, which may sound overly simplistic, but that’s not to say it’s always easy. I find in my own revisions that when the voice falters, it’s because I lost my focus and got lazy.

    For an exercise you might try assigning people different characters and scenarios and have them do some script writing using two very different people–say, a biker chick and Pollyanna having a conversation.

    Or maybe an exercise where you give a fairly generic topic of expression, for example, “talk about how tired you are.” Then use characters like a single mother, a five year old child, and a ninety year old man.

    Before writing, pick one of the three characters to “be” and improv with someone else, interacting and feeling the character in your body a little bit (depending on comfort level!). Then write about “being tired” from the point of view of one of the three characters. Pick another character and express the same thing in the voice of that person. Notice the difference in the voices.

    While this may not really teach how to do it specifically, it will get writers practicing and playing with different voices, which is just plain fun anyway.

    As for authorial voice, is this something that evolves with practice? I hope that the more my writing matures, the more I mature, the more “myself” I will become. I sincerely hope this self-awareness will bring with it a stronger, more distinct voice overall.


  7. Interesting discussion. I think of narrative voice as word choice, attitude, tone, the things the narrator chooses to focus on in telling the story — and more of the storyteller’s (or first person character’s) literal voice (lilting? sarcastic? dreary?) if the story were told verbally. And more likely to be drawn out by the sorts of exercises Lori suggests — and one of the most instructional quick sessions I ever had was a quickie actor training on physically inhabiting a character.

    I think of authorial voice as transcendent in the sense that it has more to do with complexity or sparsity of prose, imagery, symbolism, challenge to the reader, and provocativeness. And while I think narrative voice can be taught and crafted, I’m not sure authorial voice can. But this is just off the top of my head, and I’m open to argument!

  8. Two of my favorite types of Voices and examples:

    You can write using stripped away prose that is straight to the point and tells the story using as little words possible: Kate DiCamillo in The Tiger Rising. Short, powerful sentences that create lasting images.

    Another type of voice I like is imagery driven. A lot of personification here. The weather becomes its own character in Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy, by Gary D. Schmidt. He tells a story in third person here. He makes you feel like you’re in Maine, standing on that cliff, ready to freefall into the crashing tide.

    Voice is a tough one. It can be subjective too. Some writers’ voices I like, some I don’t. I’m sure you feel the same.

    Some books I read that aren’t great plot wise, but I keep reading because the voice is so entertaining. I wonder if kids subconsciously do the same thing when they’re reading.

    Something to ponder.

    Good luck.