Showing posts with label voice. Show all posts
Showing posts with label voice. Show all posts

Friday, June 13

Writers: Owning Your Voice

Writers: Owning Your Voice

This morning someone asked me: 
What makes a scene gripping? What characteristic, more than any other, draws a reader into a story?
A number of answers sprang to mind: suspense, deep characterization, an intricate plot. Most of all, though, I look for an intriguing voice

Hemingway's voice is minimalist, stark, intriguing. Chuck Wendig's voice, on the other hand, is loud, sonorous, poetic, startling.

Sometimes I think a writer's voice is the single most important thing for pulling me into a story. But, of course, one's voice--what makes a voice compelling--is all bound up with developing character and fleshing out setting.

Examples of a strong voice

Ernest Hemingway, Hills Like White Elephants:
"The woman brought two glasses of beer and two felt pads. She put the felt pads and the beer glasses on the table and looked at the man and the girl. The girl was looking off at the line of hills. They were white in the sun and the country was brown and dry."
Terry Pratchett, Going Postal:
"They say that the prospect of being hanged in the morning concentrates a man’s mind wonderfully; unfortunately, what the mind inevitably concentrates on is that, in the morning, it will be in a body that is going to be hanged."
Stephen King, Misery:
"Then there was a mouth clamped over his, a mouth which was unmistakably a woman's mouth in spite of its hard spitless lips, and the wind from this woman's mouth blew into his own mouth and down his throat, puffing his lungs, and when the lips were pulled back he smelled his warder for the first time, smelled her on the outrush of the breath she had forced into him the way a man might force a part of himself into an unwilling woman, a dreadful mixed stench of vanilla cookies and chocolate ice cream and chicken gravy and peanut-butter fudge."
I picked those three examples because I loved them, their meter, their flow, their rhythm, and because they are from books I couldn't put down (though it took me a while, quite a while, to recover from reading Misery.)

Chuck Wendig is another writer with a voice that jumps out and grabs you (or pushes you down a stairwell, whichever). I find his voice big, bold and startling. Wonderful. If you'd like to sample it, try this excerpt from the start of his serialized story, The Forever Endeavor, over at (Note: Chuck Wendig's work usually comes with a NSFW warning.)

The elements of voice

Voice is a bit like a criminal's signature. It's something that you do even when you don't want to do it. It's a part of you, a part of the way you think, a part of the way you write.

What makes one voice different than another? Good question. On one level, simple things like sentence length--and how that difference ricochets through a work. In the examples I gave, above, look at how short Hemingway's sentences are compared to either King's or Pratchett's.

"The traditional definition of a writer’s 'voice' is, simply put, that writer’s chosen style. 'John Q. Snarlmonkey writes with snark and panache, using tons of ellipses and lots of capital letters and made-up words. I love Snarlmonkey’s voice.' Voice equals style. That’s the easy answer."
Here's a more difficult one:
"The writer’s voice is the thing that marks the work as a creation of that writer and that writer only. You read a thing and you say, 'This could not have been written by anybody else.' That is voice."[1]
Stephen King has a distinctive voice, one that is his and his alone. Many of King's fans who read Richard Bachman's work recognized King behind the pseudonym long before he was outed.[2]

Developing your own voice

Developing one's voice is a dark art. It happens, somehow, but no one is quite sure how, except that it has a lot to do with writing (a lot) and reading (a lot).

I agree with what Chuck Wendig said at the end of his article, that you have to write with confidence. I would add, though, that if you can't write with confidence--after all, in the beginning confidence can be difficult to come by--write with resignation. 

Resignation that, ultimately, there is one way of writing that defines you, one way that feels more natural than any other.[3] That's scary because what's going to happen if your friends, your family, don't like that style? What happens if it turns out your style is shocking? Unconventional? 

I think that developing one's own style takes brashness. A writer needs to lock up the jabbering, naysaying, sensible, reasonable voices that urge caution and, instead, dip her pen in the blood of her fears and phobias and insecurities and lay herself bare on the page. 

No wonder artistic types are a bundle of nerves.


1. 25 Things Writers Should Know About Finding Their Voice, by Chuck Wendig over at

2. "The link between King and his shadow writer was exposed after a Washington, D.C. bookstore clerk, Steve Brown, noted similarities between the writing styles of King and Bachman." (Richard Bachman over at

3. I think that developing one's own style, one's own voice, has a lot to do with the idea of soul, or of whatever it is that makes a person unique. Yes, writers can intentionally mimic the styles of others but, at the end of the day, the way a person writes either grows out of all those inky, inconvenient, personal, individual, aweful-and-exhilerating things that make a person that person, or they turn away from the terror and play it safe. I think we've all played it safe, but when we do our best work we face the terror. 

