When describing a novel, people will often refer to the ‘voice’ of the writer. The term voice is vague and difficult to define, but still remains an important element in the relationship between a reader and a novel.

In this section, we will seek to define what voice really means to a reader and a writer, we will examine the role of voice and see how it can be manipulated to improve a story.

Once you have completed this section, you will have a better understanding of voice, you will learn why it is important and will know how to develop it over time to build better stories and stronger connections with readers.

What is Voice?

Voice is one of those tricky concepts that means different things to different people. However, it is possible to develop a working definition.

Wikipedia describes voice by saying ‘the narrative voice describes how the story is conveyed: for example, by “viewing” a character’s thought processes, reading a letter written for someone, retelling a character’s experiences, etc.’

This is a good starting point but it fails to really hit the nail on the head. UK high school revision site, BiteSize, defines voice by saying that ‘the person who is supposed to be telling the story will determine the ‘voice’ you write in.’

What this tells us is that voice is the way in which the narrator is ‘speaking’ to the reader. However, there is more to consider. The tone and complexity of the voice are influenced by the voices of the character’s in the novel. In the end, a writer’s voice is a complex mix of elements.

Here are two examples of writers with different voices. The first is Roald Dahl’s The Lamb to The Slaughter.

The room was warm, the curtains were closed, the two table lamps were lit. On the cupboard behind her there were two glasses and some drinks. Mary Maloney was waiting for her husband to come home from work.

Now and again she glanced at the clock, but without anxiety: She merely wanted to satisfy herself that each minute that went by made it nearer the time when he would come home. As she bent over her sewing, she was curiously peaceful. This was her sixth month expecting a child. Her mouth and her eyes, with their new calm look, seemed larger and darker than before.

When the clock said ten minutes to five, she began to listen, and a few moments later, punctually as always, she heard the car tires on the stones outside, the car door closing, footsteps passing the window, the key turning in the lock. She stood up and went forward to kiss him as he entered.

The second is The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber by Hemingway.

It was now lunch time and they were all sitting under the double green fly of the dining tent pretending that nothing had happened.

“Will you have lime juice or lemon squash?” Macomber asked.

“I’ll have a gimlet,” Robert Wilson told him.

“I’ll have a gimlet too. I need something,” Macomber’s wife said.

“I suppose it’s the thing to do,” Macomber agreed. “Tell him to make three gimlets.”

The mess boy had started them already, lifting the bottles out of the canvas cooling bags that sweated wet in the wind that blew through the trees that shaded the tents.

“What had I ought to give them?” Macomber asked.

“A quid would be plenty,” Wilson told him. “You don’t want to spoil them.”

“Will the headman distribute it?”

“Absolutely.”

The extracts are both written in third person but they still ‘feel’ very different. This difference is the voice. It is a combination of the tone of the narrator, the use of narrative summary and the words of the characters.

Your writing will have a distinct voice, and even if you are trying to mimic another writer it will still be your own.

Though many writers work on their voice, many never give it a thought. One important element of this section is the understanding that a voice develops a relationship with the reader and, therefore, should be controlled by the writer.

This control is gradual, comes over time and it is often developed through hard work from both a writer and an editor.

Controlling Your Voice?

Before you can begin to control your voice, you must first gain a deeper understanding of how voice is presented to readers. In the section above, I tried to explain that voice was a complex relationship between a number of factors. However, the single biggest impact on the voice in your work is the manner in which your narrator interacts. This is narrative voice and will be the focus of the rest of this section.

There are a number of different types of narrative voice.

The first is the stream of consciousness. This is written in first person and is when the narrator presents the main characters thought process. The voice is dominated by the character’s inner dialogue. A good example is James Joyce’s, Ulysses.

In both first and third person, you will often see the narrator being presented as a ‘character’ other than the characters represented in the book. The narrator will feel separate from the other characters and have their own narrator’s voice. If you go back to Viewpoint (3.2), in the section about first person, you will see the extract from To Kill A Mockingbird. In this extract, the narrator appears as a separate character.

