Voice Lessons?

What is this thing we call voice?

When Crimepace was first up and running, there was an interesting discussion there about voice – whether or not it could be taught. I weighed in on the side that a writer could be taught elements of voice and that this type of knowledge could help them speed up the process of creating it. (I don’t believe anyone could teach the specific voice any specific writer should use.) Others argued that none of it could be taught, that it absolutely was something a writer had to find their way to, through trial-and-error or maybe just blind luck, but that it wasn’t something which could be dissected and analyzed and then created.

That’s when it occurred to me that maybe we were making some basic assumptions that everyone actually knew and/or agreed as to what voice meant.

Is voice a style of prose, and approach to story-telling created by and author which is his or her way of expressing story—any story—insomuch as you would recognize the author if you read just bits of the story out of context? This would be the Hemingway or Faulkner type of voice, where their styles were immediately recognizable, no matter the book.

Or, is voice supposed to serve a specific story—is it the voice of the world, the tonal / language combination which is very specific to that world of the story and characters therein insomuch as it conveys something about the story itself and it (the voice) wouldn’t fit any other story? (One example which leaps to mind which is a mystery set in an SF setting is Connie Willis’ To Say Nothing of the Dog which is nothing like her other books’ voices. It also happens to do first person POV and voice brilliantly.)

If voice is story-specific, then logically, a story’s needs help to shape the voice used. An author can look at their own intent (is this supposed to be funny, dramatic, said, etc.) and tonal need, they can look at whether multiple POVs or a single one is needed, they can decide how much authorial distance they want (do they want to be commenting on the world or shoving the reader right up into it), they can take into consideration the world of the story (upperclass, poorly educated, rich, destitute, post-war, etc.) and use these needs to influence how they want to tell the story. An author who wants the readers to be up close to a poorly educated, steeped-in-crime sort of main character isn’t likely to choose ponderous, oblique six syllable words which would have the readers running to a dictionary. (And sometimes, choosing the voice is knowing what not to do.) Likewise, a story with an attorney at the center isn’t likely to be filled with the latest rap phrases and expletives every other word. Paring away at what won’t work leaves the author a much smaller subset of choices and then the characters influence the rest.

The above tools are handy… but none apply if what we mean when we say voice is an overall perspective / approach of an individual author—a.k.a. style.

So… what do you think it is?  Are we using it to mean overall authorial style? Or specific style for a specific story? Do you think it can be taught? If not, why not?


p/s… Murderati is not turning into the Toni show, I promise. I just happened to substitute this weekend while everyone was away. Pari and Alex will be back next week.

12 thoughts on “Voice Lessons?

  1. Al Guthrie

    Voice is whoever’s telling the story. These days that’s usually a point-of-view character. Books written from multiple character-specific points of view don’t have a single voice, they have multiple voices. Authorial style is not voice, though sometimes authors share their own voice with their characters, in which case the two become hard to separate. And sometimes authors tell the story, in which case there’s an authorial voice, although it’s not seen much these days. I think.

  2. billie

    I think of voice as being the voice of the narrator, whoever that is.

    I also think of it as a slightly mysterious, elusive thing – elusive more in trying to describe it or force it. For me, it seems to slip in unannounced in the early pages that turn into a novel.

    I write my way into finding it, and then when I do, it’s clear and I keep writing it.

    With the first whopping draft of my first attempt at a novel, it wasn’t at all clear until someone very wise pointed it out to me.

    As it turned out, that particular voice was very clear inside my head, but when it came out onto the page, I did all sorts of writerly things to it that messed it up – the work of that one was learning not to change it.

    And I’m rambling here – this is interesting. Will check in to read what everyone has to say as the day goes on!!

    Toni, I loved Saturday’s post too – was away all day and exhausted upon return – the freak flag kept turning into the cross-country jump flag and somehow I just couldn’t wrap my brain around it. 🙂

  3. Stephen Blackmoore

    I think it’s both.

    On the one hand, yes, it’s the style of the author. No matter how they choose to create the character, the dialog they use, the perspective, the author’s always going to be on the page. If not in the choice of words the character uses then in the way the story is plotted or paced.

    Using your example of Connie Willis’ “To Say Nothing of The Dog”, yes, it’s very different from her other books, but if you read “Bellwether”, “Passages”, even “The Doomsday Book” you’ll see her in all of them. The choices she makes, the characters’ construction, they’re all her. She’s not obtrusive about it, she doesn’t show the story’s scaffolding, but you can tell that it’s a Connie Willis book.

    On the other hand, voice is the narrator. Take Ray Banks’ “Saturday’s Child”. Two radically different characters going first person with entirely different voices in the same book. It works beautifully because they’re so unique and consistent with who they are.

    In either case, I don’t think voice can be taught per se. I think it can be cultivated and mentored by a good teacher, but the author is going to have to go a lot of it alone and figure it out for him or herself.

    And it will be influenced by other people’s work. That’s inevitable. We’re all floating around in the same sea and we can’t help but take on a little bit of the feel of other people’s stories. That’s how we learn.

  4. Louise Ure

    I’d always thought that “voice” was the former of your definitions — the authorial voice — until I realized that that definition doesn’t give authors credit for stretching beyond and between different moods, stories and styles.

    So, while I recognize the genius in both Elmore Leonard’s new work and his westerns, I find two entirely separate voices in those works.So maybe it’s the narrator voice that varies by the story being told.

    But the authorial voice plays a big part in deciding what story to tell, and creating those characters to begin with. I think I could recognize an Updike or a McCarthy or a Bruen work if I saw it. And that’s because of the power of their authorial voice.

