Finding a Voice, Part Two

Our previous Muze Tap noted that letting go of self-consciousness and judgment brings us closer to writing the way we would speak, i.e., capturing our personal voice on the page. And it can actually take persistent effort through many drafts to achieve in writing the sound of effortless, spontaneous speech.

Once you experience success with creating your natural, authentic voice, you can think about voice in a second way—as the sound specific to the particular story you are telling, the product of the alchemy of point of view, tone, subject matter, character, and theme. The memoir Entering the Blue Stone and the spy thriller Broken Angels are both Molly Best Tinsley’s babies, and perhaps you can detect some family resemblance, but the worlds they conjure contrast in every respect, and thus the overall sound of each story is vastly different.

Your story’s voice tends to flower as you immerse yourself in the world you’re creating—in other words, as you write and rewrite. Why? Because nothing kills voice faster than exposition, that process that consumes us when we’re composing a first draft and actually telling our story to ourselves for the first time. We want to get down everything we know or are finding out. So we tend to write things like this:

After she’d been promoted to accounts vice president at the advertising agency, Sara moved to a large co-op apartment on Lake Michigan, purchased leather sofas, and leased a BMW.

The voice is factual, neutral, unengaging. But once we’ve got this information on record, and it threads its way through the action that ensues, we can delete it up front and go with something more natural and a bit provocative:

She didn’t care if no one liked her anymore.

Note that exploring for the voice of a particular narrative is not just an issue for first-person narration, though voice is paramount there. A third-person narrator also needs a voice that’s distinctive, not neutral, and right for the story being told. Here are some tips for focusing the voice of your narrative:

  • Turn up the volume on emotion. This doesn’t mean writing about feelings. What that would do is create the voice of a clinical psychologist or a self-help guru. Instead try to write from a feeling. How does the world look when someone is ticked off? In grief? Let the feeling inflect the writing.
  • Hold a specific audience in your imagination. How differently would you recount an anecdote to your son, your best friend, a policeman?
  • Now that you have a handle on what your narrator is saying, ask yourself what is he or she (or what am I) doing? Is the narrator just conveying information in a neutral context, or is something dynamic going on—like confessing, rationalizing, pleading, persuading?
  • Who is the person behind the voice of the story? If it’s you, which you? If an invention, does the person you imagine have attributes, an investment in the story? Does the voice tend to merge with your main character and reflect his or her voice?

With each rewrite, you know your story and its components more intimately. Once you have finished telling it to yourself, you can decide to start in the middle of things, at an odd moment, confident that all the parts will get woven in eventually. You can allow it to speak its sentences to you, suggesting different words, word order, even order of events. You’ll begin to hear its voice.