Writing advice

If you thought “show, don’t tell” was the worst phrase in existence, think again. Let’s talk about voice and style!

People write blogs for lots of different reasons; to inform, to entertain, to educate, to advise, etc. But whatever its purpose, the writer wants, above anything else, to reach as many people as possible, to have a wide readership, and a regular fan base. You’d think that means writing engaging content people want to read, and you’d be right. So, with all that said, why on Earth am I writing about voice?! To all the budding writers out there, bear with me; I’ll try to make it as painless as possible.

Still with me so far? Great! So, in this post, I’ll do my best to explain voice; what it is, and how to use it effectively. To start with, it’s worth bearing in mind that voice and style are two very different things. Style is simply the term for the element(s) you employ to get your voice across, such as phrases, sentencing, or specific language. It’s more concrete than voice, which is more abstract (and thus harder to get to grips with).

Think of voice in terms of the tone a person has when they’re talking; it’s not to so much “what” they’re saying, but “how” they express it. What’s their tone of voice – is it conversational, or authoritative? Does the way they speak come across as educated, or pompous, or condescending etc.? With that in mind, you need to consider your narrator and your reader; who is the narrator, and what tone of voice would they use to tell the story to the reader? In most instances, the narrator will be a character from the book, but it can also be you as the writer.

Let’s take a look at some examples. Paul McVeigh’s The Good Son is a book about a 10-year-old child, called Mickey Donnelley, born in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, a period of unrest between the nationalists (Roman Catholics) and unionists (British/Protestants). Frankly, I think McVeigh is a genius, because every single sentence in the story exudes the protagonist’s character and voice. It starts:

I was born the day the Troubles started.

‘Wasn’t I, Ma?’ says me.

‘It was you that started them, son,’ says she, and we all laugh, except Our Paddy. I put that down to his pimples and general ugliness. It must be hard to be happy with a face like that. I almost feel sorry for him. I spy a dirty, big love bite on his neck and store this ammunition to defend myself against future attacks.

Steamy, flowery-smellin’ disinfectant fills my nose and joins the sweet tastin’ Frosties in my mouth as Ma passes with the tin bucket and yard brush. Ma only cleans the yard when somethin’s up. That would be Da, as usual.

There’s a lot going on here that immediately points to the story being set in Ireland, excluding the obvious ‘Troubles’ hint. Phrases like ‘says me’, or the narrator calling his parents Ma and Da, or his brother Our Paddy, are all indicators of an Irish native. The narrator’s observations are very child-like, such as the brother’s ‘general ugliness’, or noticing the love bite and storing the information for later use. As I said, McVeigh keeps this up throughout the entire book flawlessly. In this example, the “voice” is the narrator, being Irish and a child, whilst the “style” is things like Ma, Da, and ‘says me’.

Let’s look at another example. This is from Stardust, by Neil Gaiman, and it differs a lot from the above extract. While The Good Son‘s use of first-person helps with a character-driven voice, Stardust is written in the style of a fairy-tale, and its voice matches it perfectly;

There was once a young man who wished to gain his Heart’s Desire.

And while that is, as beginnings go, not entirely novel (for every tale about every young man here ever was or will be could start in a similar manner) there was much about this young man and what happened to him that was unusual, although even he never knew the whole of it.

The tale started, as many tales have started, in Wall.

The town of Wall stands today as it has for stood for six hundred years, on a high jut of granite amidst a small forest woodland. The houses of Wall are square and old, built of grey stone, with dark slate roofs and high chimneys; taking advantage of every inch of space on the rock, the houses lean into each other, are built one upon the next, with here and there a bush or tree growing out of the side of a building.

What I like about this opening is how conversational the voice is; you can picture the narrator telling the reader the story, sitting in a café somewhere. It’s a fitting voice, given that fairy-tales were originally told through word-of-mouth, and the people telling them had to have a distinct way of speaking to help people remember their stories. Although it’s describing a fantasy setting, it sounds fantastic, with long sentences detailing the humble town of Wall. While the voice is conversational, the style is the use of long sentences, which mimics speaking aloud.

This last example is a stark contrast to the others, featuring the voice of someone powerful, confident, authoritative, self-absorbed, and a little very psychotic;

Abandon all hope ye who enter here is scrawled in blood red lettering on the side of the Chemical Bank near the corner of Eleventh and First and is in print large enough to be seen from the backseat of the cab as it lurches forward in the traffic leaving Wall Street and just as Timothy Price notices the words a bus pulls up, the advertisement for Les Misérables on its side blocking his view, but Price who is with Pierce & Pierce and twenty-six doesn’t seem to care because he tells the driver he will give him five dollars to turn up the radio, “Be My Baby” on WYNN, and the driver, black, not American, does so.

“I’m resourceful,” Price is saying. “I’m creative, I’m young, unscrupulous, highly motivated, highly skilled. In essence what I’m saying is that society cannot afford to lose me. I’m an asset.” Price calms down, continues to stare out the cab’s dirty window, probably at the word FEAR sprayed in red graffiti on the side of a McDonald’s on Fourth and Seventh. “I mean the fact remains that no one gives a shit about their work, everybody hates their job, I hate my job, you’ve told me you hate yours. What do I do? Go back to Los Angeles? Not an alternative. I didn’t transfer from UCLA to Stanford to put up with this. I mean am I alone in thinking we’re not making enough money?”

This extract, from the start of Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho, is brimming with voice, not only in the narrator’s observations of Price and the surroundings, but the way Price speaks to the driver. One thing I’ve always liked about this is the way Ellis uses italics to put emphasis on words; it’s a stylistic choice that shows (sorry!) the reader that Price is agitated, verging on angry. You can imagine him in the cab, gesticulating and getting worked up as he speaks. So here, the voice is confident and self-absorbed, and the style is the use of italics, and the language, i.e. “no one gives a shit about their work”.

Simply put, as a writer, it’s your job to adopt the voice of your narrator and get it across to the reader through your style. But voice, as with anything else, can change throughout the story. For example, at the end of The Good Son, Mickey is older, and the language used reflects this change in his character. He still retains the Irish accent, such as by saying ‘yous’ instead of ‘you’, and he retains some of his child-like thoughts, but his inner-thoughts are more adult because he is an adult now.

So, how do you develop your voice? Sadly, there’s no easy answer for it. My advice is, let it grow and develop naturally, in much the same way you as a human being have your own voice and personality. Imagine that you are your narrator, whether they’re the protagonist or some other observer, and put yourself in their mindset; write as if you ARE that person. It’s a difficult skill that requires a lot of practice, and the main thing is to not be afraid. Does the character swear, or use slang? Then have them swear, and use slang. Are they pompous, and constantly patronising people? Make the language as pompous and patronising as possible!

There’s no right or wrong way to create a voice, but it IS important to get right. A lot of stories fall short because the writer’s voice just isn’t quite there. Imagine if Stardust started like this:

There was once a young man who wished to gain his Heart’s Desire.

He lived in the town of Wall. It was built on some granite inside a small forest. The house ares made of stone, with slate roofs, and high chimneys. They were built close together to maximise the space available.

Obviously, Neil Gaiman would never write like that because he’s a writing wizard, but the above is completely devoid of voice, of personality. It’s completely unremarkable, and makes for very dull reading. A strong voice will bring your writing to life, make it stand out, and hook your reader. It has to be unique, and has to be your voice. This may sound daunting, and while it is difficult to achieve, there’s one thing you need to remember; you are unique and, with practice, your writing voice will be too.

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