What exactly is “voice” in fiction?
An engaging story “voice” captures us from the first sentence and beckons us into the story world. Literary agents and acquiring editors always say they’re looking for fiction with a captivating, fresh, natural voice. Then when asked to define the term, they hesitate as they try to capture the elusive “je ne sais quoi” qualities of a voice that is unique and original, a voice that engages readers and compels them keep reading.
In a nutshell, the ideal “voice” is that natural, open, charismatic tone and style that pull us in and make us feel like we know the characters well — and want to get to know them better! A strong, compelling voice will bring your characters and story to life on the page. Voice is personality on paper.
How can we develop an appealing voice?
Here are some concrete tips to help you develop a captivating voice for your fiction.
~ Relax your writing and let it flow.
Many of my editing clients are (retired) professionals or academics who want to try their hand at writing fiction. I help them shake off the constraints of their formal, “correct” writing background, especially if it includes graduate degrees and a lot of legal, academic or business writing. With my guidance, they develop a more casual, accessible, appealing voice and tone for their fiction.
If your writing tends to be overly correct and/or wordy, you’ll need to concentrate on paring down those long, convoluted sentences and replacing abstract or pretentious words with strong, concrete, evocative ones. Focus on writing in a clear, direct, accessible, casual style that evokes the senses and appeals to the readers’ emotions.
~ Write to one person.
To help develop an intimacy with your readership and a conversational tone, create or choose one single person you’re writing to, who is warm, friendly, open to your ideas, interested, and intelligent.
Create an ideal reader. Write a brief description of their age, gender, background, home and work situation, personality, and interests (which of course include reading your kind of writing!). Get to know them a bit by giving them some positive attributes that will help you feel comfortable and open with them. Then target your writing to this person. Relax and let the real you come through.
~ Read and imitate writers whose voice you really enjoy.
Don’t copy their words verbatim, of course, but immerse yourself in their story world, told in their unique voice. Read their books aloud to really internalize the rhythm of their language, the phrasing and expressions and word choices that appeal to you so much. Then of course adapt the cadence and rhythm and attitudes and vocabulary to your own situation.
~ Write a chapter in first person, then change it to third person.
One author whose voice I love is Janet Evanovich, whose spunky, quirky heroine, Stephanie Plum, narrates her story in first-person point of view. But it’s hard to write first-person well, and it can be limiting, as you’re confined to scenes where this character is present. Also, first-person isn’t always the best choice for, say, a thriller, as you want other viewpoints in there, too, notably that of the antagonist.
But try writing several pages or a chapter or two in first-person (“I”), to develop your main character’s unique voice, then just go back and rewrite them in third person (he/she), with as few other changes as possible.
~ Read your story out loud to test its authenticity and easy flow.
Your writing should have the rhythm and comfortable familiarity of spoken language. If it doesn’t flow easily, go in and streamline the language to take out the convoluted sentences, clunky phrasing, and fancy-shmancy words. Or hire a trusted writer friend or reputable freelance editor to go through it for you to take out anything that sounds too formal, wordy, or erudite.
~ Write in deep point of view or close third.
This means the story is unfolding mainly through the thoughts and reactions and emotions and attitudes of your protagonist. Even descriptions of your setting should be filtered through your protagonist’s (or other viewpoint character’s) preferences, views, and mood. This ensures that your whole novel has a great, unique voice, not just the dialogue.
~ Give each character his or her own voice.
When you’re writing dialogue, each character should sound different, with their own unique speech patterns, word choices, and slang or pet expressions, based on their milieu, upbringing, education, and personality. For help with this, listen in on all kinds of conversations, both in real life and on TV and in movies.
Develop an ear for how different people speak. To improve the idiosyncratic speech of a character in your novel, try journaling in their voice, in first person. Just write freely, using lots of attitude! Eventually, you’ll get into their rhythm and find the words that seem to suit them best.
~ Add emotions and attitude.
Bring your characters and scenes to life by showing your character’s feelings and reactions to things. Evoke as many senses as you can to draw the reader into the story world. And show your character’s moods and attitudes not only through her words, thoughts, and actions, but also through the tone and wording of the narration, which is really her observations of and reactions to the people and events around her.
So break free from the constraints of your background, education, and any work-related writing, and write the story only you can write, with your unique experiences and personality, in your own direct, open, interesting voice. Don’t hold back — relax and reveal yourself.
Copyright © Jodie Renner, September 2013
- Readers – Can you share some novels where you’ve particularly enjoyed the voice?
- Writers – Do you have any more tips for finding an authentic, appealing voice?
[GIVEAWAY: Jodie will gift an e-copy of one of her books to two lucky people who comment below. Please specify in your comment whether you'd prefer "Sizzles" or "Thriller." Good luck!]
Jodie Renner, a freelance fiction editor specializing in thrillers and other fast-paced fiction, has published two books (& e-books)to date in her series, An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: WRITING A KILLER THRILLER and STYLE THAT SIZZLES & PACING FOR POWER (Silver Medal winner in FAPA Book Awards, 2013). For more info, please visit Jodie’s author website or editor website, or find her on Facebook or Twitter.