If you don't already know me, I tend to be very nuts and bolts, but voice is one of those topics that's really hard to be nuts and bolts about because it's kind of a grey area. It's one of those weird topics that's sort of hard to pinpoint a definition or an exact how to.
What I'm gonna be presenting to you guys today is the best sort of scientific approach I can come to with voice. If you can be scientific with voice at all. That's kind of the goal with today's presentation. Basically, we're going to start by talking about sort of what voice is and then I'm gonna give you guys a few suggested exercises that you can use in order to put that into action.
I'm actually gonna teach you what I consider the layered approach to voice. And if you guys are familiar with my work at all, you know that I like doing things in layers. I love doing things in kind of little systematic ways because that's the way I'm able to wrap my head around complicated sort of grey area topics.
What is voice?
That's such a funny question. I don't remember who it was that had that definition of pornography: "I can't really define it, but I know it when I see it."
That's how I feel about voice. I don't really have a way, a definitive way of explaining what voice is. Because there's really no way to define it. It's one of those grey area things that you only really know when you actually hear it or see it on the page. The thing with voice that you have to understand is that it's kind of ingrained in your personality. There's some element of your voice that will be part and parcel of who you are.
I like to think of it as like your literary DNA. It's a part that's just ingrained in you. It's who you are and how you come across as a writer and that's not really gonna change. Kind of the way that our DNA doesn't change.
That said, even though your voice is somewhat fixed in the sense that you kind of have some voice already established by your persona, your personality, et cetera, you can learn to modulate it. And that's what we're gonna be talking about today. Both how to identify that thing that is your voice, and then how to maximize it and play it to its greatest potential.
One of the quotes that I absolutely love is by Maya Angelou:
"Words mean more than what is set down on paper. It takes the human voice to infuse them with shades of deeper meaning."
If you think about that, that's true both in terms of sort of like, any sort of words that are gonna move mountains, you know sort of words that might be political statements or whatever. But it can also have that same meaning if we're talking about literature.
The same writer could take the same string of words and in the mouth or the pen of one author could have a totally different meaning depending on the context of the story, depending on the context of who the author is, depending on the context of the time when it's written. Those same exact words could have a totally different meaning if penned by a different author.
When it comes to voice, while on one hand there's a part of it that you are already bringing to the table. It's ingrained in who are as a writer. On the flip side, there's also the context. A huge part of your voice is gonna be shaped by the context of the book that you're writing and then also the greater context of the world, what's happening around you as you are penning this book.
These are all things for you to keep in mind as you put your book together, as you share your voice. And again, this is one of those things I find really funny when people say you have to find your voice. Like you know, those writing teachers in workshops. I find it kind of ridiculous when they say that because the truth is, you never lost it in the first place. Your voice has always been right there with you.
The question isn't, how do you find it? The question is, what are you about to cultivate in that voice you already have?
Now, one thing to keep in mind, most of the things I'll be teaching here today, have to do more with the narrative writing. By narrative I mean, things that are fiction, or narrative non-fiction, such as memoir.
On the other hand, a lot of these same techniques if you're writing prescriptive, "how-to" non-fiction. If you're thinking of writing more as a way to raise your thought leadership or something like that, or as a blogger, you can still apply a lot of these same contexts or these same concepts, but it's gonna be just a little bit different. You're gonna have to rejig things a little because you don't have characters in a blog post. You have concepts that you're sharing.
It'll be just a little bit different. And so, for those of you who are planning on writing those types of things, you'll just have to do a little bit of legwork in turning around the concepts to make them fit.
Two exercises in voice
Before I walk you through that step by step layered approach, I wanna give you guys a couple of exercises that you can take home with you and use them to build up your voice.
One of them is actually one that landed on my plate earlier today. I was interviewing this fabulous author for the DIY MFA podcast and usually what I do at the end of every single podcast I ask them what's your number one tip for writers? And this author said, to journal.
