VOICE is the KEYto All Publishable Writing – 4th Roundtable from
Robert W. Walker and his 4 Pen Names
Continuing with my other selves at the roundabout table, the subject of VOICE, the controlling element in every good story or novel, and in nonfiction came up as we ended our talk on plot vs. character last time.
Rob: Character is very important and must need developing; you gotta live wid em. Plot is equally important, and frankly, I insist my students write a mystery so as to SEE plot in action. Fastest way to learn plotting is to plot a mystery. Besides, every story ought to have an element of mystery about it.
Stephen: And every mystery should have an element of romance about it.
Rob: Touche! I think that moves us to the next concern—Do you write to a formula, and if so how does it help or hinder the overall effect of the story?
Geoff: We don’t wanna talk about formulaic writing. When have any of us depended on a formula?
Rob: Come on, Geoff—you write horror, vampires, werewolves, zombies. By definition isn’t a horror novel following a formula? Doesn’t every “genre” have its formula like boy meets girl?
Evan: I have to say that while certain things are expected in a genre novel, that Geoff and I push the envelope. We know the ‘rules’ of the genre, but we skirt and often beat back those expectations. Besides, it’s the VOICE and not the formula that entices a reader and holds him to the book from beginning to end. Voice is everything in any book. Voice is the bedrock.
Rob: You guys keep switching things on me; I could get paranoid here. All right, what about voice? How important is it in the writer’s toolkit and repertoire?
Glenn: It’s the MOST important bell the writer rings. Think of it. You begin reading a story and it sounds like a night on the town with Nancy Drew, but it purports to be horror or terror or suspense, but for forty some odd pages, the first several scenes nothing is happening and the voice is tepid, unsure, faltering, halting and passive. You toss the book.
Stephen: Toss the book before you toss your cookies, you mean. No matter if you get the formula down pat – say six fight scenes, three chase scenes, two love scenes, without a commanding, authorial voice coming through loud and clear and like a guide, you lose.
Geoff: I like that—voice is like a guide. It takes the reader by storm and by hand, and it never loses touch with the reader, and it never “breaks faith” with the reader. Example: using the word phrase “copse of trees” in a kid’s book wherein up till then the author’s language was readable with a dash of ease. If there’s a connection between voice and formula, it is that you SET OUT to “sound” like the expert on this character and his or her story—the know it all, the wise one, the cop who was on hand throughout the investigation, or the protagonist who knows all or lived through the story.
Glenn: You’re writing a gritty police procedural and suddenly your cop is growing orchids as a hobby then you’d better have established a damn strong authorial voice to pull that one off.
Stephen: Yeah my cop stories – The Decoy Series and The Handyman rely so heavily on the sound of the voice of the storyteller, the narrative voice. These tales are cop stories about a decoy unit in Chicago but they verge on horror what with the human monsters that Lanark has to face. His narrator can’t sound like The Hardy Boys’ narrator.
Rob: Voice is about remaining consistent and aware that your characters’ voices—the way they talk, dialogue, and perhaps the way they act and are perceived is one thing, while your narrator’s voice is separate and often above the sounds made by your characters. Characters use clichés and familiarity with one another, and they use a lot of contractions and made up words like wanna and gotta and gonna. Unless you establish that this is the language of your narrator, you can’t have the narrative voice go there. Your characters may have nicknames for one another, whereas your narrator is more formal with their names, for instance.
Evan: It’s about setting tone, controlling the timber of the voice or narrative; it is essential that one’s expression have a consistency about it as Rob says.
Geoff: When I was writing Curse of the Vampire (now Vampire Dreams – bloodstreams at www.FictionWise.com -- voice was uppermost in my mind at all times. I had reread Bram Stoker’s master work, and I wanted an element of that here. Abraham Stroud (AS as in Abraham Stoker) pretty much set the tone, so in this case voice grew out of this fully-realized character I had lived with for some time. The books read like Stroud’s chronicles although I did not set them up as a diary or record.
Stephen: Yes, same with my Lanark character—a driven obsessive passion to hunt and destroy those who’ve destroyed his life is marked by a clear police detective’s voice that is telling the story. The voice is in a sense another character and certainly must be a concern at all times. Being consistent in the Decoy books and The Handyman –now on www.Fictionwise.com --I felt first I had to really know Ryne Lanark and what he was capable of doing.
