Developing Your Writing Voice

When newbie writers are first starting out, they are told time again how important it’s that they ‘find their voice.’ But, what the hell is ‘voice’, how do you find it, and what do you do once you’ve got one?

At its most basic …

Voice is how a novel talks.

Voice is style, tone, language, syntax, and rhythm. Voice is attitude; it’s the way the story is told.

Voice tells us something about the story.

Elements such as theme, genre, and view point, all affect the type of voice a narrative may have.

When it comes to writing, you need to consider your voice as a writer, but also the particular voice of your project.

Some writers are known for their voice because all their works are written with a certain vernacular and style. Stephen King, for example, is famous for his working class, Maine, dialect.

Voice is how a novel talks, but your voice as a writer is not necessarily the same as your speaking voice. Instead, your voice may be the voice you think with. It’s your interior dialogue made manifest.

A good voice should make the reader feel as though they are being personally addressed; that this story is being shared with them, no one else.

You may be fooled into thinking that each genre has a particular voice. And while each genre may have a certain quality or delivery, the best books within any genre will have a voice that is somehow unique to them.

To illustrate what I am talking about here, I have pulled some excepts from a few horror novels I love.

The grease-slicked hair is a dead giveaway – no pun intended. So is the loose and faded leather coat, though not as much as the sideburns. And the way he keeps nodding and flicking his Zippo open and closed in rhythm with his head. He belongs in a chorus line of dancing Jets and Sharks.

Then again, I have an eye for these things. I know what to look for, because I’ve seen just about every variety of spook and spectre you can imagine. (Kendare Blake, Anna Dressed in Blood, p. 7)

See how much attitude this passage has? Anna Dressed in Blood is written in the first person, as such, Blake is able to use the vernacular of her teenage protagonist in a way that is appropriate and ultimately convincing. Phrases like ‘non pun intended’ couldn’t be used in second or third person because that wouldn’t be consistent with the view point. In this example, it’s easy to see how much perspective can alter the voice of a narrative.

Here’s another:

The body. The-body-the-body-the-body-the-body, she thinks. (Lauren Beaukes, Broken Monsters, p. 9)

See how Beaukes’ uses grammar and rhythm as a way to establish voice?

Here’s another:

Louis Creed, who had lost his father at three and who had never known a grandfather, never expected to find a father as he entered middle age, but that was exactly what happened … although he called this man a friend, as a grown man must do when he finds the man who should have been his father relatively late in life. (Stephen King, Pet Sematary, p. 3)

Grammatically, King as chosen to open the novel with a convoluted sentence (split main clause) that allows him to inject a clip of backstory before returning to the present moment. Though told in third person limited, phrases like ‘as a grown man must do’ allude to character values even though we don’t have direct access to the character’s internal life. It is phrases such as these that contribute to the novel’s voice. Incidentally, King is famous for his compound sentences (never expected to find a father as he entered middle age, but that was exactly what happened), his inclusion here is a wink to fans and is akin to a personal seal.

The above novels are all horror, and while they have the ominous quality often associated with their genre, they each have their own distinct voice.

The type of voice you use in your novel will depend on the view point, the genre, theme, time, setting, and your personal skills as a writer.

It can take a lot of experimentation and revision to land on the right voice. And often, the only way to develop it is through time and practise.

As Amy Severson said, “When I finally realized that I was never going to write like the authors I loved and just started writing how (and what) I wanted to, it was like someone blew out the little candle I was huddled under and flipped the switch on a dozen spotlights.”

Voice is important, but remember that it is also subservient to your narrative. Premise, characterisation, and narrative pull are just as important. And usually, if you just follow your gut, the voice will take care of itself.


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