Thursday, April 10

Free Indirect Discourse: How To Create A Window Into A Character's Soul

Free Indirect Discourse: How To Create A Window Into A Character's Soul

I feel silly. 

For years I've noticed a technique of Stephen King's, I've even written about it and mentioned that it seemed to be a strange contortionist amalgam of first and third person. But I didn't have a name for it. 

Until now! Yes, I am doing a happy dance. And all because of this article: "So you want to be a writer ...".[4]

Free Indirect Style: What Is It And Why Should You Care?

Jon Gingerich writes that a "benefit of Free Indirect Discourse is it's a more comprehensive way to tell a story. By temporarily breaking away from the narrator's voice within descriptive passages, the reader gets to see things not only through the narrator’s eyes but through the character's eyes as well."[2]

When a skilled writer, someone like Stephen King, uses free indirect speech it is as though he gently pushes the narrator out of the way--or as though he, as storyteller, steps aside--and allows the reader to know the innermost thoughts of the character. 

To put it simply (if rather dramatically), in a master storyteller's hands free indirect speech can be used to lay bare a character's soul.

See what you think. Here's an example of free indirect speech from Stephen King's book Under The Dome:
"Big Jim also did not ask Who did you sleep with? He had other concerns than whom his son might be diddling; he was just glad the boy hadn't been among the fellows who'd done their business with that nasty piece of trailer trash out of Motton Road. Doing business with that sort of girl was a good way to catch something and get sick.

"He's already sick, a voice in Big Jim's head whispered. It might have been the fading voice of his wife. Just look at him.

"That voice was probably right, but this morning he had greater concerns than Junior Rennie's eating disorder, or whatever it was." 
In the quoted paragraphs, above, whose voice is it? Yes, it's the voice of the narrator (King employs an omniscient narrator; he/she/it is no one in the story and the narrator has godlike knowledge), but we get Big Jim's voice peeking through. We have access to the character's thoughts, we hear--not the narrator's voice--but Big Jim's. For example, in the first paragraph, the narrator would not say "diddling," that's Big Jim's word. 

That said, the narrator--and likely the author--are evident in the text along with Big Jim. For example, Big Jim doesn't strike me as the kind of person who would be fastidious about the use of "who" and "whom." 

In the last paragraph the narrator's voice is replaced by Big Jim's; it's almost as though the narrator has temporarily submerged himself within the consciousness of Big Jim; or, perhaps, it is that the narrator has simply stepped aside. He/she/it is no longer between you and the character; it's just you and Big Jim and you're like a god in that, in that moment, you know him. He is laid bare before you; his thoughts, his hopes, his ambitions. The kind of man he is. 

That is what--or at least part of what--can be so seductive about reading Stephen King's books. The slightly voyeuristic promise of being introduced to characters that you come to know completely. Intimately. That you come to know even as you know yourself.

That also shows us one of the principle strengths of free indirect discourse: intimacy. 

To sum up: In free indirect discourse the narrator can seem to dip down into a character and reveal to you their inner workings both through their thoughts (/mental workings) and their speech. In a sense it is third person temporarily masquerading as first person and, as such, goes a long way to eliminating the distance between narrator and character--as well as (and perhaps more importantly) between reader and character.[5]

Direct Speech vs Normal Indirect Speech vs Free Indirect Speech

Free indirect speech seems like it can be powerful tool but if you're still wondering what the heck it is, perhaps this will help. 

Direct Speech

Direct speech is quoted: Bob scowled up at the dark clouds. "Ahw," he said, the sound halfway between a curse and a sneeze. "Gonna rain."

In direct speech, the reader hears from the character himself; in this case, from Bob. Because this is Bob speaking, the timber of his voice, the kinds of words he uses, and so on, are going to be different from those the (omniscient) narrator uses.

Normal Indirect Speech

Normal indirect speech is reported: Bob scowled up at the dark clouds and thought to himself that it would rain.

This speech is indirect because we don't hear it from the character himself. What Bob says and does and thinks is filtered through the narrator. As a result we lose the timber of Bob's voice as well as the particular words he, as opposed to the narrator, would use. When I read normal indirect speech it can feel as though a veil has been drawn over the character, over his mind, his essence, and that I am forced to see him through the lens of the narrator's thoughts and feelings.

Free Indirect Speech

Here's an example of free indirect speech: Bob scowled up at the dark clouds; yep, it was gonna rain.

Here, as with direct speech, the narrator is shunted aside. You, the reader, no longer look at the character through the lens of the narrator's beliefs and hopes and judgements. Here you are shown Bob's unadulterated, unfiltered, thoughts as he thinks them. 

Free indirect speech: who started this wackiness?

