Still thinking about openings and what makes a great one.

Apart from launching straight into the action and coming up with an intriguing opening line the other essential is a strong voice. If you can start right from the beginning with a unique and consistent voice you have a much better chance of hooking the reader and compelling them to continue.

So what is this elusive thing called voice and how can you establish it?

Every person has their own distinctive voice – their own way of speaking and saying things. If you listen to three different people telling the same story they will all tell it in a different way. The word choice, the length of the sentences, the bits they choose to leave out or exaggerate – all these elements will vary according to the character of the person speaking. The same is true of writing. Each writer has their own way of telling a story and their own way of seeing the world and it is this unique perspective along with the individual writing style that creates voice.

Take a look at these examples:

His eyes still shut, a dream dissolving and already impossible to recall, Hector’s hand sluggishly reached across the bed. Good. Aish was up. He let out a victorious fart, burying his face deep into the pillow to escape the clammy methane stink. I don’t want to sleep in a boy’s locker room, Aisha would complain on the rare, inadvertent moments when he forgot himself in front of her. Through the years he had learned to rein his body in, to allow himself to only let go in solitude; pissing and farting in the shower, burping alone in the car, not washing or brushing his teeth all weekend when she was away at conferences. (The Slap,  Christopher Tsiolkas)

‘Why are you talking about men and how smart they are?’ was one of the first things Sonia Kaufman had said to Ruth Rothwax when they met about ten years ago. ‘Why are you talking about men and how smart they are? You should be talking about menopause. It’s looming.’ It had made Ruth laugh. Ruth and Sonia were the same age. Fifty-four. Both had grown up in Australia but had met in New York. Sonia was an intellectual property lawyer for a large law firm. her husband was a senior partner in the same firm. (You Gotta Have Balls, Lily Brett)

I wish Giovanni would kiss me.

Oh, but there are so many reasons why this would be a terrible thing. To begin with, Giovanni is ten years younger than I am, and – like most Italian guys in their twenties – he still lives with his mother. These facts alone make him an unlikely romantic partner for me, given that I am a professional American woman in my mid-thirties, who has just come through a failed marriage and a devastating, interminable divorce, followed immediately by a passionate love affair that ended in sickening heartbreak. This loss upon loss has left me feeling sad and brittle and about seven thousand years old. (Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert)

Even apart from the subject matter none of these could be mistaken for the other. The choice of words, the way the sentences are put together, the sensibility of  the speaker are all different. Some writers will have a voice that is so unique that it can be identified within a few sentences. Others have a more neutral voice or at least one that is not so obvious.

Is the writer’s voice the same as the narrator’s voice?

In the case of a memoir the answer would be yes. The writer is telling us about her own experiences just as she would be if we were sitting down to lunch. But for fiction the answer is no, not always. It depends on the point of view you choose. Of course the writer is the one who decides which words to put on the page and how to go about telling the story but this will all be filtered through the consciousness of the narrator.

If you are writing in the first person the voice will be that of your main character (or whoever is telling the story). You need to have a clear understanding of how your protagonist speaks and how he sees the world, what he would choose to tell us and what he would leave out, as well as how he perceives the other characters and the situations in which he finds himself. You need to know him inside and out so the voice in which he speaks is authentic. In the case of first person narration the writer’s voice is heavily disguised by the voice of the narrator.

In third person limited narration, where the story is told by an outside narrator but through the consciousness of the protagonist (or another character) the writer’s voice and the narrator’s voice are blended. The reader will experience some events through the mindset of the protagonist and others from the pov of the narrator but there is no definite distinction between the two as the narrative unfolds.

In third person omniscient narration, or in second person narration,  the voice of the outside narrator will be clear. The story teller may be the writer or it could be a persona created by the writer in which case the voice will again reflect the character of that narrator.

So how do you develop your voice?  Every writer has a voice – it’s just a matter of uncovering it and the best way to do this is by freewriting. Write without censoring or editing or blocking. Don’t be afraid to say just what you want to say the way you want to say it. Don’t try to write like someone else. just write and let the words flow and see what comes out. 

In the words of writing guru Donald Maas:

To set your voice free, set your words free. Set your characters free. Most important, set your heart free. It is from the unknowable shadows of your subconscious that your stories will find their drive and from which they will draw their meaning. No one can loan you that or teach you that. Your voice is your self in the story. (Writing The Breakout Novel, Donald Maas)

What are your thoughts on voice and how to find it?

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