Thursday, October 21, 2010

16 Voice and the Art of Telling Versus Showing

We know we're supposed to show and not tell. As beginning writers, we hurl this advice at each other in critique groups and workshops with self-satisfied little smirks, happy to have learned something, anything, to help us improve our manuscripts. Rules are good, right? They give us structure in this magical world of fiction that inherently stretches the boundaries of our imagination.

But sometimes we use these rules as crutches, and rely on them until we forget the joy of walking on our own two feet.

Sometimes, we forget that writing is about saying something only we can express.

Sometimes, we edit the joy and individuality and voice out of our manuscripts. We play it safe.

What is voice? Like pornography, we know it when we see it, but it's hard to define. And it's different for every writer and every book. Often it's easier to recognize when voice is missing than to identify what makes it unique when it is there. No matter how great the plot, how skillfully the writer shows us the action unfolding and the emotion being experienced, if a novel could have been written by anyone, do we love it as much as those books in which the voice speaks clearly enough to be remembered?

Look at the following examples:
When the doorbell rings at three in the morning, it's never good news. (Anthony Horowitz, Stormbreaker)

Long ago, on the wild and windy isle of Berk, a smallish Viking with a longish name stood up to his ankles in snow. (Cressida Cowell, How to Train Your Dragon)

One afternoon, when Bruno came home from school, he was surprised to find Maria, the family’s maid — who always kept her head bowed and never looked up from the carpet — standing in his bedroom, pulling all his belongings out of the wardrobe and packing them in four large wooden crates, even the things he’d hidden at the back that belonged to him and were nobody else’s business. (John Boyne, The Boy in the Stripped Pajamas)

The best day of my life happened when I was five and almost died at Disney World. (Libba Bray, Going Bovine)

I'm dreaming of the boy in the tree and at the exact moment I'm about to hear the answer I've been waiting for, the flashlights yank me out of what could have been one of those moments of perfect clarity people talk about for the rest of their lives. (Melina Marchetta, Jellicoe Road)

You can hear the voice in every one of those opening sentences. The author isn't showing us action, they are telling us something only they or the characters could know.

For me, voice is telling. It's that indefinable quality of rhythm and sentence structure and elegance of expression that elevates writing above the ordinary. But to be true and genuine, voice also has to take us by the hand and lead us into the magical world of the character, or the narrator.

Not every book has voice. The great ones do. As Truman Capote put it, "the greatest pleasure of writing is not what it's about, but the music the words make." Michener, on the other hand, defined voice more broadly as "the swirl and swing of words as they tangle with human emotions."

What are your favorite defnitions or examples of voice? According to Patricia Lee Gauch, voice comes from within the writer. "A writer's voice like the stroke of an artists brush-is the thumbprint of her whole person-her idea, wit, humor, passions, rhythms." Do you have an example of voice from your own work? How do you define the indefinable?


  1. Most middle grade books I read - open with a paragraph of telling. And it's very hooky because it's all dripping with voice. That's when telling works and skyrockets your book into another level. It's too bad that this is something that writers need to figure out on their own because they just hear the rule show don't tell and edit out any telling! Great post.

  2. I agree with you that it's sometimes "easier to recognize when voice is missing than to identify what makes it unique when it is there."
    I can read my writers' work blindly and tell who wrote it because they have a particular voice. Here's an example of voice from THE LION AWAKENS that I think (hope) is telling of Petra's personality. I would so like to have her as a best friend:)

    “Oh. My. Gawd.” Petra blurted out as soon as she saw Annie at lunch. “Did you hear? Did you hear about Jess Gross? She really is gross.”
    “What happened?” Annie asked, playing dumb.
    “Well, I heard Chad Hoover tell Ryley Martin in math class that Jess picked her nose and wiped it on his shirt. He was totally grossed out. I mean, I would be, too. What was she thinkin’? You know what this means, don’t you?”
    “Jess is off the A-List. Not that I care. I mean, she was the mastermind behind the granny pants incident. Remember that?”
    “How could I forget.”
    “Yeah, you and everyone else. But maybe now they’ll talk about Jess instead. After Chad told Ryley about Jess, they started callin’ her Boogie Boobs. Cause you know she has big boobs, which they like, but now that boogie deal sort of scratches that out.”
    Petra went on and on recounting all of the incidents that Jess and the other Sisters bullied and made fun of others. The boogie incident had clearly made her day.
    “And another thing. Did you know The Sisters have rules?”
    “Like what?”
    “Like they’re not allowed to wear jeans, even on gym days.”
    “That’s just plain weird.”
    “Yeah, I know. But they have this whole list of rules that they all have to follow.”
    “How do you know?”
    “Well, Jen’s locker is near mine, right? And one day I saw Jen and another girl, I forget her name, but she’s also a sister, yell at another sister because she wore jeans. They were designer jeans, but that didn’t matter. They told her that she had to follow the rules or she was out. That her not following the rules was a bad reflection on the rest of them. Like how stupid is that?”
    “Pretty stupid. So what happened?”
    “They snubbed her the rest of the day. Didn’t let her eat lunch with them. Haven’t seen her in jeans since.”

