Creating a Strong Voice in Your Novel

We’re about to look at the last three pillars of novel construction in this year-long course. These last three—voice, writing style, and motifs—are important elements in a novel, but there are no specific “rules” governing them. No one can tell you what your writing style should be, for example, but there are some guidelines I can share with you that will help you make decisions about your writing style, or the kind of voice you give your character, or the kinds of motifs you may or may not want to inject into your story.

There are many other small components that make a novel great, such as attention to detail; creative use of metaphor or symbolism; and technical issues, such as sentence, paragraph, and scene length. All these things are mostly a matter of personal taste, although often formed and restricted in some way by genre.

Keep these key things in mind regarding all these elements:

  • Everything you “build” your novel with—every board, nail, and pipe—needs to serve a purpose, a specific function. There shouldn’t be random, useless materials thrown into the construction of a house. Similarly, as you build your novel, it makes no sense to throw in anything—scenes, settings, bits of dialog, plot developments, extraneous characters—that don’t serve the needs of your premise.
  • Genre plays a big part in dictating the type of pillars you construct your novel with. Maybe that seems unnecessary to say, for you wouldn’t come up with a sci-fi concept and then write a story that has no elements of sci-fi in it. But genre is more than just a way to pigeonhole a book’s subject matter. Readers of genres have certain expectations, and all the components of a novel have to fit within reader expectations to some degree. If you are writing a dark noir comedy, your voice and writing style and dialog and scene construction should match that of novels in the genre.
  • Some of your pillars are going to be bigger and stronger and structurally support your story more than others based on the kind of story you tell. I use a lot of motifs in my novels, for example, whether they are fantasy or psychological suspense or relational dramas. You may find little use for motifs and symbolism in your novels. I believe using motifs provides more structural support for any novel, but your “house” won’t collapse if you don’t use any.

With that said, We’ll take a brief look at these last three pillars to wrap up the course, which will end with your having twelve in-depth inspection checklists to help you construct the best novels you possibly can.

Voice—Unique for Each Character

In the course we went through in 2012 on my blog—Writing the Heart of Your Story (which is now available as a print book and e-book), I wrote this post about voice, which you may want to read. I’ll reiterate it these posts, and add some other thoughts.

I’ve heard various definitions of what “voice” is in a novel, and it is often referring to a writer’s writing style. I do not embrace that definition, and I’ll explain why.

First, writing style is writing style. It is not tone or voice. It’s the way you put words together to create sentences. It is the choice of words you use and how you convey your ideas and characters and dialog. And because both writing style and voice are important, they each are a separate pillar of novel construction.

Voice is something entirely different, as far as it concerns this pillar of construction.

One article I found online says voice has only to do with a first-person narrator—her persona. One Writer’s Digest blog shares these thoughts:

“I am looking for authors with a distinctive voice.” I hear that from editors over lunch almost as often as I hear, “I am looking for big, well-written thrillers.”

What the heck is “voice”? By this, do editors mean “style”? I do not think so. By voice, I think they mean not only a unique way of putting words together, but a unique sensibility, a distinctive way of looking at the world, an outlook that enriches an author’s oeuvre. They want to read an author who is like no other. An original. A standout. A voice.

This, again, to me is dealing with writing style. I know I’m probably arguing semantics here, but the above blogger disagrees with that assessment, and hence creates a lot of confusion. And agents and editors that throw the term “voice” around, confusing it with writing style, make matters worse.

Take a look at what that writer quoted above goes on to say, and tell me if it confuses you or makes the issue clearer:

How can you develop your voice? To some extent it happens all by itself. Stories come from the subconscious. What drives you to write, to some extent, are your own unresolved inner conflicts. Have you noticed your favorite authors have character types that recur? Plot turns that feel familiar? Descriptive details that you would swear you have read before (a yellow bowl, a slant of light, an inch of cigarette ash)? That is the subconscious at work. [I disagree ~ C.S.]

