February 25, 2021
When we think about voice, the goal really is to create effective and memorable writing. Voice is not some false face a writer puts on simply to get attention. When writers do that, the effect is like spotting a mime in a grocery store: it gets your attention but does it really accomplish anything?
True voice accomplishes something for the story or article or essay. And all the work to develop that voice happens undercover because good voice will always turn the reader back to the content, not pull them away from it. So, let's become undercover operatives of V.O.I.C.E. and see where it takes us.
V = Vision for the Work
One of the things a good voice does is reveal your vision for the work. For example, a story meant to reveal serious societal flaws won't be perky (most of the time), nor will it be dry and hopeless (because there's no point in revealing a problem if you carry with it the feeling that it can never be fixed and all our efforts are hopeless.) So one of the first things to consider when tuning your voice for a specific work is to decide what your vision for the work will be.
Sometimes a humorous voice, for example, might be the right choice even if part of what you're doing in the story is spotlighting bad things. That's because sometimes a touch of humor can ease a reader's resistance to seeing something uncomfortable. That's why so many picture books that are intended to help children grasp the importance of sharing or kindness or manners are also funny. It makes the message more palatable. A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down, after all.
At the same time, you must consider the tone of your voice quite carefully as novels of social justice must be very careful not to seem to be so light as to be unconcerned or uncaring about the message. And some situations are so painful for those involved that there is no appropriate way to view them lightly. So the tone of your voice is one of the most important choices you can make, and it needs to be a choice, not something that simply happens because you like writing snarky main characters or dialogue filled with puns. There is a time for every possible writing choice, and having a clear vision for the work will help you decide if this is the time.
O = Original Turn of Phrase
One way to boost your voice is through figures of speech. Similes and metaphors encourage the reader to make connections in new ways and look at things from new angles. Analogies can be massively useful in helping readers understand complex concepts. These kinds of choices make readers look more closely at something, but the value of these kinds of choices is weakened when the analogy or the figure of speech is too shop worn. Characters who are sly as a fox and land formations that are flat as a pancake pull in over worn similes that have nearly lost all value through constant use. Often the analogy or metaphor that comes to mind first is the one that will be least effective in grabbing the reader's attention.
Let's think a moment about "flat as a pancake." First, as my daughter pointed out while I was writing this, pancakes aren't all that flat when you think about it, and (as my daughter also pointed out) it may not be cliché to the children hearing it. (At 21, she had never heard "flat as a pancake.") The reality is that many phrases that have become cliché are still fresh and new for very young children. But they are neither fresh nor new to most editors, agents, and parents. And you have to get the adults on board every bit as much as you have to get the young reader on board.
So there are two ways of dealing with dull comparisons. First, you can go someplace new with them. Let's think about the comparison of a landform to a pancake. What if the landform is a mesa in the Southwest? How could you add a twist to the simile? We could think about where the mesa is and what options could make the choice feel fresher, clever, and especially applicable. So imagine we say, "The Mesa was as golden and flat as a corn tortilla baking in the sun." Tortillas are even flatter than pancakes, and the metaphor feels especially right when matched to the Southwestern location.
The second way to deal with a clichéd choice is to use it only when it is absolutely the right thing in the moment. For example, consider the following: "His stepmother dropped his breakfast in front of him and commanded him to eat it in a tone as flat and cold as the single barely microwaved pancake on the plate." In this instance, the pancake simile is made more interesting because it is very immediate and specific.
One step in every revision for me is to look at my metaphors, similes, and analogies to be sure I've chosen something specific and immediate that works better in that moment than any other choice I could make. When I do that, I create something that makes the moment clearer, not something the reader simply skates over without it making an impression.
I = In the Moment
One of the best uses of voice is to help put the reader in a very specific moment. Sometimes it does that because you're writing in first person and the reader feels as if the character is right there revealing the story. Sometimes it does that because you're making strong sensory choices about the scene you are bringing to the reader. In nonfiction, that immediacy is brought to the reader by specific detail and surprises. Surprising the reader will keep the reader's attention on what you've come to say.
This need for immediacy is one of the reasons writers hear "show don't tell" so often. Basically this "rule" is better phrased as "immediacy trumps exposition" when it comes to reader interest. That doesn't mean you'll never have exposition. Transitions in a story are generally bits of exposition. Exposition can pop up in dialogue to slip the reader bits of backstory that will help the reader understand the character or the moment. Exposition has value, but it is also suppressive of immediacy, and immediacy is always more powerful and engaging. So how do you include the exposition you need without creating lag in the manuscript. Voice helps. So does hiding the exposition in something tastier.