  3. If the voice doesn't work, nothing in the book works for me.

  4. I think of 'voice' as a comfy sweater. When you start out, it might be too tight or scratchy but the more you work at it, the more comfortable it becomes until it's ingrained in everything you write.

  5. To me, voice is when you break the rules artfully. Just look at that third quote you gave. It's a ridiculously long run-on sentence, but it's so perfect. Anything without a good voice is just a cookie-cutter novel that anyone could have put together by following the rules.

  6. Brilliant. So spot on. Voice is so difficult to define. It's more a matter of just recognizing it when we see. John Green has such a distinctive voice--it is pure John Green, present in all of his books and even in his vlogs, just in spoken form. I think it's, in a way, the personality of the author shining through, but in a very controlled way.

    Must RT....

  7. Wow! I've just been blogging about Showing vs. Telling, as are others around the blogosphere, lately. This is a great reminder, not to sacrifice voice for rules. Still, the rules are there for a reason, and usually beginner writers are still developing their voice. Telling rather than showing--unless in the hands of a really good writer--often introduces an unnecessary distance between the writing and the writer. You can only break rules if you're good! The same with beginning a novel with dialogue, and other rules. Here's an example of strong voice--and Telling while it does!--from the opening of Ingrid Law's MG novel, Savvy:

    When my brother Fish turned thirteen, we moved to the deepest part of inland because of the hurricane and, of course, the fact that he'd caused it. I had liked living down south on the edge of land, next to the pushing-pulling waves. I had liked it with a mighty kind of liking, so moving had been hard--hard like the pavement the first time I fell off my pink two-wheeler and my palms burned like fire from all of the hurt just under the skin. But it was plain that Fish could live nowhere near or nearby or next to or close to or on or around any largish bodies of water. Water had a way of triggering my brother and making ordinary, everyday weather take a frightening turn for the worse.

    Some of these are rambling sentences--and all Telling! The next paragraph in the book is one entire page, describing a flashback of Fish's birthday party! The point is, I think, it's INTERESTING Telling and explaining why they had to move, and the voice shines through and pushes past the "violation" of the rules. I love Ray Bradbury's writing for the same reasons, including the occasional run-on sentences that are as exhilarating as running down a flowered-covered summer hillside with your arms open wide. One of Ray Bradbury's (and also Ingrid Law's) sentences is ONE PARAGRAPH long. And I don't mean a short paragraph, either. Anyway, thanks for the crucial thoughts to ponder!

  8. WOW! I LOVE all these examples. Thanks, everyone for sharing them! I always wonder how long it takes a writer to come up with a genius opening. I'd done three full drafts of my novel before I came up with a reasonable opening paragraph, and I was sitting at SCBWI-NY after listening to the brilliant Libba Bray, and all my neurons were firing at once. I'm in AWE of the writers who come up with a handful of words that set up and sum up the book and the character all in one fell swoop--and make it seem effortless. It's both exilerating and humbling to contemplate, isn't it?


  9. My favorite thing here was this quote: "the greatest pleasure of writing is not what it's about, but the music the words make." That speaks volumes, and is just so eloquent, and so true.

  10. I love Somerset Maugham's voice in The Razor's Edge...not YA or MG, but a fine example, IMHO.

    I loved Libba Bray's opening to Going Bovine! Also liked the opening of Paranormalcy and Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief too! :D

  11. I love your examples. I really struggle with voice though I'm trying to see it more as I read. Paranormalcy had a great voice.

  12. Great examples! Voice can be so elusive yet so obvious when we see it :)

  13. Great post! Voice is so hard to define. For me, I know when I like it, but I can't always say why. I guess judging voice is the ultimate in subjectivity. As for examples, I love Chuck Palahniuk's voice. Also Rachel Cohn's. And John Green's.

  14. Yay, finally permission to tell . . . as long as there's voice. :D

  15. Wow--what a great post! So very true, I think. The way things are told brings out the voice--which is just as important as showing, when done right :)

  16. Rules are meant to be broken; if it works why not?

    I do sometimes miss those days when ignorance of the rules saved my creativity from getting caught in their web.


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