But she said, most of the time people say journal as a way to record your thoughts or come up with ideas or brainstorm, but this author said something different. She said, "You wanna journal because that's where you record your voice." As you are growing as a writer, you can look back on that record that was your voice and you can decide what advice from editors and writing groups and things like that, what pieces of that advice you actually want to take and which pieces actually conflict with this track record of a voice that you've created."
So it's sort of a way to build up your own track record, then you can look back on and say, "No. This is who I am as a writer," and then you can make an intentional choice either to accept or turn down graciously advice that has been given to you on your writing."
So, I thought that was a really smart approach to journaling, something that I'd never thought of doing myself. The other exercise is a little more nuts and bolts.
2. Walking in the footsteps of the literary masters
Here's what you're gonna do. You're gonna choose a nursery rhyme. I like Itsy Bitsy Spider or Humpty Dumpty. But you could do Jack and Jill, you could do Jack Be Nimble, Mary Had a Little Lamb. Any one of those little sing-songy nursery rhymes.
What you're gonna do is take the concept that is presented in the nursery rhyme and you're going to tell it like a story. Think like five to 800 words here. We're not talking epic novel. We're talking a few pages. You're gonna tell that story, but you're going to adopt the voice of a famous author whose work you admire.
For example, I actually learned this exercise, I didn't come up with it all out of my own head. I actually learned this exercise when I was in college and my professor had us write the story of Jack of Jill in the voice of William Faulkner. And so, I had to actually go, first, and research William Faulkner's voice and read lots of things by Faulkner so I could understand what that voice was, then I had to apply it and try to tell the story of Jack and Jill the way that William Faulkner would have done it.
Think about, how would you take a nursery rhyme and write it in the voice of Tolkien? Or in the voice of, I don't know, Jane Austin? Or in the voice of Maya Angelou or any author that you love that you really admire? Someone whose voice you either want to emulate or understand enough that you can unpack.
The goal isn't here to eventually copy these authors like a copycat. Instead, it's kind of like opening up a car and looking under the hood to see how the motor works. You're not gonna pick up someone's motor and plunk it in your car. You're gonna figure out how it works so you can build your own motor in your own car and then create a voice that is uniquely your own.
Those are my two go-to exercises for whenever someone tells you to "find your voice."
The Layered Approach to Voice
Here's the funny thing about voice — something you're not taught in English class in high school or college: Voice happens on multiple different layers of a story.
- You first have the character layer: the most grounded layer of your story.
- Layered on top of that is the voice of the narrator.
Sometimes the narrator is one of the characters. If you have a first-person narrator, by definition that means the narrator is a character in the story. But, the voice of the narrator is not necessarily the same as the voice of that character when they are talking to other characters in the story. There could be a slight difference and those differences are what makes stories interesting.
And then, of course, you could have an additional layer on top of that. A meta layer. A layer that frames the story, like a story within a story. For instance, we'll be talking about this later, but books like Pale Fire, where the true meaning of the story is actually not in the story at all, it's in the footnotes that accompany the story and that creates sort of an added meta layer above the layers of the narrator and the layers of the dialogue.
We're going to dig into each of these layers one by one, but before we do that, it's important to understand what happens at each of those significant layers. The two most significant ones are the character layer and then the narrator layer.
What happens when you have a story with only one layer? Most stories have two. Right? Most stories have characters doing stuff in the story, but then you have a narrator whether it's a first-person character in the story narrating and telling us stuff, or you have a third person narrator who's above or outside the story telling us stuff that's happening in the story.
Stories with one layer of voice
Well, essentially you have one of two scenarios. Either you have a scenario where you have a very close first person point of view, so close that you might as well not even ... none of the other characters might as well have any voice because really what matters is that one single character's thoughts drive the story.
Close First Person POV
We see this a lot in those sort of stream of consciousness first person narrator stories where often even if there are snatches of dialogue here or there, it doesn't really make a difference because the character who's narrating is the one who's carrying the story.
A great example of this is the short story "The Telltale Heart" by Edgar Allen Poe. I'm just gonna read you guys an example so you have a sense of how deeply entrenched we are in this character's mindset that it doesn't really matter what else is happening. This carries the story.