Apparently, nineteenth century French novelist Flaubert was the first to be consciously aware of it as a style but both Goethe and Jane Austen used free indirect style consistently. Other practitioners of the form were: Franz Kafka, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf and D.H. Lawrence. [1]

Share your thoughts! What do you think of free indirect discourse? Do you enjoy reading authors who use the technique? Have you used it? Would you?


1. Free indirect speech, Wikipedia.
4. The article, So You want to be a writer ... is a collection of reactions--all by author-teachers--to Hanif Kureishi's statement that creative writing courses are a waste of time. It was Philip Hensher's essay that included the sentence that opened my eyes: "The focus [in Hensher's writing classes] is on technique as well as emotion and experience. Is the presiding consciousness the right one? Does he need to filter everything through his awareness? Is this the right tense? What is this thing called free indirect style?"

Miscellaneous Writing Links

Photo credit: "Cap Formentor" by *Light Painting* under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Sunday, May 5

Chuck Wendig On Finding Your Voice

Chuck Wendig On Finding Your Voice

I love it when Chuck Wendig talks about writing.

Recently Chuck gave an interview to 52 Reviews in which he mused about how to find your voice and what talent is.

How To Find Your Voice

Chuck Wendig says:
Every author decides to go on a grand adventure one day, and that grand adventure is to find her voice. She leaves the comfort of her own wordsmithy and she traipses through many fictional worlds written by many writers and along the way she pokes through their writings to see if her voice is in there somewhere. She takes what she reads and she mimics their voices, taking little pieces of other authors with her in her mind and on the page.

Is her voice cynical? Optimistic? Short and curt, or long and breezy? She doesn’t know and so she reads and she writes and she lives life in an effort to find out.

This adventure takes as long as it takes, but one day the author tires of it and she comes home, empty-handed, still uncertain what her voice looks like or sounds like.

And there, at home, she discovers her voice is waiting. In fact, it’s been there all along.

Your voice is how you write when you’re not trying to find your voice. Your voice is the way you write, the way you talk. Your voice is who you are, what you believe, what themes you knowingly and unknowingly embrace.

Your voice is you.

Search for it and you won’t find it. Stop looking and it’ll find you.

I think that's true for many areas of human endeavour, you won't find what you're looking for 'out there,' (wherever 'out there' is) only when you look within. (By the way, Chuck also talked about this on his blog.)

What Talent Is

Another quotable quote:
52 Reviews: Speaking of 'simply writing' do you prescribe to the notion that success as a writer is more a measure of effort and dedication than actual talent? Creativity, in and of itself, seems to be pretty easy to come by while the tenacity to commit to the act of actually creating seems to be much more scarce.

Wendig: Talent is a function of excess desire. You really, really want something bad enough, you tend to manifest a "talent" for it. While I'm sure there's some argument to be made for the expression of genetics, I think mostly it's just -- if you really like architecture and have the desire to create architecture, you're probably going to manifest the "talent" as an architect.

Dedication and effort then turn that desire and talent into craft and creation. At least, in a perfect world

Chuck's Books

Since he's so nice in giving us these tangy nuggets of wisdom, I want to mention that Chuck Wendig has 4 books coming out in the next couple of months. Here's Chuck's description:
First up: Gods & Monsters: Unclean Spirits. The gods fell to Earth. One man wants revenge on them for taking his family away from him. It involves various divine wangs and vaginas. No, really.

Next: The Blue Blazes. Which we have in part already talked about but hey, I'll entice with: mystical drugs! goblins! roller derby girl gangs! the criminal underworld! the mythic underworld! subterranean zombie town! charcuterie! family betrayal!

Then: Under the Empyrean Sky, which is my young adult novel in a sunny dustbowl cornpunk future where a scrappy scavenger named Cael finds a secret forbidden garden in a world where their floating Empyrean overlords only allow them to grow a bloodthirsty variant of corn. It's got young love and adventure and piss-blizzards and motorvators and an agricultural pro-farmer pro-food message nestled in all the trappings. John Hornor Jacobs called it Of Mice and Men meets Star Wars, which I quite like.

Finally! Beyond Dinocalypse, book two of the Spirit of the Century trilogy. Pulp heroes. Two-fisted jet-pack action. An apocalypse of psychic hive-mind dinosaurs. PROFESSORIAL APES IN KILTS.
Anyone who wants to read the first chapter of Gods & Monsters: Unclean Spirits, it's up at io9. Also, information about where Chuck's books are on sale, and other good stuff, is available over at Terribleminds.

Other articles you might like:

- Creating The Perfect Sleuth
- How Many Books Would You Have To Write To Quit Your Job?
- Advice For New Writers

Photo credit: "Untitled" by Tucker Sherman under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.