Posts Tagged ‘writing voice’

If you’re a writer, you’ve probably heard “Show, Don’t Tell’ a million times. It’s one of those maxims you can’t escape. But I’m going to stick my neck out and declare…

I think that advice has led to a lot of really terrible writing.

Before you come at me with your sharpest pitchfork, let me explain my madness. I do believe, in many ways, it is good and useful and wise to ‘show’ things. There is a time and place for the camera pan, the action shot, the external focus. But a novel is not a screenplay. A movie is a string of external cues–visuals and sound–that tells a story. The viewer relies on these cues to make sense of the plot and all its underpinnings–the internal, intangibles such as emotion and theme.

The novel is an entirely different medium. A novel conjures a singular experience, not just through external description (what a camera can capture), but also by internal perception (the heart and soul an ordinary telephoto zoom can’t record). In a novel, there’s a lens that trumps all.

The human lens.

The fictive stream of consciousness. The thingamathink that pulls us under the skin of a character. The internal processor that that recalls events and interprets every moment of action in the context of a character’s deepest hopes, dreams, memories and fears.

Yet...motivated by well-intentioned advice, so many writers neglect this lens and start out writing novels like screenplays. They try to live by ‘show’ alone–moving characters here and there on a stage, describing everything in objective, surface-level terms the way a wide-angle camera shot would. This cheats the reader and sentences them to a parade of colorless, cliched gestures and descriptions.

John’s eyes widened in anxiety. Mary’s heart hammered. Glen’s jaw clenched. Raul’s brow quirked. Anna’s lips curled in a smirk. Neville clenched his fists at his sides. Snakes slithered in Jonah’s stomach.

Ugh. These gestures and reactions are all generic. They illuminate nothing about character, personality, conflict or plot. As Francine Prose so aptly writes in Reading Like a Writer, “they are not descriptions of an individual’s very particular response to a particular event, but rather a shorthand for common psychic states.”

Meaningless shorthand. Yes. But darn it, they show and don’t tell. And that’s the rule, right?


I am nothing more than an puny, unpublished, unknown Writer/Librarian/Beatle-Maniac, but I will not recant. I will not! Because writing fiction is a form of storyTELLING. I agree with Joshua Henkin when he calls ‘Show, Don’t Tell’ the ‘great lie of writing workshops.‘ I say go ahead and slip under that murderer’s/ballerina’s/magician’s/vampire’s skin, tap into that stream of consciousness and TELL that story, infusing every moment that matters with personality and voice.

And if you still aren’t ready to drop your pitchfork, please look at these ‘show vs. tell’ examples before you skewer me:

Showing only (Excerpt altered. All telling parts omitted/edited):

“We just stand there silently. The grimy little station comes into view. The platform’s thick with cameras.
Peeta extends his hand. I look at him. ‘One more time? For the audience?’ he says. I take his hand, holding on tightly.

Showing with Physical Gestures: (Excerpt altered. Telling parts omitted/edited and replaced with physical gestures/reaction):

My stomach twists into knots. We just stand there silently. The grimy little station comes into view. The platform’s thick with cameras. When Peeta extends his hand, my eyes widen. ‘One more time? For the audience?’ he says, his jaw relaxing. I take his hand, holding on tightly. A shiver of dread runs down my spine.”

Showing and Telling (Excerpt as published, unaltered):

I also want to tell him how much I already miss him. But that wouldn’t be fair on my part.

So we just stand there silently, watching our grimy little station rise up around us. Through the window, I can see the platform’s thick with cameras. Everyone will be watching our homecoming.

Out of the corner of my eye, I see Peeta extend his hand. I look at him, unsure. ‘One more time? For the audience?’ he says. His voice isn’t angry. It’s hollow, which is worse. Already the boy with the bread is slipping away from me. I take his hand, holding on tightly, preparing for cameras, and dreading the moment when I will finally have to let go.”