Rob: Wow—sounds like character and plot are ingredients in finding a particular VOICE for a particular novel. When I began City for Ransom, I really lived a long time with Ransom in my head, and I did a great deal of research about his era, and in doing the work a voice began to coalesce in my head—the voice of the narrator for three Ransom books. The voice was so strong that I knew it could carry the weight of a trilogy if not more books. Much of the Voice came out of the time and energy spent on research which meshed with imagination.
Glenn: By the same token, each character in the story ought to have his or her own voice—inflections, gestures, voice. Every character should walk differently, dress differently, maybe eat differently but for certain have differing speech patterns. The narrative voice has her own patterns as well.
Rob: Couldn’t agree with you more. Lately, I have learned that most people do not speak like Native American Indians in the black and white movies, enunciating every word. But one character might while another emaciates every word. One character might begin every statement with a stutter or a question or a qualifying word like maybe, I think maybe, perhaps, in my opinion, etc. or it was seeming to become dark in the desert – but such qualifying by a narrator KILLS anyone’s interest in reading on. A narrator’s voice must be active, strong, muscular and not seen as scaffolding but the stone wall of the story—the voice you can count on.
Evan: You mean it can’t sound wishy-washy, iffy, or like a politician trying to answer a serious question? Rhetorical question that. Yes, a narrator hasn’t the luxury of maybes and phrases like I think. The narrator has to use absolutes—the opposite phrases and words of qualifiers such as: seems to be. Imagine reading a narrative that began with the following:
I think that in the East of Spain that perhaps the people have little in common with a tourist such as myself, but then who can tell, and in all honesty, I couldn’t say for certain either way except that murder is always a possibility anywhere you go, right?
Geoff: Let me fix that line so it is absolute and in tune:
In the East of Spain, people have nothing in common with a tourist like me, but then murder is in season everywhere these days.
Rob: Now that is perhaps maybe a terrific demonstration of weak voice vs. strong voice. Strong is direct and to the point and it can’t be going in twelve different directions because the author is related to George Bush.
Evan: Can we keep politics out of this?
Rob: Listen to anyone on a TV interview; they will begin every word with a pause and a “I think so…” or an “In my opinion…” or “It’s just my opinon, but.” We are political – polite animals. Qualifiers like “With all due respect” for instance—a totally useless phrase. Again while characters may be characterized by such as these, your narrator cannot unless you are making the point I am making here that your narrator is an idiot. While you’re at it let your narrator “Shrug his characters shoulders as in “David shrugged his shoulders” or have him say “She winked her eye at David.” What other body part winks with her clothes on, and what other body part shrugs with his clothes on? So a conscious narrator will simply say “She winked…and He shrugged.
Stephen: Whoa, Rob. Take it easy. You’ll burst a blood vessel.”
Rob: I am just saying that voice is the sum total of your having made the choice of vocabulary and tone and style of your narrator. All the “elements of style” that E.B. White talks about in his book sculpt your narrative voice. So when you make a bad or wrong or foolish choice of a phrase or word—and we’re all of us guilty of doing so—then your narrative voice falls flat or breaks faith with the reader who has come to expect better of your narrative drive.
Glenn: Wow, we all think so much alike that I got nuttin’ to add. When’s lunch, and who’s buyin’?
Rob: Yeah, time to break gentlemen. For the best discussion I ever heard on voice and narrative, I send people to Jerome Stern’s Making Shapely Fiction – great explanation on this subject we’ve talked about today.
I want to thank my guests, my four other selves. Two weeks from now, we will take up the problem of Writer’s Block! However, next week we have a guest blogger coming on, Echelon author of YA mysteries! So the boys will have a rest now. However, should you wish to read any of their works you can find them on FictionWise as we’ve said and/or Amazon.com.
In the meantime, should you wish to read more from moi on Voice—in particular how to do voice of YOUR gender opposite—contact me direct for an article on same at inkwalk at SBCglobal dot net.
City for Ransom, Shadows in the White City, City of the Absent, PSI Blue.