Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Finding Your Voice

In my post on Beginnings, I defined voice as:

The tone or feel of a story, portrayed via word choice.

Voice is like the "flavour card" in front of the ice cream selections at Baskin Robbins, a few words that describe to you how the ice cream will taste.

Why is voice so important?

Let's face it...there are only so many stories to tell. Boy meets girl, hero saves the world, person follows existential journey to enlightenment, space ships explode, blah, blah, blah.

I've also heard the three main archetypes of stories described as: (pardon the somewhat sexist word choices)
- Man vs man
- Man vs nature
- Man vs himself

What sets your spaces ships exploding story apart from all of the others is a combination of your unique characters in your unique situation solving your unique twist, and told using your distinctive voice.

How is voice constructed within the prose?

As I said before, with the choice of words, and the order they appear on the page.

Usually, the sections of descriptive prose are the essential elements of the voice.

The description passages in your story are the places where you truly develop your own style or voice. Ultimately, your goal is for a reader to read a passage of your work, and then say, "Wow, that reads like a typical [author name] story."

I don't want to break any copyright laws, so I will provide examples from public domain works.

Easily Recognizable Voices:

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness,..." Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities.

Despite the fact that this man breaks my total over-use of the "it was" construct, this opening is considered archetypical of Dickens' style of linguistic creativity mixed with satire.

But, soft! what light through yonder window breaks?
It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.
Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon,
Who is already sick and pale with grief,...
William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet.

This has to be one of the most famous romantic moments in written history. Shakespeare's style is a mix of the rhythm of speaking in the sixteenth century and his profound poeticism. His prose is rich and unmistakable.

Voice is tough to pin down, but I hope you're getting the idea.

If you review my post on Point of View I discuss how sticking tightly to the Point of View of your protagonist can affect the voice of the story.

If you re-read my post on Editing Dialogue, I point out that each character must have their own distinctive voice. Because character voice is also a crucial element of voice in general, I give you an example:

Dialogue Example:

A space ship explodes. Three characters in your story watch this explosion and each one of them comments on the event.

Person A: Emily, whose mother is on the ship:

"Oh my God! Mom!" Emily bursts into tears.

Person B: Gus, who set the explosives:

"That's how we do it in Bravo company, boys," said Gus.

Person C: Gus's talking robot sidekick, Planki:

Planki beeped, then said, "Sir, I suggest we leave orbit before the galactic police arrive."

In each example, the speaker has a different reaction to the explosion. Emily is crushed, Gus is proud, and Planki is worried.

Good dialogue should have a distinctive voice for each character, so that even if the dialogue tag isn't included, you should be able to tell who is speaking from tone and context.

Regardless of the specifics within dialogue, your voice is your calling card.

I've heard enough editors speak on panels at conventions who all suggested that the voice of the story is what piques their interest enough to purchase that short story or novel for publication.

The only way to truly find your own voice is to write.

And write.

And then write some more.

As you collect stories and plots and passages of description, a pattern will emerge. You will discover that aspect of your own voice, what makes you distinctive.

For most writers, this voice is a bit of a task master, compelling us to write. Often.

So get your butt in that chair and write some words down. And then write some more words. With any luck, your voice will surface.

Do It Now:
Write down the names of two authors who inspire you. (Yes, get a pen and paper and write them down.)

Now write three words to describe each of their voices. (No peeking in one of their novels for clues.)

Now write three words that describe your voice.

Keeping in mind those three words, write 100 words of throw-away fiction that encompass what you consider your voice.

Revel in the joy of naming your voice.

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