What We Mean When We Talk About Voice

For years, sitting in a circle in various writing groups among my peers, I often tossed out the empty line “I like the voice of the story,” or my more insightful variant, “I liked the voice of the story very much.” Truthfully, I didn’t know what “voice” was, but I had an English degree, so I knew it was something.

As a “civilian” reader, I had encountered my share of stories, poems, novels, essays that had stuck with me—all composed of lines that came back to me over and over again. The line from Flannery O’Connor’s story “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” “ ‘She would have been a good woman . . . if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life’ ” is one that speaks to me.  And says different things at different points of my adult life. And there are so many other stories that just seemed to hum with meaning. It’s that hum that I have now come to understand is voice.

It wasn’t until I became an editor, though, that I really started to ask, What do we mean when we talk about voice?

Part of my befuddlement is the word we use: Voice. Whose voice? The author’s? A character’s? Essayists and journalists have a voice, a medium in which to lay out facts and present ideas. We talk about journalists “giving voice” to the people they profile that otherwise are overlooked.

Great character voices have a musical cadence that just sounds right.  As a civilian reader, well-crafted dialogue would flow by me seamlessly; I was hearing it as the characters were speaking on the page, as if I were present in the scene with them, but I rarely stopped to think about what it was I liked about the naturalness of the speech. Only later, as an editor, I started to notice instances of wooden dialogue that would draw me up short when I read a manuscript. Or when character’s or narrator’s voice jumped boundaries, such as when I couldn’t tell two characters apart from their dialogue alone, or when I was hearing the character’s voice outside of the quote marks in paras of exposition.

But character and narrator voices are wholly separate from the voice of the text, the narrative voice. When I began to think about the elements that made a piece of writing so effective to me—was it the suspense, the vividly realized setting, the all-too-human protagonist—I always seemed to circle back to the power of the narrative voice, how the writing moved me. A character or narrator speaks in the here and now of the story or scene they are in or are relating. Narrative voice, on the other hand, spans space and time. It is the means by which the author communicates with the reader, the language of their conversation. Imagine yourself lost in a Rex Stout mystery and yelling at the fat man as you commute to work.  You are in a conversation with the author—engaged, perhaps enraged.

The narrative voice engages the reader, and the reader answers back by bringing her or his full imaginative and empathetic ability to illuminate the text. Narrative voice makes the scenes of the story clear and vivid for the reader, using all the tools of writing: description, action scenes, a careful ordering of images and facts, to name a few.

Another stumbling block to my understanding what voice is was the canard that writers have to find their own voice. Huh? As a young graduate student, I remember thinking that if I only rooted around the deep pockets of my psyche, my naturally poetic voice would spring up and forth and great literature would be written. If only. From my own personal experience and my experiences working with writers, I know that writers don’t find their one voice, but that they must find it for each bit of writing.  But with practice, years and years of writing, that process of locating just the right narrative voice becomes, if not easier, at least a little more familiar.

Just as language lives among people, writing lives among readers. A crucial step in finding the narrative voice of the story is knowing your audience. If you are writing you are communicating with someone. Even if you are stuffing your pages in a box and tucking it away in a closet, you are still communicating; there is still an assumed audience out there, across space and time. I believe if you can define that audience, you can start to hone the narrative voice of your writing. This is basic journalism, but it’s just as fundamental to fiction writers.

And if you are submitting your work for publication, then you know your audience—or you should. You should be familiar with the list of the agent or press, or content of the publication. The agents, editors, book buyers, readers are your audience.

Altogether what makes a particular narrative voice resonate is surely a magical combination of things. It’s the distance between the characters’ subconscious motivations and the words on the page. It’s the rhythm in the sentences, the pacing of the plot, and the choices the author makes about, say, what to show and what to summarize and what to omit. It’s the metaphors that lend hue to the story, and the poetry that quietly threads its way through the prose. It’s the black lettering of the type, or the pixels that blink on and off on our tablets.

It’s—you know—that reverberation you hear when you finish a great story. You’ll know it when you hear it.


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4 responses to “What We Mean When We Talk About Voice

  1. Robert Lopresti

    I think it is slightly more complicated than that. Sometimes the narrative voice is an extension of the character’s voice. Think of sny Elmore Leonard novel where a scene is told from a haracter’s POV. That isnt a narrative voice speaking, it is a third person version of the character’ s voice. Complicated…

    • Would it be safe to say, Rob, that voice is the sum of all the choices made by the writer? No two writers approaching the same subject will have the same voice, unless one consciously adopts the stylistic voice of the other; in other words, while one can copy another’s voice, the writer who is working within his/her own gestalt automatically adopts a unique voice.
      That voice will appeal to one reader and not another, which is the intersection (or relationship) between writer and reader. Just as people may unconsciously prefer one person over another for a myriad of ‘reasons’ (which are not necessarily ‘reasonable’ or even capable of articulation), the reader filters voice through their own neural structures to arrive at a synthesis of meaning.
      This seems to me to be part of what McLuhan meant by ‘The medium is the message.”

  2. That’s true, but I think the narrator’s voice falls under the umbrella of the narrative voice. Think of the narrator’s voice in Nabokov’s Lolita. Humbert Humbert is telling one story, but Nabokov is saying something beyond what the narrator is telling us. Humbert’s voice is the tool that Nabokov uses to convey his own message.

  3. I often wonder about the idea of “voice,” because not only is it hard to define but it is also hard to know if you have found it. Is it a construct of the writer, and therefore inherently false, or is it touching that one part of the writer that is truly behind the story being told? Voice changes story to story in good writers, to match the characters and story, and yet in great writers like George Orwell and Graham Greene we completely forget about the voice because we’re so caught up in the story. I worry about voice every time I start writing, it’s part of the struggle of finding the story.

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