On television, “The Voice” seeks to identify the next big singer in pop music. The “auditions” proceed with the judges’ backs turned to the stage so that each singer’s physical appearance has no influence. It’s all about the quality and sound of the voice. In fiction, it’s all about the quality and sound of the voice, too. Book reviews often comment on a writer’s voice — unique, fresh, original, new are some of the words used to describe it. But, I mean really, what is “voice” in fiction?
It’s not style. I think of style as the way a writer uses words, which words, and how a writer strings them together. A nineteenth century writer’s style looks dense with words to us today until you consider that during that century, books offered entertainment for them and they had few sources of entertainment. The novel represented their version of a soap opera, with many characters, situations, twists and turns, digressions and loops. I sometimes think of J. R. R. Tolkien’s novels as the last nineteenth century novels even though he wrote them in the twentieth century. Today, television and movies can influence writing style, breaking a story into scenes and creating an episodic or pointillistic effect. Short attention spans and a plethora of entertainment options have also influenced contemporary writing style. Every word has to count. Minimal description. No digressions, please.
So, if it’s not style, what is voice? Is it one of those things you know when you read it but is otherwise elusive? Or can it be defined?
When I think of voice, I think of first pages. The first page of a novel must have the power to draw a reader into the story, especially readers who may only be curious and not particularly interested — think of someone browsing in a bookstore. That power is voice. Think of the last time you picked up a novel you knew nothing about, started reading, and hours later discovered that you’d lost track of time because of it. That’s the power of voice. Voice has confidence, energy, sound, rhythm and individuality that piques your interest.
Let’s take an example, the opening paragraph of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.
“When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow. When it healed, and Jem’s fears of never being able to play football were assuaged, he was seldom self-conscious about his injury. His left arm was somewhat shorter than his right; when he stood or walked, the back of his hand was at right angles to his body, his thumb parallel to his thigh. He couldn’t have cared less, so long as he could pass and punt.”
What is it that pulls us into this paragraph? Try reading it out loud. What does it sound like? To me, it sounds like an adult looking back on a childhood incident and how it affected someone close to her that she loves. To her, his injury and how it healed is more important than the actual incident, and yet the mystery of the incident draws us in. Her tone is one of sharing a confidence, something interesting about her family. We can relate to that. In the subsequent paragraphs, Lee delays any mention of the actual incident. Instead, she goes on about how they argued about where it all began, i.e. what led up to the incident that injured Jem. She unfolds the story in the way someone might tell a story at a family reunion, sitting in the kitchen late at night, telling someone, finally, how Jem broke his arm when he was thirteen.
Style contributes to voice. However, you can have a piece of writing that is grammatically correct, with active verbs and colorful language, but a dead voice. So, voice is not only about the writing, but also the speaking. By that I mean, how people speak in different situations, especially when they are telling stories. The voice needs to fit the story, the point of view, and behind that suitability stands a sense of confidence, a resonance of life and energy that comes from the writer. I think of it as the connection the writer has with the writing, that connection breathing life into it.
A good resource for writing that devotes two chapters to voice is Peter Elbow’s Writing with Power: Techniques for Mastering the Writing Process. I’ve dragged out my copy recently because I’m thinking of applying “voice” to a series of essays I have in mind. One of the things I’ve learned about writing fiction that I also apply to my nonfiction is reading the piece out loud. It helps immeasurably to hear what the prose sounds like and that’s about voice.