You will find that when the narrator is separate they can be either reliable or unreliable. A reliable narrator will be trustworthy and the information they ‘tell’ the reader is true. An unreliable narrator will be untrustworthy. The information they present will be untruthful and often presented in a way that is beneficial to the narrator. A good example of this is the narrator in Nabokov’s Lolita.

The final narrative voice worthy of mention is the epistolary narrative voice. This voice will use a series of letters or documents (think email) to help tell the story. This voice is seen in a number of genres and in both first and third person.

With this understanding, you can begin to see some of the tools that you have available to help control and manipulate your voice. For example, if you write novels that contain lots of emails (epistolary narrative voice), this will give you a very distinctive voice and, perhaps, produce a style that readers will start to see as distinctly ‘you’.

The Elements of Voice?

It is now starting to become clear that your voice is made up of a number of distinct elements.

The first is the viewpoint. Your choice of first or third person is, perhaps, one of the most impactful decisions you will make in terms of voice. First person will produce a more intimate novel, whilst third person will give you some distance.

The second is tense, be that past, present or future. This choice will give your novel a distinct style and voice.

The third is narrative voice. Making a choice on how to present your narrator and their level of reliability is key to setting the tone of your voice.

The fourth is the level of description. Long flowery descriptive passages will give a very different feel to short, sharp post-modern description.

The final element is your character’s words and actions. The way you present your characters, the flow of their speech and the way you describe action, all play a part in building the voice.

When it comes to editing a novel, it is actually pretty rare for an editor to start messing with a writer’s voice. This tends to be something that is developed by the writer over time. This said, when self-editing, one important element is consistency. If you look at the elements above (viewpoint, tense, narrative voice, description and characters), these are all things that can be altered. The key is to ensure that you are working to present a consistent voice to your reader.

Your Voice And Your Readers?

So why is voice so important?

The reason is that your voice will have one of three impacts on your reader. They will either like it, hate it or be neutral. Though the reader’s choice is very personal there is one other element to consider and that’s genre.

You will find that some genres lend themselves to certain styles of voice. For example, literary fiction will often see first person, perhaps even unreliable narrators, even with a bit of epistolary narrative. Where fantasy will often see third person, reliable narrators, often with multiple character focus.

There’s no right or wrong.

One job of an editor is to ensure that their work is a market fit with the character’s voice. If a writer is using a voice that is uncommon in the genre, then the editor should be pulling this up as a potential problem. If the genre sees very few first person novels, and the writer is writing in first person, there’s a potential problem.

Developing Your Voice?

Now you understand the elements of voice and that it has an impact on your reader, how can you go about changing elements that don’t fit?

The first thing to consider is that your voice is pretty much set firm by the time you come to write. Most writers will write in a style they feel most comfortable and only later realize that this is their ‘voice’. That’s fine. Changing your voice is a long term project.

The key is to find the elements that don’t work in the way you wish and set out to change them. For example, you might decide that you wish to experiment with an unreliable narrator. That’s great, but rather than rewrite your last book, I’d suggest you just try to write in this style for your next book.

In fact, I would strongly suggest that writers don’t try to change voice mid-book. It is just too messy and will lead to inconsistencies that will be an editor’s nightmare.

The final point is to say that you are pretty much stuck with your voice. The best first step is to beware of what you are doing and what impact this has on your readers. If your voice is a fit for the genre you write, then take small steps to manipulate only one element at a time. This way you can evolve your voice over time to be what you want.

Exercise

Reread your most recent work and answer the following questions:

  1. What view are you using? If third person, which style?
  2. What tense are you using?
  3. What type of narrative voice do you have?
  4. What level of description do you use?
  5. What is distinct about the way you write character dialogue?
Answering these questions will give you a profile for your voice. The next step is to look at three or four bestselling books from your genre and see how their voice matches your own. If there are any significant differences, then consider what you need to change (if anything).