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What exactly is "voice"?


It's a good question, isn't it? It's a word often used... and is also often proffered by literary agents as a reason for turning our work down. Often, we writers don't have a clue what "voice" really means. It's not our fault, at all, because "voice" is a nebulous term, and if you're an agent turning a manuscript down, the reason "I didn't quite connect to the voice" is usefully vague and at the same time entirely reasonable. Or sometimes we hear from agents "The voice didn't work for me." So, clearly, voice is important. It can make or break a piece of writing. What follows is my own interpretation of what constitutes voice, mainly in fiction, but much applies to narrative non-fiction too.


OK, I'm going to start by saying "voice" is not usually the writer's voice. It's your narrator's voice. And the narrator is always a character; a performer, in many ways, whether it's a first-person character who appears in the story, or an omniscient third-person who swoops in from on high and knows and tells all. To my mind, "voice" is created by the narrator's authority; her confidence; the words she uses; the things she says or doesn't say; the emotion her words evoke. I always consider my narrative voice to belong to a character in my novels, whether it does or not. My novels are not narrated by my voice. They are written by me, but the voice I use isn't mine. I like to think my narrators are sharper and cleverer than me, more observant, perhaps even less judgemental... or more so, depending on the novel I'm writing.





I'll try to demonstrate voice. This is a scene from around a quarter of the way through my forthcoming novel We Are Family. (Plug alert!) Ethan, his parents, and his girlfriend Helena have just found out that Ethan's aunty (who is not actually his aunt, but a long-standing friend of his mum's) is pregnant. I've written two versions of the same scene. Have a look and then I'll talk about them afterwards...


Version one:


‘Is she your real aunt, though?’ asked Helena, moving out of Ethan’s way so he could reach up to the cupboard to put away the wine glasses from Christmas dinner. Mum had got new, clean, glasses out for what she called dessert wine. She tried to be posh even though she wasn't. She didn't like microwaves, so the Christmas pudding was cooking on the hob.  

            ‘No. She’s my mum’s oldest friend. They met at school,’ replied Ethan.

            ‘How old is she, again?’ asked Helena.

            ‘She was forty-nine, I think, in November,’ said Ethan.

            ‘Old then. Can you even have a baby at that age?’ Helena was being rather naive to think Jennifer was terribly old at the age of forty-nine.

            ‘It would seem so, yes,’ said Ethan.

            ‘She fancies herself a bit, doesn’t she?’ observed Helena.

            ‘What do you mean?’ Ethan was taken aback.

            ‘Like my mum would say, she’s pleased with what she sees in the mirror. She’s attractive. For her age,’ said Helena, who was really very naive.

            ‘Yeah. Probs. I hadn’t really noticed.’ Ethan tried to sound nonchalant.

            ‘Liar, liar, pants on fire,' accused Helena. 'You went very red in the face when she told us she was going to have a baby.’

            ‘Did I?’ Ethan felt he was floundering.

            ‘Yes. Jealous, are we?’ said Helena in a manner that implied that she was really the jealous one.

            ‘Of what?’ asked Ethan defensively.

            ‘The guy who’s done the deed,’ said Helena.

            ‘No! I was a bit surprised. Like you said, she’s quite old.’ Ethan wished they could change the subject.

            ‘Isn’t she just,’ said Helena in a tone Ethan didn't like.



Version two:


‘Is she your real aunt, though?’ asked Helena, moving out of Ethan’s way so he could reach up to the cupboard to put away the wine glasses from Christmas dinner. Mum had got new, clean, glasses out for the “dessert wine” to go with the Christmas pudding, which was steaming gently on the hob. 

            ‘No. She’s my mum’s oldest friend. They met at school.’

            ‘How old is she, again?’

            ‘She was forty-nine, I think, in November.’

            ‘Old then. Can you even have a baby at that age?’

            ‘It would seem so, yes.’

            ‘She fancies herself a bit, doesn’t she?’

            ‘What do you mean?’

            ‘Like my mum would say, she’s pleased with what she sees in the mirror. She’s attractive. For her age.’

            ‘Yeah. Probs. I hadn’t really noticed.’

            ‘Liar, liar, pants on fire. You went very red in the face when she told us she was going to have a baby.’

            ‘Did I?’

            ‘Yes. Jealous, are we?’

            ‘Of what?’

            ‘The guy who’s done the deed.’

            ‘No! I was a bit surprised. Like you said, she’s quite old.’

            ‘Isn’t she just.’



Which one do you prefer? I think both scenes do the job... and the dialogue is exactly the same... but I prefer the starker, sharper, quicker exchange of dialogue in the second example. I felt it didn't need speech tags, as it's clear only two characters are present in the scene; and I wanted to allow the reader lots of room to make up their own mind about what might actually be going on here. I don't necessarily think my first version is bad, per se... but it is quite cluttered, and slow-paced, and the narrator is telling us stuff that the dialogue shows. The narrator is also rather micro-managing our responses... telling us Ethan is defensive, and so on. So that first version feels too directed, too steered. The narrator is intruding too much. It would be possible to write another version of this scene with a couple of speech tags, a couple of interjections from the narrator... perhaps a compromise, if the untagged dialogue exchange feels too risky.


I was keen in this scene to let the characters do the talking. I also hope the youngsters' perspective on age and aging might raise eyebrows or provoke wry amusement. I wanted their innocence to shine through, really. They are both aged 18, new adults. So I made the decision to keep speech tags to a minimum, and just let the characters carry the scene, keeping my narrator's voice out of the way as much as I could. I also wanted to gently poke fun at Mum and her small affectations. So I popped "dessert wine" in speech marks, to hopefully draw attention to the narrator's noticing of Mum's particular, and inadvertently snobbish, little ways. But I didn't want my narrator to ram it down the reader's throat. I wanted to simply show it, giving the reader space to observe.


(The second version is the one that appears in my book.)


Voice is sometimes, perhaps often, defined more by absence than presence. It's really about the relationship between the narrator and the reader... the understanding, the hints taken, the gaps left open for the reader to fill. Trust, in other words. And control, which I talked about in my previous post. It's really important to trust the reader to "get it", and not allow your narrator to explain everything. In turn the reader will feel able to trust your narrator to tell a good story, and to not patronise the reader by explaining too much. I think this is what many agents are getting at when they say they "I couldn't connect to the voice". I think what is happening is that the mutual trust between reader and narrator is not quite working.





So if you feel you might be struggling with voice, pick a scene from your novel-in-progress and try a re-write. Take out as much as you dare, and see what's left. Then take out a bit more. Perhaps read both versions of your scene aloud, and see which one lands best. Also, if you find your narrator is explaining too much... or is droning on... or is just a bit bland and wishy-washy, don't be afraid to change your narrator's personality. Make her louder, brasher, bolder, funnier, more confused, less confused... . make a point of allowing her to use fancier words, unexpected words... anything, really, that might make a difference. This can apply to a first, second, or third person narration. If you think you end up with a scene that is under-cooked, then put back in some of the stuff you took out. Weigh it all up, and you will probably end up with a scene that's just right.







I do hope this is all useful. Voice is such a vague concept, and often we writers can really struggle to know what to do about voice if we are told it's not working. Nobody else can really fix it for us, like they can a typo, poor punctuation, or a clumsy sentence. Voice is uniquely ours, created, and fixed, by us alone. There are no rules. Voice either works, or it doesn't. So it might help to understand voice in terms of what's not said, rather than what is. It's a useful place to start, in my opinion.


Back soon with some more thoughts about writing fiction (and narrative non-fiction). I might discuss showing and telling next, as it feels like a natural progression from the topic of voice.


Until next time,


Louise x



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