Voice: The Literary Game Changer

Dec 12 2014

As a freelance book editor, I’ve spent countless hours with manuscripts of every ilk—from fairly tidy OCR files of out-of-print bestsellers to piles of interview transcriptions loosely tacked together by chapter numbers—and I approach them all with a dual mind-set. On one hand, I’m scrutinizing as an editor, looking for things that are incomplete, incorrect, inconsistent, or confusing. On the other, I’m functioning as a fresh-eyed beta reader for the author, approaching the story just as a bookstore browser would.

As I’m editing, my analytical mind is constantly checking in with this beta reader, asking questions like, “Am I bored yet? If so, why, and at what point did I start to lose interest? If not, why not? Am I eager to keep reading?” This line of questioning is partly self-serving—as a writer myself, I’m always looking to learn from other writers—and partly professional. After all, I can’t articulate what a writer needs to do to improve his book if I can’t answer the ultimate question: “Why is this not working?”

What makes a novel or memoir “work” may seem like some kind of muse-gifted ethereal je ne sais quoi, something you either have or you don’t, but I think the answer is much simpler (at least in naming if not in execution): The difference between a story that’s spellbinding and one that falls flat is voice.

So what is voice?

In memoir, it’s the difference between reportage (first this happened, and then this happened, and then he said this…) and storytelling, which uses fictive techniques like character and dialogue and plot. In other words, it’s the difference between reading a police report and talking to an eyewitness while standing at a crime scene. To illustrate my point, go read the Wikipedia entries for Perry Smith and Richard Hickock, and then read a few chapters of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. Or curl up with a cup of tea and the CDC statement on the Ebola pandemic and then check out Richard Preston’s The Hot Zone.

As I used to tell my freshman composition students, in order to be rhetorically effective, your essay needs to have the pathos (emotion), as well as the ethos (authority) and logos (facts). Along with this sacred literary trinity, there also must be a distinct and compelling narrator. The narrator doesn’t have to be a character but it does need to have a presence in the story. That’s why I call the sum of all these elements voice—when they’re working together, the reader should hear the narrative in her head, should forget the fact that she’s seeing rather than hearing the tale.

All this holds true for successful fiction, as well, but because the fiction writer doesn’t have the drama or authority inherent in facts to bolster her story, she needs a little something extra, which I think of as “perspective” or “worldview.” A manuscript can have an imaginative plot and a slew of  characters, but  if the reader begins thinking, Why should I care about this? What does it have to do with me? and perhaps most importantly, Why are you (emphasis intentional) telling me this? the book is pretty much sunk. In the absence of factual authority, or the draw of true crime or a deadly pandemic, the fiction writer has to evoke empathy and offer a fresh perspective on some aspect of humanity. In this case, I think voice is the difference between a crime scene account from an eyewitness and one from the primary suspect. A bystander is going to give us a good account, but the accused can offer so much more depth, on so many more levels.

While some writers definitely “come into” their voice more easily than other writers do, making the process look maddeningly effortless, the good news is that finding and developing your voice is as much a matter of craft as it is art. By reading (and reading and reading and more reading), absorbing, questioning, and analyzing, you can learn the elements of successful voice and begin to apply them to your own work.

When you think about voice in a piece of your own work, I suggest asking yourself these questions:

  • Who is telling this story and why? What perspective do they offer on the story’s themes?
  • Are both internal (character/emotional) and external (plot/action) drama present in the story? If not, how can I rework the story to include the element that’s missing?
  • Is the reader just told what the characters do, or is any introspection offered? In other words, does the reader know what the characters think and feel about what’s going on in the story?

When I visit local universities and talk with young writers, I often get asked what’s the “biggest mistake” I see writers make. I think this is it. Regardless of whether you’re writing fiction or nonfiction, voice is truly the game changer. Problems of plot or character development can be fixed, but if there’s no voice driving the story, it’s difficult for a reader to invest in it mentally or emotionally.

Literature illuminates what it means to be human in a way I think no other art form can. And so in literature, just like in life, who’s speaking and the way in which they’re delivering their message is often just as important as what’s being said.

 

 

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