One of my favorite parts of writing conferences is the first-page critique session—when attendees anonymously submit their first pages and a panel of editors, agents, and industry pros critique them for the whole group. It’s interesting, because the panelists always complain about the same things, and one of the common fails on ailing first pages is the voice.
If the voice on a first page is boring or flat or inconsistent, you may not be able to put your finger on exactly what’s wrong with it, but you know something’s wrong. Likewise, when the voice is on, you sense it immediately. It resonates. So if you’re wanting to write a book that people will want to read, it’s hugely important to get the voice right.
That’s why, despite this topic having been discussed already around the blogosphere, we’re going to talk about it again. It’s that important. PK Hrezo is here today to share some thoughts and an exercise on how to write voice well. Thanks, PK!
Soul. It’s a word applied to many different media. For just a moment, let’s consider it from a musical standpoint. Stevie Wonder. Aretha Franklin. Marvin Gaye. Not just anyone can sing and play this kind of music successfully; a certain je ne sais quoi is required in bringing down the house and moving people to their very souls.
Is it really any different when it comes to books?
If the structure of a story is the bones and the characters and plot are the meat, then the voice most certainly is the soul. Every reader loves a good plot and riveting characters, and many books have these elements, but with so many to choose from, what makes us select the books we do?
For me it’s simple: if you want me to get past the first page of your book, the voice of the story must grab me. It must be authentic, unique, memorable. It should feel like a real person. So what ingredients make up that magical concoction of a compelling voice?
Word choice. Cadence. Rhythm. It’s where the real writing comes in, paired with crafty prose and flipped clichés. It requires careful thought and consideration, both when the narrator is a main character, as well as when the story is told in third person.
For newer writers, it can be hard to decipher what those editors and reviewers are saying when they mention a weak or bland voice. It’s like not being able to see the book for the words. (See how I flipped that forest-for-the-trees cliché??)
If you’re struggling with the concept of voice, give the following exercise a try:
Let’s say we send three very different people to the same party, asking all to observe the venue and guests for thirty minutes before reporting back on everything they noticed. Let’s say one of those people is an elderly lady who uses a walker, is blind in one eye, and hasn’t been out of her house in a week. How would she describe what she sees and feels? What words would she choose? What are the things she’d notice?
What if one of the guests was a young dad who’d recently lost his wife to cancer and this was the first time he’d been out since her death? How would his observations be different from the old woman? How would he describe it, in his own overwhelmed, brink-of-depression terms?
What if one of those people was an eighteen-year-old girl who was just elected homecoming queen and this was her third party of the night? What words would she use to make her report relative to her world?
This activity exemplifies the importance of character when it comes to voice. What she notices (and doesn’t notice), the words she uses to describe those things, the cadence and rhythm of her speech (is it lilting, rambling, stuttering, or staccato?)—all of these things go together to define her voice and make it uniquely hers.
Now take the exercise a step further. Make your main character one of these guests who must observe the party and report back. Now it’s your villain’s turn. Now the love interest…Not only will this activity get you in touch with who your characters are at their core, but it will distinguish each of their unique voices and help you decide which one would be the most compelling and/or fitting for the story you want to tell. The individual voices that result can be the difference in an un-put-downable story and one that sounds like all the rest.
When I’m drafting, I work fast. I get that story down and focus on the rise and fall of emotion throughout the plot. But I know that a compelling narrator voice is vital, so during my first and second rounds of edits, I focus on how I can strengthen the narrator (and character) voice. Are my word choices dull? If the sentence or paragraph evokes no emotion in me, then the answer is probably yes. How can I flip my current word choices to add flair to my character and refine her voice in the story?
Example from an old unpublished manuscript:
It’s not crowded, but the noise of the arcade and music makes it seem busy. Glancing around, I notice some of my old video game faves. I haven’t been inside here in ages—grew out of it, I guess. Now it seems kind of fun, though. Reminds me of a time when nothing else mattered—when scoring high at Zombie Slayer ruled the weekend. Back when my brother Jake was still at home, and when Mom and I got along. I realize it now. Something about this place comforts me.
Now, using the same scenario, let’s tweak the voice:
The place is a ghost town, only the whirrs and beeps of the player-starved arcades giving it any life. Glancing around, I notice my faithful old time-killers and a flash of nostalgia sweeps through me. I haven’t been inside this pizza joint in moons—not since middle school, anyway. It reminds me of a time when nothing else mattered, a time when scoring high at Zombie Slayer was the highest honor of the weekend. Of a time when my big brother was still at home, and when Mom and I still got along.
Which narrator would you rather keep reading? Both tell the same story, but the second one gives more insight into who the character is, and it’s more entertaining.
In closing, I should add that, like a fine wine, our writer’s ear for voice matures over time. If you’re just starting out, you may not notice anything missing in your story, while an agent or editor or reviewer may say that the voice was “flat” or “inconsistent.” This just means there’s room for growth in this area.
Ask around for suggestions on books with compelling narrator voices. Read them, focusing on the author’s word choice, cadence, and rhythm. Once you read a story with a strong voice, you’ll know it; recognize the techniques, practice them yourself, and the knowledge will change your work for the better.
Thanks to Angela and Becca for having me here today!
Thanks for being here, PK! Voice is honestly one of those things that can make or break a story, and the best way I’ve found to improve in this area myself is to identify books that have a strong voice and study them. A few of my personal favorites? Chime (Franny Billingsley), The Wicked and the Just (J. Anderson Coats), and Above (Leah Bobet). What books stand out to you as have strong and unique voices?
Becca Puglisi is an international speaker, writing coach, and bestselling author of The Emotion Thesaurus and its sequels. Her books are available in five languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. She is passionate about learning and sharing her knowledge with others through her Writers Helping Writers blog and via One Stop For Writers—a powerhouse online library created to help writers elevate their storytelling.