How Do Your Find Your Voice as a Writer?
If you give ten writers the same idea, you’ll end up with ten different stories. This holds true even if you tell them who their characters will be, what the setting is, and a couple of major plot points to include. But how could such specific instructions produce such different results? It’s because every author has their own unique writer’s voice.
Your writer’s voice is your way of telling the story. Different writers’ life experiences and literary influences affect everything from where they’ll start the story to the tone they’ll use to word choice and sentence structure. Voice is one of the main reasons that readers return to the same author over and over again—if you like the way an author tells a story, even the most basic plot will come alive in that author’s voice.
So how do you find your unique voice—the one that gets readers coming back for more? In this blog post, we’ll give you three areas to focus your attention.
Tone may sound like an abstract concept, but if your boss accused you of writing an email with a snarky tone, you’d know immediately what he meant. Maybe you slipped in a rude word, used curt sentences, or made an unprofessional comment. Fiction writing is the same way. Your tone is the attitude that comes across through your words. Some writers are known for their lighthearted tones, while others’ tones are dark or pensive.
Let’s say a group of writers are given the same prompt: a man named Jerry is late to a wedding.
- Writer A sees it as a romantic comedy, and adopts a humorous tone: “Jerry threw open the church doors, coffee spilled down his shirt, his tie askew, and one of his daughter’s hairbows stuck to his face. Kate took one look and knew she was in love.”
- Writer B chooses a dark tone: “Late summer had always struck Jerry as the worst time to get married: the suffocating heat, the lethargy, the last gasps of that false sense of freedom known as the summer holidays. Then again, weddings were their own last gasps of freedom, so perhaps—in a way—late summer was the ideal time to get married.”
- Writer C uses an informal tone: “Weddings! I swear I don’t know anyone who ain’t married by now. And yet, the invitations, they just keep on coming, like guests long overstaying their welcome.”
In these examples, we have three very different openings and narrators, despite all of them using the same writing prompt. What distinguishes them from one another?
One of the main indicators is the drastic difference in word choice. Writer A clues us in to humor by sticking a hairbow to Jerry’s face, and juxtaposing his disheveled appearance with someone falling in love. Writer B sets a dark tone with phrases like “suffocating” and “false sense of freedom.” And Writer C uses slang like “swear” and “ain’t”.
Point of view narration is also a great way to signify tone. Writer A chose to portray Jerry as more humorous by using an omniscient point-of-view. Writer B wrote a close personal third-person, and Writer C chose first-person. As a result, each example feels very different
Sentences can be short. Or sentences can be long, describing detail and backstory and setting in a phrase so impossibly wordy that we’re dying to stop for breath before we get to the end. Sentences can feel like a stream of consciousness, casual and slang-filled and, and oh boy, going all kinds of wacky directions. Or sentences that aren’t even complete.
The above paragraph gives a sampling of how different sentence structures can completely change a writer’s voice. Let’s look at some passages to see how different sentence structures affect voice.
Take this excerpt from page 60-61 of Blake Crouch’s Recursion:
The walls inside are smooth, featureless metal, the elevator apparently controlled from an external source.
The doors close.
The elevator climbs.
His heart pounds.
Barry swallows twice to clear the pressure from his ears, and after thirty seconds, the car comes to a shuddering stop.
He steps off the elevator onto a marble floor. There’s dark, brooding woodwork everywhere. Leather couches, black lacquered chairs. A trace of cigar smoke in the air.
Something timeless about the space.
The author’s voice is defined by short sentences, some complete, some not, as well as frequent paragraph breaks that often leave only a single staccato phrase on each line. The result is fast-paced with a feeling of immediacy, which is perfect for a thriller like Recursion.
Now read this passage from page 119 of Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire:
He was silent. She was silent. He turned, slowly, as if I’d made some movement which alerted him, as if I were rising behind him. It reminded me of the way humans turn when they feel my breath against them and know suddenly that where they thought themselves to be utterly alone… that moment of awful suspicion before they see my face and gasp. He was looking at me now, and I could barely see his lips moving. And then I sensed it. He was afraid. Lestat afraid.
The author’s voice peppers short sentences with long flowing sentences, giving it a formal, old-fashioned feel. Punctuation is another way to temper voice; the multiple commas and ellipsis slow down the cadence to create a rich and literary feel. Also, notice the author’s use of repetition throughout the passage: “He was silent. She was silent.” “as if I’d made some movement, as if I were rising.” “He was afraid. Lestat afraid.” All these things create quite a different voice, but one unmistakably the author’s own.
Thinking about who your book is for is a huge consideration when creating your voice. The same idea will manifest quite differently if you’re writing for ten-year-olds versus thirty-year-olds. Your voice will also vary depending on the genre you’re writing.
Here are three passages from different books about World War Two:
“SOE stands for Special Operations Executive,” said Teddy. “It is a top-secret organization that Winston formed. It conducts undercover missions in countries occupied by Nazis. In the short time since Kathleen and I completed the required training, we have both been sent on many secret assignments.” (Danger in the Darkest Hour, Mary Pope Osborne, page 20)
Havermeyer was a lead bombardier who never missed. Yossarian was a lead bombardier who had been demoted because he no longer gave a damn whether he missed or not. He had decided to live forever or die in the attempt, and his only mission each time he went up was to come down alive. (Catch-22, Joseph Heller, page 29)
More women arrived at the restaurant throughout the evening, waving hello on the way to the surrounding tables, sometimes stopping to chat. Our other tablemates hailed from Ohio, Oregon and Tennessee respectively, and our stories about joining the Women Airforce Service Pilots program sounded a lot alike. We’d all taken part in our communities to help with the war effort. (The Flight Girls, Noelle Salazar, page 119)
These three books have very different voices because they’re aimed at three very different audiences. The first passage is from a book written for 5-8 year-olds, so it uses simple language to lay out history in a way kids can understand. The second passage is from a humorous novel, as demonstrated by the comparison of the lead bombardiers’ missions. And the third excerpt is from a novel focused on women’s friendships while training as pilots, so the author’s voice takes on a serious tone with a more formal feel.
Pick a scene from your work in progress. First, rewrite the scene as if it’s 18th-century literature, with your protagonist describing the world through formal and flowery prose. Next, rewrite the scene in modern times, and make the protagonist’s voice as informal as you possibly can.
Which version did you have more fun with? Did the plot go in different directions based on the voice you used? How might you write the more formal voice in modern times, or the informal one in historical fiction?
Repeat the exercise with different voices. How does the scene change if you write it as humor versus horror? What about short sentences and multiple paragraph breaks versus long sentences and dense paragraphs? What if you wrote it in the style of a newspaper article?
Finding your writer’s voice is not an overnight process. It can even be a lifelong journey, as your voice evolves alongside your writing skills. But by using the tips in this post, you can better focus your efforts as you explore your own voice. With experimentation and practice, you’ll find the inner voice that sticks in your mind afterward—the one that sings on a reread because it reflects you.