True!—nervous—very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad? The disease had sharpened my senses—not destroyed—not dulled them. Above all, was the sense of hearing acute. I heard all things in heaven and in the earth. I heard many things in hell. How, then, am I mad? Hearken! And observe how healthily—how calmly I can tell you the whole story.
We have this deeply entrenched first person. The narrator is kind of bringing us unwillingly almost into his world because he's breaking that fourth wall and talking to the reader.
But this gives you a sense of how, when you're so deeply entrenched in a first-person narrative, you can actually be just all in and you don't have to have any dialogue happening between characters because this voice is going to carry the story. Granted, that voice will carry the story for a few pages. I don't know that I could personally put up with that voice for a 300-page book. But that's just me. I can follow this character for the half-dozen pages of this Poe short story.
A couple of things to think about if you choose to create a piece that is in this close first person, where you're essentially silencing all the other characters in your story. Remember that the action is really only going to be happening in the mind of that narrating character. There will be very minimal dialogue. It also means that the only voice that we're gonna hear is that of this first-person narrator — presumably, this is the main character and whatever this main character is thinking. There will be very few other characters present, and if they appear, they will be filtered through this person: this narrator's perception of all these other characters.
Finally, in this particular story, we have an unreliable narrator. We kind of know this right from the beginning when he's saying, "Why will you say that I am mad?" We kind of know that he's kind of losing it and that he's not 100% reliable. But, it's that whole, "Methinks the lady doth protest too much." He's trying a little too hard to convince us that he's not crazy. But the thing that's interesting with this, is because we're so deeply entrenched, even though we know from moment one that this guy is not a reliable narrator, we're still willing to go along for the ride because we're so deeply entrenched in this very deep first-person narrative.
If you're doing a story like this, having only one layer can not only be done, not only is it possible, but it can actually be more effective. If we had had other characters sort of polluting the space and the voice of this story, it might not have been as effective of a story.
Now, let's look at the other type. The flip side of this. When you have only characters and very little dialogue, very little anything else happening ... not very little dialogue, very little narration happening outside of the characters talking to each other.
A great example of this is a short story "Hills Like White Elephants" by Ernest Hemingway. It essentially reads like a stage play. There's very little, except for "he said" and "she said," there's very little narration happening. Occasionally you'll have a line describing the scene, but it's very small. It might as well be just presented on a stage. Instead of the narrator carrying the story (and the characters not really mattering), now the characters have to do all the work because there's no real narrator there to add that extra layer to the story.
“They look like white elephants,” she said. “I’ve never seen one,” the man drank his beer. “No, you wouldn’t have.” “I might have,” the man said. “Just because you say I wouldn’t have doesn’t prove anything.”
Even in just those four lines of dialogue, we already get a sense of there's a lot of history between these two characters. There's a lot of tension between them. There's definitely some conflict going on. Even if that's all you got of the entire story, you could already get a pretty good sense of who these two characters, the man and the woman, are.
The reason I bring up both of these examples is to show you that: a) it's possible to strip a story down so you're only dealing with that one layer, but a) that you can do this type of thing and practice [both forms]. You might not be able to carry an entire novel with only characters and dialogue or only a narrator in whose mind we're deeply entrenched. But, you could do sort of little case studies for yourself. Practice flexing each of those muscles. In fact, I'm a big fan of practicing these techniques in separate spaces so that you don't actually practice something in your book and then end up breaking your book.
In this second example, the burden is on the characters to basically carry the story — and the reader also has an added burden because they have to infer hidden details: things that the narrator would usually tell us, like what the space looks like, or what's going on. It's on the author to make sure that what the characters are saying in the dialogue conveys a sense of place, a sense of time, and also conveys their personalities. It's a really good exercise to do to try to write a single layer story just so you can practice flexing those muscles.
Multiple Layers of Voice
Now, let's talk about the different layers of a story. I touched on this before, but essentially you've got three layers:
- You've got the character layer, which is the characters talking to each other.
