In the same way that it’s hard to define what makes a great book, or what makes great writing, it is nearly impossible to get a definition of narrative voice in writing. Impossible missions, however, have never frightened Your Editor. Stand back.
What you hear most often is your voice is you. Your true self expressed on the page. Literary agent Rachelle Gardner says:
It’s a process of peeling away the layers of your false self, your trying-to-be-something-you’re-not self, your copycat self, your trying-to-sound-a-certain-way self, your spent-my-life-watching-television self. It’s like going to psychotherapy, delving deep and allowing the real you to emerge, only in this case you want it to find its way on to the page.
No prob! I use this blog as a tool to reveal my editing philosophy and who I am as a person (in case you wanted to know that). People who know me would tell you it sounds a lot like the me they know. (People who know me very, very well would say, perhaps, that I use rather more four-letter words than you see here.) It’s mostly me, but I do consciously add a little sass to my voice that isn’t there (or is different) in person.
Or I used to have to add it. If you go back and read some early posts you can see I was homing in on it but wasn’t quite there. I knew what I wanted it to be but I grew into it over time. Now, nearly five years later, enough of you have left me comments or sent me emails about my way of “speaking” (“no-nonsense,” “take no prisoners,” occasionally “funny”) that I know I have found my blog voice. It took practice.
But that’s not a definition yet. So let’s point at examples of writers with distinctive voices, and see if we can back into a definition. Stop me if you don’t immediately think, Oh, yeah. I hear that.
Rick Bragg James Lee Burke
Joan Didion Helen Fielding (Bridget Jones)
Nora Ephron Kaye Gibbons
Christopher Hitchens Georgette Heyer
Garrison Keillor Nick Hornby
Ann Lamott Stephen King
Ann Patchett Flannery O’Connor
Marilynne Robinson Charles Portis (True Grit)
Mark Twain Marilynne Robinson :)
David Foster Wallace Alexander McCall Smith
Hang on—did you see what I did there? I made a distinction between fiction and nonfiction … because I very often find journalists and essayists (and bloggers) being consulted for their thoughts on voice, when the process is, arguably, somewhat different for fiction.
Sure, the difference between having found your voice and not yet having found your voice is practice, whether you’re writing essays or novels. (Nora Ephron said, “I had been working as a journalist for nearly eight years before I could easily write in the voice that I turned out to have.”) Still, it’s somewhat easier to learn to speak as oneself, no?
So what are the elements one might cobble together to find one’s way to an authentic narrative voice? Because “being one’s true self on the page” isn’t enough of a definition for me. And I bet it’s not enough for a lot of people. It’s vague. It’s confusing.
When you start to research narrative voice, these are the topics that keep coming up:
• Tone (for example: humorous/bitter, irreverent/misanthropic, light/dark, cheerful/melancholic, optimistic/cynical, zany/reserved, detached/involved, passionate/prim, and so on)
• Diction (word use or choice: formal, casual, slang, dialect)
• Style (the way the thing is written, syntax, but also other things, like a tendency to use parenthetical asides, or short sentences)
• POV (first person, second person, third person, and subjective, objective, omniscient)
• Tense (past, present, future perfect, and so on)
But wait, there’s more. Watch this.
Narrative style is comprised of tone and diction and syntax. And narrative voice is comprised of style, POV, and tense. Constance Hale, writing for the Times, says voice “refers to the ineffable way words work on the page. … Reflecting a combination of diction, sentence patterns and tone, voice is the quality that helps a writer connect with a reader, and it turns the writer into a narrator.”
Still with me? Narrative voice encompasses all those things. Tone, diction, POV, tense, and style all fall under the umbrella of narrative voice.
Yeah. Sit with that for a minute.
(Sidebar: You’ve probably heard it said that voice isn’t style, but calm down. There’s another type of style. You’ve heard it called house style or the style dictated by the Chicago Manual of Style. But the style thus referenced simply offers directions on when to capitalize or italicize words, and so on. These dicta bring your manuscript into alignment with publishing standards in the United States, but should rarely interfere with your voice. Chicago doesn’t tell you what tense or tone to choose. Confusion arises because there’s a difference between narrative style and publishing style. Now you know.)
So narrative voice is comprised of many elements. The way you tell the story (narrate) is made up of choices: POV, characterization, sure—but also word choice, tone, and style. And all of these things become the narrative voice. Ineffably.
(Did you note that ineffable earlier? It means “incapable of being expressed in words, indescribable.” No wonder we’re having such trouble defining voice—it involves a little bit of magic. And that’s why you hear things like “it’s your true self” and “you’ll know it when you start writing it.” Because you will.)
Some novelists have a style/voice that is consistent across all their titles—Cormac McCarthy, for example, or Stephen King, Kaye Gibbons—but generally you will let your narrator speak in his or her own unique voice on a story-by-story basis, like the fourteen-year-old narrator in Charles Portis’s True Grit, or the asthmatic eleven-year-old boy in Peace Like a River by Leif Enger. Those voices exist only in those novels. The exception, of course, is series writing, in which you work with the same set of characters over the course of several books—like Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce stories, set in 1950 and told in the voice of an eleven-year-old English girl, or Precious Ramotswe (Alexander McCall Smith’s The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series), a Botswanan woman of “traditional build.”
See? Searching for your voice by being your true self on the page is fine when you’re being you (writing nonfiction), but when you’re writing fiction, you’re yourself acting as some other character. Think of telling a story—a single father, widowed with two kids, meets a woman who becomes his love interest, but his older child doesn’t like her. Now consider telling it two possible ways: from the POV of the child, or from the father’s perspective. Will you use the same voice? Of course not.
(Although it might be an interesting exercise.)
If you’re writing fiction, you can be your authentic self all day long but it might not serve your story very well. Thus you choose your narrative voice based on who is telling the story, why that person is telling the story, and what the person’s circumstances are relative to the story being told (meaning while the story’s happening? from a distance of time or place? and so on).
Does this help you understand what narrative voice is? Gosh, I hope so.
Tweet: What are the elements one might cobble together to find one’s authentic #narrativevoice?
Tweet: Narrative voice encompasses all these things. Tone, diction, POV, tense, & style.
Tweet: It takes practice to find the #narrativevoice you will use to write.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”