Because of this, most writers learn to mix the times we need exposition with more immediate, engaging elements. For instance, if you need to jump ahead in time between scenes, you're going to need a bit of exposition to make this jump clear. (I've seen writers who are so afraid of exposition that they make the jump with no signal at all, and the reader is left floundering for a sentence or two or sometimes even more, trying to figure out what happened. That’s not good.) Clarity is king, so the exposition will actually help you avoid losing a reader to confusion. If you keep the exposition short and tight and get back to scene as quickly as possible, you limit the drag, but what if you really don’t want to be that quick? Is there hope for longer transitions?
Sure, and the answer is voice. Make engaging choices in terms of figures of speech, turns of phrase, unexpected words, and/or humor. For example, consider this bit of exposition: "The summer passed, as summers do, in uneven flits and pauses like a flipbook in clumsy hands." The choice of a flipbook means the reading age for this is not going to be young, because you need a reader old enough to know what a flipbook is. But if you are familiar with trying to get a flipbook to reel its animation smoothly, you instantly picture that very physical act for this simile and that's a potentially engaging element. So this is transition, but it includes something for the reader to think about, something unexpected. And there are other options.
Personally, I like to mix humor into the transitions when possible:
The hour of detention slowed like a man crawling through the dessert in a hopeless search for water.
"Martin?" Mr. Pilz said. "What are you doing on the floor?"
"Is it time to go yet?" Martin gasped weakly, dragging himself toward the door.
"Not for another half an hour. Now get back in your desk and do some homework."
Martin crawled back, and waited for the boredom to kill him.
This is a long transition and I slipped in a mini scene to both add humor and immediacy to what will be a passage of time. I'm not going to cover every moment of the detention or even hit the highlights of how Martin passed the time. Listing short examples of action that happened as time passed would be an option, especially if I wanted to come up with a funny list of possible choices.
"Martin passed the hour of detention by drawing monsters devouring screaming teachers, sharpening all three of his pencils down to nubs, and collapsing to the floor twice from boredom."
When I use this method, I strive to make both the list and the voice interesting, and I usually try to have three items since that often makes it the most engaging for a reader.
C = Cheat at Your Own Risk
Nearly every rule of writing can be ignored if you do it for a reason, but every time you cheat or break a rule, you run the risk that your reader will not get what you're doing. The unique turn of phrase might fly right over my reader's head. My funny series of puns might be too advanced for the reader age I'm targeting. The genre I'm spoofing might be completely unfamiliar to my reader. If you're very good, it might not matter that a specific choice doesn't work for a specific reader. For example, Bruce Hale is such a great storyteller that kids loved his Chet Gecko series even though they targeted an age that was highly unlikely to be familiar with Noir and Hard-boiled detectives in film and literature. He spoofed the conventions of a genre that flew over the heads of many of his reader, but the stories and the fun of them worked anyway. Even for readers who were completely unfamiliar with the background behind what he was doing, the gecko and his questionable detective skills were funny. Still, the choice was a risk.
Any time you go out on a limb with voice or story choices, you run the risk of failure, but if you never take the risk, your writing can never grow beyond the ordinary. It's through risk that stories make editors and agents and eventually readers fall in love. So when you take the risk, know that many of us are out there on the limb with you. We might all succeed, but we do it knowing that we also might not. Writing is a career for the courageous.
E = Enjoy the Effort
One of the reasons to go out on limbs with your choices, especially in voice, is because it isn't just the reader who will enjoy the risks you take, you will too. Boring writing is usually no more fun for the writer than it was for the reader. But when the writer is having fun, it will automatically bring life and energy to the work. That doesn't mean you'll be giggling along every moment. Writing is work and sometimes it's uncomfortable work, which is why it helps when we can do those things that make it more fun. There are few things that make a writer feel more excited than when we've found that perfect turn of phrase or captured the character's voice in exactly the way we heard it in our head. It lightens the load of the work effort. So don't be afraid to slow down and dig for exactly the right word or phrase or tone. Once you find it, the benefit for you will be enormous in terms of your own morale, and the reward for the reader will help elevate your writing from a nice book to one that nets you a long-term fan.
The effort is worth it in so many way. Give it a try. Join the team. Be an agent of V.O.I.C.E. – all you must do is try out those wonderful toys.
Jan Fields is a former Institute of Children's Literature Instructor and a full-time, freelance author.
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