- You've got the narrator layer, which is the narrator sort of explaining or presenting what's happening in the story.
- And then you've got the meta layer — a frame, or a story-within-a-story
Let's start with layer one.
Layer 1: Voices of the characters
Essentially we've already talked about this a little, but you want to make sure that the characters themselves can hold their own. You don't want to rely on the narrator layer in order to fill in gaps for your reader because your characters aren't doing the work.
What does this mean? It means that you're character's voices need to be distinct. We need to be able to hear the differences between characters even if we don't have the who said what. Like the "she said" and the "he saids" attached to them. If you're wondering how to do this, I want to challenge you to go and read the first chapter of Pride and Prejudice.
In that chapter, you've got all five of the Bennett sisters plus Mr. and Mrs. Bennett (and I think there may even be a servant who comes in at some point). I don't remember exactly. And each and every one of those character's voices come across loud and clear.
Yes, we have a narrator that explains things and interjects now and then, but the characters themselves are very clearly their own personalities. You don't need the tag saying, Lucy said and Jane said and Mrs. Bennett said in order for us to know and to be able to follow who's saying what.
Dialogue isn't just supposed to be like real life dialogue, it has to be better. It has to be snappier. It has to really come alive. I find when I write my character's dialogue, I pare away over half of what I've written by the time I'm done with the final version because there's a lot of, "Hey how's it going? How's the weather?" kind of stuff that I use to sort of get myself warmed up that needs to get removed.
Another thing to think about too, is that writers often have a distinct voice even in the dialogue of their characters. We often think that a writer's voice comes across in the narration. That like, "Oh, this one has a flowery style and this one's more direct. Hemingwayesque." If you think about, for example, the difference between a David Mamet play and a Neil Simon play, their dialogue, the way they write their characters is markedly different. I can spy a David Mamet play without knowing that he wrote it just from hearing the dialogue it's so, so obvious. And that's what you want your characters to sound like. You want your characters also to be so uniquely you, that people will be able to spot, "Oh yeah, that's so and so's characters. That's so and so's writing," just based on reading those characters.
There's a lot that needs to happen in terms of your voice even at the dialogue level. Think about how you want to piece that dialogue, how you want your characters to sound, all of these things are part and parcel of your voice.
Layer 2: The voice of your narrators
Now we get to the second layer. The voice of your narrators. This is where it gets kind of fun 'cause you've got a couple of different flavors of narrators. You could have a first-person narrator who is a character in the story, who's also having dialogue and interacting with other characters in the story, but then they're also offering some sort of commentary.
What's really interesting to me, what I love seeing in stories is when you have a first-person narrator in the story and then you've got them thinking things and what they think as the narrator is not exactly in line with what they're saying as a character.
A great example of this is the Diary of the Wimpy Kid books. If you look at the book, the diary itself is kind of the version, the narrator version that the character wants us to be aware of. Us as the readers. It's like we're snooping on his diary. But then you've got all those little like doodles and comics in the margins. And those are actually what really happened in the story. What's really funny is when you see the disconnect between the two. You see there's something happening and he's saying this is how it played out with my friends, and then you've got the real story and it's actually a lot more embarrassing or a lot more awkward and that's that disconnect and that conflict is actually really interesting.
That's one way that you can play with your narrator. On the other hand, sometimes you'll have a third person narrator. It can be omniscient, it could be a limited, whatever. This is not a point of view lesson. This is on voice. But there are a couple of different ways that that third person narrator can behave.
On one hand, you could have what I like to call the opinionated narrator. That's the narrator who's very present in the storytelling it like it is. Sometimes that opinionated narrator is even going to break the fourth wall and talk to the reader. Kind of like the way the character in "Tell-tale Heart" does.
The first example I have is from Matilda by Roald Dahl. And if you're a fan of Roald Dahl (like I am), pretty much every single narrator that he has is an opinionated narrator. This is the beginning of Matilda.