  5. simon

    I think voice develops. Once a writers knows and understands the story he/she wants to tell, a voice springs forth.

    When a writer tries to emulate someone that’s when it fails…

  6. toni mcgee causey

    Al, I do agree with that… so, authors whose style completely overlays character and POV… that’s just style? Not really voice, right?

    Billie, thanks! (I kinda figured everyone was out and about or busy on Sat. So many people were also at conferences – no worries.)

    One of the things that I had to do when switching from screenwriting to prose was allow myself to even have more of a ‘voice’ than I’d had in the scripts. Which meant I had to consciously decide what the heck I wanted to do in order *to* have a voice. Maybe because I’d already had so many years of experience writing at that point, but I was able to start making choices in order to narrow down what I wanted to have the voice be, and what I wanted it to accomplish. (Maybe this is more specific to comedy?) (dunno) It was the working out of those choices which made me realize that if anyone had told me about those kinds of choices earlier, if any of my literature or writing courses at college had examined any of this stuff, I’d have had better tools much earlier in my career.

    Or… maye not. Maybe I just finally had the tools because I’d finally written enough to see them. I am so decisive! Woo!

    Stephen, I think you’re right about the author always being on the page somehow, with the way things are plotted, story choices. That’s the subconscious part I don’t think any writer has a lot of control over. I’ll have to go back and look at Doomsday and see if I see the same Connie Willis as in TSNOTD… I remember thinking at the time that they were wholly different, but then, I liked the latter so much more than the former, it may have been influencing me.

    Louise, that’s it — that changing of mood or genres — which is what landed me on the latter definition instead of the former. (So what do we call the former? Style?) Because if the author is recognizable regardless of the story, does it stand to reason that at that point, they have solidified a style over the individual voice of the story? (This is not a bad thing — because clearly the people you mention are masters. I’m just trying to work out what we call it and why.)

    Simon, I completely agree that emulating is the wrong way to handle it. I’ve heard a lot of writing teachers tell their students to copy a style/voice of another writer until they were able to start inserting themselves into that voice, which, to me, was damaging advice. Instead, I think they should help them figure out what that voice is doing and why that writer made those choices–whether they were subconsious choices on the writer’s part or not, you can often (not always) see why they instinctively went the route they did, particularly with successful works. (Of course, some of that is just going to be the author’s personality.) Then, once they see why the choices were made, start delving into their own personality and story needs and make their own personal choices.

    And then practice it via writing as much as possible.

  7. Laura Benedict

    I have to say that I’m a big proponent of having a beginning writer model on a successful writer’s work. While there are some biggies it’s best to avoid–How many “Hills Like White Elephants” can one teacher stand?–I think it’s a very useful exercise for people to understand how stories work and how voice works. I think it can be just a stage, though. The writer, by writing and writing, as you say, Toni, will eventually grow out of the modeling practice.

    It’s strange, isn’t it, that contemporary writers are hardly recognizable from book to book. No Hemingway, Faulkner (as you point out), no Dorothy Parker or Fitzgerald. I wonder if it was fashion….Or are writers called on less to be “personalities” in their work because there are so damn many of us!?

    Great blog!

  8. Alex Sokoloff

    I think Simon is completely right, here:

    “I think voice develops. Once a writer knows and understands the story he/she wants to tell, a voice springs forth.”

    I don’t really know enough about it to comment, but my feeling is the voice of the book is a character, just like characters in the book, only meta. And there is a meta-meta level of the author’s voice that is beyond an individual book.

    But I’m still struggling with it, myself.

  9. toni mcgee causey

    You know, Laura, you may be right about it being fashion — of a time. I hadn’t thought about it that way — great insight.

    And I think you have a point about writers going through a phase… I guess I’ve just seen so many never know exactly how to get out of that phase. Good teachers can guide them, though, and are worth their weight in gold.

    Alex, good point: meta. It is, and that’s a great way to look at it and I hadn’t thought of it that way.

  10. JLW

    Voice is the technique whereby information not directly related to the semantic meaning of the words is conveyed. Authorial or narrative voice is certainly one form, but character voice is just as important. Voice generally can be accurately described as a writer’s choice of diction and idiom.

    Consider the following three phrases:

    (1) That’s so stupid!

    (2) Now that’s just plain ignorant.

    (3) Don’t be thick, mate.

    Semantically, these are nearly identical–but they represent three different people, each with his own voice, and the reader is able to learn something about each speaker independently of what they are actually saying. Example (1) is clearly a child. Example (2) is common among Texans, Southerners, and Appalachians. Example (3) is a lower class Briticism.

    These examples also convey three different attitudes, which I don’t think I need to elucidate.

    There is nothing mysterious about it. Good writers certainly learn to use voice more effectively as they become more sophisticated, just as they learn to use other narrative and rhetorical techniques more effectively as their craft matures.

    The thing to remember is that voice, like all techniques, has no innate value–its worth should be measured in its effectiveness in serving the story being told.

  11. Al Guthrie

    “Al, I do agree with that… so, authors whose style completely overlays character and POV… that’s just style? Not really voice, right?”

    Yes. It’s entirely possible to write multiple voices in the same style. Distinctive authors — the ones we can recognise at a glance — are frequently recognisable on account of their syntactical eccentricities. Style, in other words.

  12. Daniel Hatadi

    Great post and great bunch of answers. All that’s left for me to say is: what’s Crimepace? A combination of criminal activities with cardio-workouts? A new black iPod add-on? A group of pensioners that do ram raids on ATMs?

    Okay, I’ll stop now. 🙂


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