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.