Talk About Voice
Writing conferences abound with talks on “Finding Voice.” What does that mean? To some, finding a voice means taking on a writing persona, a recognizable authorial style and thematic range. Others seek to find the best narrative point of view and worldview for each particular work, or for each different character.
Having voice is like having personality. Many voice-driven children’s stories hinge on the charisma of a strong first-person narrator, often quirky and sometimes colloquial. For voice to drive your story, you have to put all of your senses on alert, including the senses of humor and direction. Voice likes to play with words, but it knows where it’s going.
A first-person narrator doesn’t guarantee a driving voice. In fact, there’s common “standard children’s book prose” voice that we see more often than not. It happens in both the first person and the limited third-person viewpoints, where the “I” is changed to “he” or “she” but the storytelling remains mostly the same, presenting only the world that the child protagonist can perceive.
Such books can be very successful because they have strong plots and/or characters and are accessible to young readers. You may even have learned that you must write for children from a limited perspective as a “rule.” That’s just not true. Certainly many of our most beloved classics use omniscient voices—think of the fairy tales—and there has been a resurgence of older and wiser storytelling voices in the past decade. Lemony Snicket reminds me of J.M. Barrie, for instance, an intrusive narrator who inserts his opinions into the story.
High literary awards have gone to books by Neil Gaiman, Kathi Appelt, and others who push the conventional boundaries of limited viewpoint and story structure. They have strong voices even when writing in the third-person using unconventional forms. For voice-driven writers, style, language, and form of telling are just as important as the storyline itself. The reader is carried forward not just by curiosity about what will happen next but by the poetry and cadence of the language and how the ordering of details makes the reader think.
Because it can’t be dissected as cleanly as theme, plot, character, setting, viewpoint, or dialogue—for in fact it is a meshing of all those elements in the words chosen—voice is probably the most elusive literary element to teach or learn. But it’s possible. The secret is learning to listen and hear the wonderful storytelling voices all around you.
For instance, my Grammy Barb has never written a story in her life, yet she’s the best narrator I’ve ever met. Over the years I’ve learned more just from paying attention to her voice than I ever did from any how-to book.
Voice doesn’t fit neatly into truisms and formulas about writing for children. For instance, some say it’s a no-no to write in dialect. True, it’s difficult for most people to pull off, but if you grew up thinking in a regional accent, it might be your straightest path to creative flow. Some children struggle reading omniscient narration and multiple voices, and some writers can’t control them, but you may be the wise guy to whom omniscience comes naturally.
Dare to follow your flow, even if it veers away from the mainstream.
Perhaps you know your characters and their story, but you don’t have a distinctive storytelling voice carrying them along. Exercises like these may help you find your way.
1. Play tone games. Try rewriting a sentence or a scene in various ways to capture its flavor. If the narration were a pie, would it be rhubarb, pecan, or lemon meringue? (Standard children’s book prose is apple.)
2. Let three different characters narrate the same scene and see which one has the best voice for the telling in first person. Then try third person limited and third omniscient.
3. Try describing your protagonist at three different levels. First, take the level of detail in close like a yearbook picture, then pull out and show as if in a full-length mirror, and then try it again viewed from all directions like a statue.
4. Maybe you have a tin ear. Train it. Eavesdrop on conversations wherever you go. It’s okay, you’re working! Write down the new voices you hear and try to channel them later.
5. Freewrite your life story in a journal for at least 15 minutes every day, very fast, without even lifting your pencil. Eventually a strong voice is bound to gush out, bringing the characters and their plot with it.
When you find your voice, you’ll know. Your pencil will fly, and so will the morning.
Voice is one of my first and most favorite workshop topics for conferences and classes. A version of this material was published in Once Upon a Time (Winter 1998) in a four-part series on driving forces in fiction.
©Lisa Rowe Fraustino 1998, 2010
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