Literary Voice: Developing it…and defining it.

A story’s “voice” is sometimes hard to define or talk about. You’ll hear people in the industry praising a certain writer’s voice, or asking for a certain kind of voice in their submissions—quirky, lyrical, etc. I’ve had people ask me how to practice developing one’s own voice, or improve it.

But what exactly is voice?

Wikipedia (that college professor’s bane…) provides the following:

The writer’s voice is the individual writing style of an author, a combination of idiotypical usage of syntax, diction, punctuation, character development, dialogue, etc., within a given body of text (or across several works). Voice can be thought of in terms of the uniqueness of a vocal voice machine. As a trumpet has a different voice than a tuba or a violin has a different voice than a cello, so the words of one author have a different sound than the words of another. One author may have a voice that is light and fast paced while another may have a dark voice.

I actually find the first sentence of that definition rather unhelpful, though I very much like the comparison that follows, likening literary voice to the different sounds of different instruments.

Voice is, I think, the way a story is told. Just as how the same piece of music sounds quite different if played on a violin versus a flute (or sung by a choir or a rapper), a story that involves that same plot, characters, world, etc, can still change a lot depending on the voice used to tell it.

For now, let’s just consider stories told in third person, so we aren’t complicating things by talking about character voice (which tends to encroach on “voice” more often in first person, but can still very much affect it in third).

Voice is what helps change a story from:

He saw his mother across the hall and took a deep breath. She was wearing the frumpy hat he’d always hated, the entire thing slumping about her head like a dissolving pink flower. God. He remembered the last time he’d seen her in it. He’d been in seventh grade and had been about to kiss Jessica Dowly right on the lips. The arrival of his mother and that atrocious hat had been enough to scare Jessica away from him for the rest of the school year.

To:

The first thing he sees when he looks across the hall is the dusky pink of his mother’s hat. Almost immediately, it catapults him back decades—to hot Savannah summers, and home-made ice cream, and the year he was twelve, when he tried to kiss Jessica Dowly behind the playground and failed.

To:

His mother was across the hall. Pink hat. White dress. He shoved aside a rising memory of seventh grade, when he’d last seen her wear it. 

These short excerpts are a bit too short to properly display differences in voice, but I think you can get the general idea! Voice is the lens through which the reader sees the story.

I don’t believe that an author only has one voice. Everyone has certain writing habits, of course—certain ways s/he likes to phrase things, or describe things, or even just structure sentences. But many writers (me included!) definitely match the voice of a book we’re writing with the story we’re trying to tell.

For example, I have a moody, dark fantasy that I use a very different voice for than the one I use for another fantasy that I’m working on, that’s more high/epic-fantasy. And those are both in third person! And both are quite different from the voice I use for The Hybrid Chronicles, which is complicated by the fact that it’s written in first person, so I have to think about not only the appropriate literary voice to tell the story, but how realistic said voice is for my main character, Eva. She’s a fifteen-year-old girl, and so I try to make sure the story’s “voice” matches hers to at least some degree.

How though, does one “practice” voice? I’m still working on how to answer this question. When I first started writing, I used to have a notebook in which I copied down my favorite passages from books. I started paying attention to which stories I loved not just for their plots and characters and such, but purely for the way they were told. And I would write scenes, or stories, or just little snippets in as close an approximation to that voice as I could.

I don’t do that anymore, but I still pay a lot of attention to the way a story is written, and I admire many writers for the strength of their voice. It is definitely something that can be developed. However, it is also something that is unique. Your literary voice is exactly like no one else’s—and even though it’ll probably change over time, whether on purpose or by accident—it will remain unique.

Be proud of that 🙂

     

14 Responses to Literary Voice: Developing it…and defining it.

  1. Julie Eshbaugh
    Julie Eshbaugh Jun 24 2013 at 6:22 am #

    Great post, Kat! I agree that a writer can adjust the voice depending on the book they are writing. Otherwise, wouldn’t every book by a certain writer sound exactly the same? Like you say, some aspects of voice tend to be habits of the writer, but I do think even a strong writer’s voice can be altered to fit the story. Thanks for posting on a tough subject. <3

  2. Stela Brinzeanu Jun 24 2013 at 9:58 am #

    The author’s voice – definitely something to consider when writing a book. Thank you, Kat, for this well written and insightful article.

  3. Martina Boone Jun 24 2013 at 11:30 am #

    This is a fantastic post, Kat. One of the best I’ve ever read about voice. I love the definition likening voice to instruments, and your examples are brilliant!

  4. Alexa Y. Jun 24 2013 at 1:34 pm #

    I absolutely agree with this post! I’ve always thought that writers tell their stories in different ways, and that’s what I usually identify as a voice. While there’s certainly no right or wrong way to do it, I do think that readers also respond to different writer’s “voices” too.

    • Kat Zhang
      Kat Zhang Jun 25 2013 at 11:19 am #

      I’m glad! I know to expect certain similarities, usually, from one of an author’s works to another, but there are definitely changes in voice from piece to piece 🙂

  5. Nomi Isak Jun 24 2013 at 11:42 pm #

    Thanks for this, Kat. I love your examples. That would be a great writing assignment for a class! Write the same passage in three different voices.

    I would add that it’s sometimes tricky to maintain a consistent voice over the span of a whole book. Thus the read-over & rewrite!

    • Kat Zhang
      Kat Zhang Jun 25 2013 at 11:20 am #

      It would be a great assignment! 🙂 And yes, a consistent voice can be hard to find; I usually discover that mine is shakier at the beginning, when I’m still figuring out the right one for this particular story 🙂

  6. Jim Aikin Jun 25 2013 at 2:10 am #

    I’m looking forward to exploring your site, but you have some kind of horrible Javascript problem. On every page I get a dialog box asking me for a password. I click Cancel and the box goes away — and I can then read the content just fine. So it’s just a nasty annoyance. It doesn’t block access to the content.

    I’m getting this problem in Safari on the Mac, and also in Firefox in Windows, so it’s definitely a problem at your end. Please contact your webmaster. Thanks!

    • Kat Zhang
      Kat Zhang Jun 25 2013 at 11:20 am #

      Thanks for letting us know, Jim! It seems to have gone away now.

      • Jim Aikin Jun 25 2013 at 12:15 pm #

        Yes — this morning it’s all good.

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