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Voice: Why it's Important in Fiction


image of a neon voice sign
Your Voice is Your Signature. It's What Captures Your Reader's Attention. It's Critical to Your Novel's Success

The first writer I remember wanting to be like was Jack Kerouac. Cliché, I know, but On the Road was the first novel that had me selling all of my belongings, breaking up with a long-time girlfriend, jumping in a car, and heading west, with nothing but a cooking job lined up at Yellowstone National Park. This was nearly thirty years ago. Man, was that a good time. It was also the first time I wrote an entire novel. Or, at least, my first attempt at one.


I have pictures of that novel, which I wrote in a beat-up, yellow, 9-1/2” x 6” notebook, sitting on the dashboard of the Toyota in different spots around the country—in Georgia, Arkansas, Colorado, Wyoming. I also have pictures of it in Yellowstone, with the mountains, Bison, and lush forests in the background. I’m proud of that novel; it was a big accomplishment, but also a reminder of that time in my life when I learned about national parks, about traveling cross-country by car, and seeing the United States for the first time on a whole other level. The only problem now, or lesson that I learned, really, is that it wasn’t my novel; the novel was Kerouac writing through me or, better, me writing a novel using Kerouac’s voice.


That’s a good thing. Mimicking your favorite writer’s style is part of the learning process, the first however many hours of the 10,000 hour rule of achieving expertise. You read a novel, loved it, it transported you to a world you hadn’t known you needed, perhaps one you hadn’t known even existed. The author used language and descriptions that got you excited, or frightened you, or opened your eyes to things you’d somehow not yet experienced firsthand, perhaps will never experience at all. But the writing touched you. You wanted to do what that writer, that book, did for you, and you wanted to do it for others. You found your calling. Reading Kerouac’s book, I found my calling. The only thing I hadn’t yet found was my own voice. I wasn’t a fraud; I was learning. So, let's get into Voice: Why it's Important in Fiction.



Voice can be a combination of your writing tone, sentence structure, patterns, and perspective. It is a stamp on your writing that makes your work personal and recognizable, so much so that your audience can identify a sample of writing as yours without ever seeing your name.

                                                                                   -- Alexa Martin


But learning how to write in an original voice takes time. It takes playing around with words and the elements of fiction, as Alexa Martin describes in her quote above. It requires a fidelity to not only writing but to understanding how and why your voice is different than any of the writers out there writing. It’s not easy; writing in general is a difficult endeavor. But if you put the time in, if you are self-aware, you’ll get glimpses of your particular voice in bits and pieces, until you recognize it enough to focus on it and to develop it completely.

My second novel, which I wrote in Granada, Spain, had an inkling of an original voice.


photo of the alhambra castle in granada spain
The Alhambra Castle. Sometimes Setting May Help You Develop Your Voice, at Least for Your Novel-in-Progress

Because I was writing in a foreign country with a lot of Spanish references, the voice sort of took on a life of its own. I wasn’t writing in Spanglish, but I had set my novel in a place that required a use of Spanish words, Spanish phrases and aphorisms, and my characters reacted and spoke differently based on the exotic setting. I was excited. I was enthused. Maybe not over the moon, but I recognized that I was on to something. Sure, the Alhambra Castle, the Albaicin neighborhood where I lived at the time, the foods, the people, all of it informed the writing I was doing, and it was a great next step. But it wasn’t the voice that would propel me to my first published novel. That came later, after all of the influences that showed up in my writing disappeared completely. Or, at least, until the voice of my novel was indistinguishable by me, meaning I couldn’t point to a novel and say, “Hey, that phrase, those words, that voice is Author X’s voice!”


In literature, the voice expresses the narrator or author’s emotions, attitude, tone and point of view through artful, well thought out use of word choice and diction. A voice may be formal or informal; serious or lighthearted; positive or negative; persuasive or argumentative; comical or depressed; witty or straightforward; objective or subjective—truly, voice can reflect any and all feelings and perspectives. A work’s voice directly contributes to its tone and mood; helping the writer create the desired effect he wants his words to have on readers.

                                                                                    Literaryterms.net


For me, voice is what I hear in my mind when I listen to the narrator tell the story of our hero or heroine. It’s what provides me with the narrator’s or character’s background, their station in life, their ethnicity, if they are educated or not, all the things that have influenced them prior to us meeting. When writing, voice in fiction gives you your own style. It sets you apart. It lets readers know who’s who, and it sets the tone for the journey they’re about to embark on.


You don’t know about me, without you have read a book by the name of “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” but that ain’t no matter. That book was made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly.   

                                                                                    --Huck Finn, by Mark Twain


cover of Mark Twain's The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain is a Great Example of an Excellent use of Voice

Now, I don’t know about you, but if that isn’t a recognizable voice, I don’t know what is.

Literary agent, Ella Marie Shupe says, “A terrific voice and clever premise always capture my attention.” Twain, in just that first sentence, captures your attention. He gives you Huck’s education level via his vocabulary and how he speaks, which also provides you an idea of where he’s from, and he pulls you in quickly, because you want to know who this interesting boy is and what he thinks isn’t the truth in Twain’s book. Your mind may even form a mental picture of what Huck looks like. That’s a powerful voice, and Twain is a master of it.


Here's the opening line to Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls: 


He lay flat on the brown, pine-needled floor of the forest, his chin on his folded arms, and high overhead the wind blew in the tops of the pine trees. The mountainside sloped gently where he lay; but below it was steep and he could see the dark of the oiled road winding through the pass. There was a stream alongside the road and far down the pass he saw a mill beside the stream and the falling water of the dam, white in the summer sunlight.

Hemingway changed the way authors write. His style won him the Pulitzer Prize for literature in 1953 for The Old Man and the Sea, but his style was there in his previous works. When we read that first line of For Whom the Bell Tolls, we’re transported to that mountainside with Robert Jordan. We hear the authoritative voice of a narrator who gives us everything, including what Jordan sees, and we feel the wind as it blows “in the tops of the pine trees,” we feel the pine needles on our forearms, and we see the “oiled road winding through the pass.”


Hemingway drops us expertly into the setting of the novel, and he does so because the voice he uses forces us to experience the writing rather than reading it. Voice gets us lost in the narrative. It’s our tour guide, and a good one at that. Voice determines how we experience the journey. A good voice pulls us along; a weak voice has us thinking about our laundry.


When writing fiction, play around with voice. Do you notice any influences that have crept into who you’re hearing tell the story? If so, you may want to change it up. If you don’t hear any influences, and the voice is interesting, you may be onto something. Give it a shot. Find your voice.

 

Ready to have your novel edited so it's ready to submit to literary agents and publishers? Reach out to Cully Perlman at Cully@novelmasterclass.com. He is an author and Substantive Editor. His rate is .03/word.

 

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Some good points. I love the quotes!

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