It’s a funny thing about mothers and fathers. Even when their own child is the most disgusting little blister you could ever imagine, they still think he or she is wonderful.
Some parents go further. They become so blinded by adoration, they manage to convince themselves their child has qualities of genius.
So right there from the get go, we can see that this narrator has a very distinct opinion about these mothers and fathers who treat their sub-par children as geniuses. You see the same kind of voice in just about every single story. It's almost like this narrator is adding a layer of commentary to what's happening in the action of the story.
Now, you can even take that further. The Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo pushes that opinionated narrator even further. I love her books but I will say that I'm not a huge fan of the narrator in this particular book — but it is such a great example of the opinionated narrator breaking the fourth wall that I have to use it.
“The last one,” said the father. “And he’ll be dead soon. He can’t live. Not with his eyes open like that.”
But, reader, he did live.
This is his story.
It almost feels like a grand proclamation every time the narrator would step in — and you can totally do that in your story. Now, Lemony Snicket takes that same idea and flips it around where the narrator comes in, gives some grand proclamation, but it's completely and utterly wrong. And in that case, I actually find it really hilarious because it's creating that feeling of the narrator's super full of him or herself and then it's sort of trampling on that.
You can play with that when you're creating this opinionated narrator. Is this an opinionated narrator who is ... can do no wrong? Or is this an opinionated narrator who maybe thinks that they're smarter than they really are and the reader can also kind of get a chuckle from it 'cause then it makes the reader feel like, "I'm smarter than the narrator. That's kind of cool."
There are things that you can do to play with the narrator. In the case of Matilda and usually with most of Roald Dahl, he's aligning himself with the kids. Usually, he's creating the story where this narrator is kind of giving the proverbial smack down on the evil parents or the evil teachers who are being mean to the good kid that we're supposed to root for in the story.
So, of course, the kid aligns with the protagonist, and then also aligns with the narrator.
In the case of Kate DiCamillo's The Tale of Despereaux, it's more like this narrator is opening the door into the grander world of the story and all the different realms in Tale of Despereaux: the rat realm, and the mouse realm, and the people realm. It's kind of nice to have this narrator usher us in from one area to another.
Now, on the flip side, you can also have a narrator who's not even there at all. Or rather, the narrator's very much there, but we're not supposed to notice him or her. This is probably the hardest narrator to write. It's usually an omniscient narrator as opposed to a more opinionated, or more like aligned with the character third person limited narrator.
It's really hard to do this because your whole job as the writer is to make sure that the narrator is invisible, that nobody notices. The example that I love from The Secret of Platform 13 by Eva Ibbotson.
If you went into a school nowadays and said to the children: “What is a gump?” you would probably get some very silly answers.
“It’s a person without a brain, like a chump,” a child might say. Or:
“It’s a camel whose hump has got stuck.” Or even:
“It’s a kind of chewing gum.”
But once this wasn’t so. Once every child in the land could have told you that a gump was a special mound, a grassy bump on the earth, and that in this bump was a hidden door which opened every so often to reveal a tunnel which lead to a completely different world.
You probably didn't even really pay attention to the narrator in this passage. The whole point of the voice in this passage was to take our attention away from the fact that there was a narrator telling the story. Don't look at the man behind the curtain kind of thing. And instead, focus on the gump. It's almost like a sleight of hand trick, that the gump is becoming this point of focus so that we forget that there's somebody telling us this story.
That is a narratorial choice. That is a choice that you get to make as a writer in order to lead your readers in one direction and not another. Now, there's another thing that's really interesting with this passage. I could do probably an entire hour-long presentation unpacking just those few words because there's so much in there.
Take a look at how it works.
In the beginning it starts with saying, "If you go to a school nowadays," so that's something we know about. Like okay, school, I get that. I know what a school is.
"And you ask the children, what is a gump?"
All of a sudden the reader's going, "Oh shoot. I don't know what a gump is. I must be an idiot. But then, it says, you'd probably get some silly answers. It's a person without a brain." And then you get all these examples, right?
