Last week, I wrote about That Voice in Your Head, concerning the mental condition of hearing voices and how we all may be on a spectrum for that phenomenon. Now I want to think about how a writer—or how I do, anyway—uses the voice that speaks from the mind to create a thought, a mood, a story setting, and narrative dialogue.
First of all, every writer soon or later finds his or her own “voice.” This is the unique, or mostly unique, or at least individual and comfortable way for the person to render prose. For most of us, it is not a conscious choice so much as “doing what comes naturally.” And this “natural” is based on the reading we’ve done, authors we’ve liked, and the authorial voices we’ve consciously tried to emulate. Because I favored English class in high school, taking two Advanced Placement courses in English rather than in history or math and science, and then chose English literature as my major in college, I had the opportunity to read across a wide field, from translations of the Greek playwrights and Italian poets to Chaucer, Shakespeare, other English poets, and novelists of the 18th and 19th century, as well as a handful from the 20th century. It’s also possible to study the language and focus on just American authors, from Hawthorne to Twain to Hemingway, but my courses stayed mostly with the English authors.1
What has that done to my writing, to my natural voice? Well, while I don’t favor (rather than “favour”) English spellings, I do notice a certain preference in word order, especially around adverbs.2 For example, if I am using a “helping verb”—and when you write in the past tense, as in most novels, their use abounds for shifts in temporal perspective—I am more likely to embed the adverb between the helper and the main verb than let it straggle along before or after the verb phrase. So, I will write: “He will certainly go,” rather than “He certainly will go.” That example may seem less direct, less forceful, and therefore a bit more English, but then … so be it. I will also choose a slightly more formal and structured language in general descriptions, and I will hesitate to leave out structurally necessary prepositions. For example, I will write: “all of the cats” rather than “all the cats.”
But language is flexible, speaking and writing have their own rhythms—especially when keeping to the meter of poetry—and every rule and habit was made to be broken.
When I was actively freelancing, supplementing my corporate income by writing one-off brochures and annual reports for other companies through a well-respected local communications agency, one of the principals there paid me the complement of saying I had mastered the “business friendly” voice. I never consciously studied that voice, but I know from the example of others who haven’t mastered it what this means. The business-friendly voice is formal, although it strategically uses contractions in order not to sound too stilted. It avoids harsh, direct statements, especially if the reader might take them to heart as directed at his or her own breast. So business-friendly is cushioned with words like “sometimes” and “often,” allowing the reader to imagine that what is being described as so might occasionally not be. Business-friendly uses the subjunctive mood a lot—putting difficult concepts in the realm of “might” and “could” and “would,” instead of the simple declarative of “is” and “is not.” Above all, the writer who uses business-friendly generally likes and trusts the people he or she is addressing, encourages their dreams and desires, and forgives their foibles and mistakes. The writer tries to be someone with whom the reader would like to have coffee and conversation, perhaps even a beer.3
But these voices, whether the “natural” one that a writer acquires through varied reading or the “business friendly” voice that one puts on for the sake of diplomacy and/or sales, are the background upon which a writer works for a specific effect in creating fiction.
My natural tendency, also a derivative of English literature, is to write in compound sentences and adopt parenthetic phrasing to acknowledge the occasionally lengthy detail, necessary explanation, and honest counter-example.4 While this may seem to inflate and extend the scope of my sentences, it really is a form of economy, of condensing my thought. Imagine if each parenthesis had to be set out as a sentence of its own, with a phrase referring back to its point of departure. Imagine if I laid out each sentence as a short, direct structure in the form of subject-verb-object and had to add the explanation of how one related to the next, rather than linking them into a logical flow. The writing would then be flat, plodding, dull, and not at all engaging. My natural tendency is to spin a web within which to catch your mind.
But not all the time.
While this seemingly meandering structure, filled with oxbow bends and tributaries like a great river of thought, is adequate for most narrative purposes, there are times when it just won’t do. Descriptions of action are one of those times. Then the pace quickens. Sentences unwind. Impressions flash by. The reader’s attention spins forward. The character hardly has time to breathe.
At a deeper level, when writing from the point of view of one character or another, I not only limit my narrative to the elements of the story that this person can know directly, remember from a prior conversation, or surmise using his or her own wits. More importantly, I try to shape the language into the character’s voice, picking up his or her cadence, sentence structure, and word choices. An abrupt or contentious character will use shorter sentences and more assertive verb forms. A studious or otherwise reflective but involved character will use more complex sentences, hypotheticals, and subjunctive verbs. A disagreeable character will express the story around himself largely in negatives; an anxious one, largely in fears. And so on. In this way, the writer adopts the skin and the mindset of the character as if speaking in the first person, but using the third person voice in an extended, almost subliminal form of indirect discourse.
And finally, when writing dialog, one compresses and compacts these tendencies. Speakers in a hurry chop out their sentences. Ones who don’t care—or don’t want to show that they care—speak more slowly and sometimes glide around a difficult point. Sometimes, too, a speaker will have a tic, like a speech impediment, or an accent, or an overuse—or absence—of contractions and elisions. It’s not a good idea to play with accents and tics too much, though, as the reader can get tired of wading through and interpreting the resulting dialogue. And after a while all over-played accents start to sound affected and ridiculous. The writer must be subtle and throw in just enough spice to flavor the meal without drowning out the story’s natural spirit and flow.5
But all of these techniques and tricks depend on how the writer hears that narrative voice inside his or her head. You can adopt some of them consciously, adding them like ingredients in a recipe. But it is only through practice—the essence of building your “natural” voice and its variations—that you can do the blending skillfully enough for it to fade into the background so that the story may step forth.
1. Of course, Hemingway had a big influence on my generation of writers, too. He inspired us to employ our perceptions and our language briskly, starkly, and actively. In my case, I also picked up from my reading in science fiction the cadences of Heinlein and Asimov, who always spoke in my head as a voice of reason flavored with wry humor.
2. Yes, I know, all the modern writing instructors caution you to avoid adverbs. While I try to avoid the overuse of adverbs—so that they pop out and proclaim themselves, always a bad thing—I respect all parts of speech and use them in their place.
3. Note the “with whom” there. More English formality, and it avoids the awkward, trailing thought in ending the sentence: “have coffee and conversation, perhaps even a beer, with.” Because I would rather cut off a finger than fail to close off that appositive about beer.
4. Such as the inserted “also a derivative …” in this sentence.
5. And never forget that for the span of time that the book is open on the reader’s lap and his or her eyes are scanning your prose, you are the voice speaking inside their head. If that voice is too strange or ridiculous, the spell will be broken and the reader will close the book.