Saturday, July 12, 2014

0 What Is Voice In Fiction?

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.

Beethoven’s Trumpet (With Ear) By John Baldessari, at the Saatchi Gallery.Photo by Jim Linwood, on Flickr, CC-BY
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 authora aren't showing us action; they are telling us something only they or the characters could know.

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

Not every book has that kind of 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."

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 a favorite author whose voice you love? Or an example of voice from your own work? How do you define the indefinable?

Note: This is a repost. We're on limited hiatus through the end of July, with a mix of reprise and new posts coming all month.

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