And suddenly the readers thinking, "Okay, I don't feel so bad that I don't have the answer because I'm not the only one that doesn't know what a gump is." But then, it's also framed in a way that we're the insiders. The narrator isn't saying, "You don't know what a gump is. You're dumb because you're not a smart person of the olden days who knows this magical thing." Instead it's saying, "You know, if you went to a school these days, they're not in on the secret like you and I are. They think that it's a camel without a hump or all these things." That's again, creating an alignment between the reader and the narrator.
This narrator is very present, and yet, we don't even notice it. It's only when we start to unpack the way this opening of the story actually works that we realize the magic and the mastery that is coming in with this completely invisible narrator.
Layer 3: Metafiction
The next layer up.
Metafiction is kind of a general term for anything that you do in order to create a narrative that extends beyond the main story, or the main part of your story. There are different ways you can create metafiction. The frame is the typical way that we usually think of. Kind of like the 1001 Nights. A story, within a story, within a story, within a story, within a story. Those are all frames like the Russian nesting doll kind of story.
There are other ways you can do it. You could have a frame where you got a story of characters reading something, and then the inner story that they're actually reading, and the interplay between those two worlds. You could also have a story like I alluded to earlier with Pale Fire by Nabokov where the story itself, believe it or not, is not in the story. It's in the footnotes.
It's only when you read the footnotes that you truly understand the irony of what's going on in the epic poem that is the story. And what's really interesting, and this is something that I still haven't quite figured and if any of you guys have read and mastered Pale Fire, please tell because I'm still trying to puzzle this one out, is how to read the darn thing. Do you read the poem first and then the footnotes? Do you read the poem and the footnotes as they come up? 'Cause it's different each time if you read it one way or the other. It's a different experience.
Again, something to think about as you're crafting this meta narration and as you're crafting this meta story and this voice for the meta narration. You need to also think about how your reader is going to puzzle out and figure out how to read the story within the story.
Now, we're gonna focus on a typical story with a frame. And the classic one, of course, is The Princess Bride by William Goldman. This is from near the beginning of the story where the dad reading to the boy — unlike the movie where it's the grandfather.
"Chapter One. The Bride." He held up the book then. "I'm reading it to you for relax." He practically shoved the book in my face. "By S. Morgenstern. Great Florinese writer. The Princess Bride. He too came to America. S. Morgenstern. Dead now in New York. He spoke eight tongues.” Here my father put down the book and held up all his fingers. “Eight. Once, in Florin City, I was in his café.” He shook his head now; he was always doing that, my father, shaking his head when he’d said it wrong. “Not his café. He was in it, me too, the same time. I saw him. S. Morgenstern. He had head like this, that big,” and he shaped his hands like a big balloon. “Great man in Florin City. Not so much in America.”
"Has it got any sports in it?"
Look at the voice that's happening in that passage:
- You've got the voice of the narrator, the boy narrator saying things like, "he held his fingers up. He was always doing that, my father, shaking his head when he said it wrong." That is the narrator voice.
- But then you've go the two distinct characters. You've got the dad going, "I read it to you for relax." You get a sense for his accent. You get a sense for he's not a native speaker of English. "Eight. Once in Florence city I was in his café. Great man in Florence City, not so much in America." We get a sense for the dad's voice.
- And then you have the son's voice in the story. "Has it got any sports in it?"
But this is not even in the main story. This is the story outside, and the main story, as we all know, is the story of the Princess Bride with the rodents of unusual size and the swashbuckling and all of that stuff. That's the actual story.
When you're creating meta fiction is that you do need to set up certain rules so that your reader knows what to expect — so that they can then navigate the story alongside you. At the end of the day, most of us aren't going to be writing things with that third layer, I just wanted to give you guys a taste of it so you'd know what the possibilities are.
I've just created a course for Reedsy on Point of View which you can sign up for right here.
And you can also head to DIY MFA to download my cheat sheet on voice which will cover a lot of the stuff we talked about today.
All right, I guess until next time, keep writing and keep being awesome!