Voice: Feel Me Hear Me

Express Yourself written on the roadA while back, I touched on voice and I thought I might explore this essential writing element more fully. I did a little hunting and decided, in terms of creative writing, voice has two meanings by most standards: the author’s style, conveying her attitudes, personality, and the quality that makes her writing unique; and characteristic speech and thought patterns that are most easily identified through the author’s narration, especially first–person narration. Voice is what the reader hears in her head when reading the story. Voice is also the narrator of the story, often through the protagonist’s point of view.

Many claim that voice is one of the most important elements in writing. It’s how we describe writing as distinct and different from everyone else. It would include the descriptions you use, the words, the structure and pattern of your sentences and paragraphs. It’s how your characters express themselves.

But I’m going to make a bold statement and say that voice is one of the most highly touted stylistic elements and yet it is the least understood, and equally difficult to identify or describe. It’s not talking, because essentially reading and writing are silent activities.

I had an interesting discussion with my niece one day, whom I can only describe as a voracious reader. We discussed a book we both liked—a very intimate love story. She admitted that she thoroughly enjoyed reading the book but when she saw the movie the same dialogue sounded weird. She loved hearing the voice in her head, her own voice I suspect, but when she heard it read aloud by an actress it didn’t feel right. This thought possessed me for a few weeks and is probably the reason most people declare that the movie is never as good as the book.

The reading experience is very personal. As the reader, we bring our own experiences and attitudes to the written page and although the author has carefully crafted words in the correct sequence to convey her meaning, it isn’t necessarily the same voice for everyone. Voice as written and voice as spoken are different as in “reading” a book on tape (with your ears) vs. reading it with your eyes.

There’s no denying that an engaging voice, written or spoken, captures us from the first sentence and pulls us quickly into the story world the author has built. Your style/voice is what makes your writing distinct. It’s how you talk: your pitch, tone, emotion, etc. Ernest Hemingway and Cormac McCarthy wrote as minimalists. McCarthy refused to use quotes to denote dialogue. Both used short sentences, short paragraphs, short on adjectives and long on nouns and verbs, with lively language, which brings us back to style. That I get. There is a wide range of styles: conversational, formal, informal, or perhaps something like a stream of consciousness or a lyrical poetic voice.

But again, I’m not convinced that style is the same as voice. I say, just let it flow. Don’t force it and don’t be afraid to reveal yourself—the good, the bad, and the ugly. Let the phrasing you always use emerge. Practice in first person, then change it to third person. Most say writing first person is more difficult and it does limit you to scenes where only this character is present, but it does allow your written voice to develop. Read your story out loud to see if it sounds authentic. I’m not saying that you should give your characters your personality. Your characters are not you. And yet, I’ve never written a protagonist who isn’t somewhat like me: a bit too much of a smartass who has problems with authority.

Agents always say they’re looking for a fresh voice—natural, captivating. But no one seems to really be able to describe the qualities that make it ‘fresh’. Some claim that writers search for their voice, often emulating an author they admire. I find this idea ridiculous. Why would anyone try to imitate someone else’s voice? That would make you an impostor, a comedienne who does impressions. Many Kids hand draw cartoon on  graph paper.writers say they struggle to find their voice. I don’t get that either. Everyone has a voice. Why do you have to go looking for it? I admit that we don’t always write the way we speak and as writers we do need to craft our sentences to the voices of our characters. But essentially our voice is…well, our voice.

After much thought, I think voice is the ability to bring your reader close, to make them trust you. To secure them in your imagined world where they feel safe enough to follow you along your fantasy pathway. It bridges the gap between writer and reader. In essence, I think voice is…intimacy.



Author: Caryn McGill

Caryn is a former high school science teacher, school district administrator and adjunct college professor.

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