You can facilitate voice by giving yourself the freedom to say things in your own unique way. You do not talk exactly like anyone else, right? Why should you write like everyone else?

Again, this is all about writing style. We bring into our writing who we are, how we think, what moves and influences and scares us.

Let me say this in simple terms—and this is my take on the whole “voice vs. writing style” issue. I think my way of looking at these two things makes more sense, and makes it easier for writers to both grasp the concepts and work with them constructively (since we’re all about construction!). Voice is all about characters—not about you.

Next week, I’ll explain in detail. For now, spend some time thinking about your characters’ voices versus your own, and read my prior post on voice. We’ll take a look at what it means to develop a character’s voice and “get into character.”

Any thoughts on this subject? Do you feel there is a a difference between a writer’s “voice” and her “writing style”?

Inspection Checklists:

Inspection Checklist 1-concept with a kicker

Inspection Checklist 2-protagonist with a goal

Inspection Checklist 3-conflict with high stakes

Inspection Checklist 4-theme with a heart

Inspection Checklist 5-Plots and Subplots in a String of Scenes

Inspection Checklist 6-Secondary Characters with Their Own Needs

Inspection Checklist 7-Setting with a Purpose

Inspection Checklist 8-Tension Ramped to the Max

Inspection Checklist 9-Dialog Compressed and Essential

Feature Photo Credit: Paula Satijn via Compfight cc

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  1. I agree that voice can be unique to characters, but I also believe each writer has his own voice. I think of Charles Martin, who writes with a wonderful, unique voice. Each of his books is written from the POV of one man, but each of those men is very different and has a very different style. But when you look at his books, they all have a similar voice. It is unique, and it is hard to define.

    A lot of voice comes from writing style, a lot of it comes from vocabulary, a lot of comes from the author’s unique look at the world. I agree that each character in a novel should have a unique voice, too. Voice is so esoteric, I can’t wait to hear what you have to say about it.

  2. Thank you for sharing this writing info with us. I always find your blog pots helpful. I’m looking forward to reading your new book.

  3. I’m so sorry that I forgot I had embedded URLs in the comment I made early this morning. I’m new to the blogosphere and didn’t realize what I had done until after I went to bed. Hope this one goes through and you haven’t considered me spam. I might be many things but not that. Thanks.

    Do you want to be called Susanne or C.S.?

    I’m new to the blogosphere and wish I had found your blog, and a few other fiction writers blogs, sooner. But I’m here now.

    It’s really odd that the first of your posts I read is about voice. Soon as my eyes met “Voice is all about characters—not about you!” I had the biggest smile. Don’t get me wrong, I’m OK with writers using the term voice instead of style. But when a story is printed, or is on a computer screen, voice is nothing more than a metaphor for style. I appreciate your explanation of voice—how it shapes narrative and characters. Yours makes more sense than most explanations of voice that I’ve come across. I’m sure emerging writers will get a lot out of your post.

    Please don’t dismiss me as being argumentative, but I disagree with one thing you said: “So I’m going to give you my take on the topic, and I think it will end the confusion.” I’m sure that you meant ending confusion for your blog readers; I doubt that you, or anyone else, will end all the confusion about voice. Over the years, I’ve read voice v. style articles in The New Yorker, and I recently read The Sound on the Page: Style and Voice in Writing, by Ben Yagoda. When they have nothing better to do, writers, editors, literary critics, and professors argue about style and voice. Sometimes I do too. It’s a great hobby.

    I know you have a lot of more important things to do, but if you ever find a boring moment, I have on my blog site a post called The Style of Voice explaining why understanding what “finding a voice” means was a problem for me. Soon after making that post, I had to write another post “Department of Lost and Found Voices,” about my accepting “finding a voice” as being a genuine problem for many writers. If nothing else, those two posts include many reasons that the voice confusion is never going away. At least you helped clear up for your readers what voice is and is not. Maybe.

    Now that I’ve found you, I’ll make regular visits to your blog.
    Lamont Wilkins,

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