Suzanne Collins, THE HUNGER GAMES

I think writers need to so show and tell. Still disagree? Did I miss something? Have I forgotten an important point? I’ve braced for impact, so fire away!

I tend to think of  a book as a guided tour in which a character interprets everything for me. Between the pages,  I’m in new, uncharted territory and I’m relying on the POV person to convey the setting, the plot, the action, and the characterization of the story.

The character’s voice is everything for me.

Sometimes that voice takes me on an unforgettable, one-of-a-kind trip.

The voice in SORTA LIKE A ROCK STAR by Matthew Quick was so powerful, I didn’t want to leave the protagonist’s world.

I snagged an ARC of this one at TLA convention last April. Lucky me for me, an editor pointed it out.  Check out the book’s opening lines, in which protagonist Amber Appleton makes her remarkable first appearance:

Lying down, shivering on the last seat of school bus 161, pinned by his teensy doggie gaze, which is completely 100% cute—I’m such a girl, I know—I say, “You won’t believe the bull I had to endure today.”

My legs are propped up against the window, toes pointing toward the roof so that the poodle skirt I made in Life Skills class settles around my midsection. Yeah, it’s the twenty-first century and I wear poodle skirts. I like dogs, I’m a freak. So what? And before anybody reading along gets too jazzed up thinking about my skirt flipped up around my waist, my lovely getaway sticks exposed, allow me to say there’s no teenage flesh to be seen here.

Amber is one heck of a tour guide, huh? Her voice hooked me right away. This character is so quirky, insightful, complicated and…warm. I was drawn to Amber in a way I can’t adequately express.

In short, reading this book was a singular experience for me. All because of one character’s voice.

I spent half the book laughing  out loud and the other half  with a big, fat lump in my throat. I RARELY cry actual tears while reading a book, but this one made me bawl like a baby. I’m not even kidding.

Amber Appleton’s voice moved me.

I wanna know, what voices move you?

Hungry for more? Try this recipe for Ooey Gooey Butter Cake. It’s almost as warm and sweet as this book.

Yeah, I’m still wet behind the ears when it comes to writing, but here’s what I’ve figured out:

1. Grammar only gets you so far. There’s more to writing than clusters of mechanically perfect sentences. But you must master grammar, anyway. Why would an editor or agent take on your  “diamond in the rough” if you can’t even be bothered to take care of the basics of punctuation, etc? Especially when they have their pick of marketable projects without these issues.

2. Too much description has a tranquilizing effect on the reader. Purple prose is a hallmark of bad writing. And who gives a flying fig about the pattern on the china or the silken texture of the bathrobe, anyway? Only describe stuff that matters, stuff that the reader really needs to know.

Sadly, you probably won’t recognize you’re doing this on your own. (At least I didn’t.) Get thee a critique partner or workshop group.

3. Dialogue tags can make or break a scene. Not everything needs a tag. Or an adverb.

4. Gestures (he winked, his eyes widened, his lips curled, etc.) are often poor substitutes for true emotion. Are there real thoughts behind those cliches? If so, share the thoughts instead of the gestures.

5. Writing fiction is less about linear action and more about heart. A constant stream of “he did this, and then this happened, and then he did this…” makes for a cold, clinical briefing. If you want to write a  story with emotional power, break up the action with interior thought, characterization and backstory.

6. Voice is not a made-up hoodoo term. It’s the distinctive flavor the author injects into the story. Great authors have it in spades, and it makes their books unforgettable. Don’t ask me how it works? I don’t know. I just know a great voice when I read it.

7. I don’t really know that much. And maybe you don’t, either. So take all the good advice and critique you can, whenever you can. It really helps.

In fact, I’m very interested in what YOU have learned so far. Please tell me about it with in the comments below.

Hungry for more?

Try this recipe for Kitchen Sink Cookies. They are chock full of distinctive flavor.

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 eggs

2 egg yolks

2 cups dark or semi-sweet chocolate chips

2 cups milk chocolate chips

Optional ingredients:

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 hchoc chip cookiesey, 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.