Writing voice can be a tough concept to understand.
This year, my school is making a concerted effort to strengthen voice in our students’ writing. I’m working to help our kids develop in this area. Digging deep into the components of an author’s unique tone helps me as an emerging writer, too.
What is voice?
Take a moment to listen to Garrison Keillor’s thirty second definition.
To me, voice is…
…the writer’s spirit on the page.
…the unique way we use words to communicate.
…the author’s fingerprint; unique and distinctive.
To help my students (and myself) understand some aspects of voice, I’ve come up with a mnenomic device:
Please Tell Me Who’s Speaking.
1. P is for Point of View
1st person— “I walked outside and was hit by a bus.”
–Strengths: facilitates intimate narrative, often appealing for this reason
–Weaknesses: can be difficult to maintain POV with many characters and details.
Example: “Look, I didn’t want to be a half-blood…” The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan
2nd person– “You walked outside and were hit by a bus”
–Strengths: Can be interesting, may create sense of personal immediacy
–Weaknesses: Not appropriate in most cases, widely discounted
Example: “Within minutes, you are so deep in the ocean that little light filters down to you..” Choose Your Own Adventure: Journey Under the Sea by R.A. Montgomery
3rd person: “She walked outside and was hit by a bus.”
–3rd Person Omniscient: “She walked outside and was hit by a bus. Her life flashed before her eyes in a second. “There goes my license,” the bus driver thought.”
–3rd Person Limited “She walked outside and was hit by a bus. Her life flashed before her eyes in a second.
-Strengths: Most comfortable for many writers, can be extremely effective
–Weaknesses: Can lack tension and emotion if executed poorly
Example: “Perhaps it had something to do with living in a dark cupboard, but Harry had always been small and skinny for his age…” Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling.
Tips for Students
-Stick to one POV per story or scene.
-Choose the right POV for the right story.
-Experiment with different POVs for the same story. See which works best.
2. T is for Tense
Past: “I was hit by a bus.”
–Strengths: Most common, effective
–Weaknesses: Can feel less immediate
Example: “Harry moved in front of the tank and looked intently at the snake.” Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling
Present: “The bus hits me.” or “I’m being hit by a bus.”
–Strengths: Immediate, can be riveting
–Weakness: Can be annoying, may distract the reader
Example: “I sit still for a few minutes, breathing hard, staring at the back of my mother’s seat…” Double Identity by Margaret Peterson Haddix
Future: “I will be hit by a bus.”
-Strengths: avantgard, unique
-Weaknesses: Weird, distracting
1. M is for Mix of Dialogue and Narrative
Showing vs. Telling
Telling: “She saw the bus and she was scared. The bus hit her and crashed into the tree.”
Showing: “Help me!” she screamed. Thud. Her body crumpled onto to the pavement. The tree snapped against windshield of the bus.
Tips for Students
-Show, don’t tell.
–Alternate action and dialogue
–Understand “Less is more.”
–Use action or dialogue instead of “telling” when possible.
4. W is for Word Choice
Word Choice helps tell who’s speaking. Is the narrator…. old or young, funny or boring, educated or not too bright, rich or poor, from another cultural background or just like me? (Resonance = Power of Voice)
Word Choice is a big part of voice. Look at these distinctive examples:
“Tonight, the hay in the fields is already brittle with frost, especially to the west of Fox Hill, where the pastures shine like stars. In October, darkness begins to settle by four-thirty and although the leaves have turned scarlet and gold, in the dark everything is a shadow of itself, gray with a purple edge.” Here on Earth by Alice Hoffman
“Once there was a tree and she loved a boy. And every day the boy would come and he would gather her leaves and make them into crowns and play king of the forest.” The Giving Tree by Shel Silvertein
“…When you’re walking away from a bus that’s just been attacked by monster hags and blown up by lightning, and it’s raining on top of everything else, most people think that’s just really bad luck; when you’re a half-blood, you understand some divine force is really trying to mess up your day.” The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan
Tips for Students
–Adverbs are not your friend. Often, adverbs are part of a weak sentence that can be strengthened by a stronger verb. Example: “She set the cup down angrily against the table.” vs. “She slammed the cup against the table.”
–Choose active verbs over passive “to be” verbs. “She was being hit by a bus.” vs. “The bus hit her.”
–Use strong, exciting adjectives instead of boring ones. Use descriptors, but don’t go overboard.
–Watch out for clichés. (“It was a dark and stormy night.”)
5. S is for Sentence Structure
Good complex, robust sentences intoxicate the reader.
“Even the bravest of them wouldn’t dare stray from the High Road after soccer practice at Firemen’s Field, and those who are old enough to stand by the murky waters of Olive Tree Lake and pry kisses from their girlfriends still walk home quickly. If truth be told, some of them run. A person could get lost up here. After enough wrong turns he might find himself in the marshes, and once he was there, a man could wander forever among the minnows and the reeds, his soul struggling to find its way long after his bones had been discovered and buried on the crest of the hill, where the wild blueberries grow.” Here on Earth by Alice Hoffman.
Simple Sentences can just as effective, too.
“’Come, Boy, sit down. Sit down and Rest.’ And the Boy did. And the Tree was happy.” The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein
Sometimes, good sentences break the rules.
“Sometimes when you are trying to think about something and it keeps popping back into your head you can’t help it you think about it and think about it and think about it until your brain feels like a squashed pea.” Love that Dog by Sharon Creech
Tips for Students
-Choose the right kind of sentence to match who is telling the story.
-Mix it up. Don’t use the same old boring sentence structures over and over
-Curtail excessive use of “As” and “Ings” Self-Editing for Fiction Writers’ authors Browne and King state they are the tricks of the trade of “hack writers.”
These four components are certainly not the only considerations in writing voice, but I find they answer the question, “Please Tell Me Who’s Speaking?”
If you’re hungry for something unique and distinctive outside the pages of a book, you might try my recipe for “Not Just Another Chocolate Chip Cookie.” In this recipe, you can tweak a few ingredients to make your favorite gooey snack.
Not Just Another Chocolate Chip Cookie Recipe
4 cups flour
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp salt
3 sticks real butter
2 cups dark brown sugar
1 cup sugar
2 tbsp (yes, tablespoons!) vanilla extract
2 egg yolks
2 cups dark or semi-sweet chocolate chips
2 cups milk chocolate chips
You may substitute any of the following for the chocolate chips. Or get crazy, and just add them all!
2 cups toffee bits
2 cups honey roasted peanuts
2 cups pecan bits
2 cups m&ms
2 cups Hershey’s kisses bits
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Sift together the flour, baking soda and salt; set aside.
Melt the butter. In a large bowl, stir together the melted butter, brown sugar and white sugar. Add the vanilla, egg, and egg yolk. Mix in the flour, baking soda and salt. Stir in the chocolate chips and/or other stuff. Drop cookie dough in small balls (or big ones) onto heavy duty (Williams-Sonoma are best, but hey, use what you’ve got) cookie sheets.
If you don’t have time to bake individual batches, spread all the dough in a jellyroll pan and bake for thirty minutes. Or you could just stop there and eat the dough. That works, too.
Bake cookies at 350 for 11 to 13 minutes. Let cool for five minutes before removing from cookie sheet.