April 6, 2011

what is voice?

Voice is one of those enigmatic things in writing that evades understanding. When I pick up a book at Barnes & Noble, first the title or cover art grabs my attention. Then I read the cover flap, see if it’s something I would like reading. If so, I turn to the first page and start reading. Nine times out of ten, I put the book back after the first paragraph.


The voice captures my attention, or it doesn’t. The plot and characters could sound stellar, and if the voice manages to bring me in, then I’m likely to invest in the characters and their story. But as I said, most of the time, I put the book back. The story fails to impress.

Sometimes, I put the book back for having too many “was” and “were”s in the first paragraph. Not kidding.

So, what is voice? What is this mysterious, immeasurable thing that hooks me into a story?

For the longest time, I didn’t know the answer. I struggled to decipher books that I knew had great voices and apply those mechanics to my own writing, but I never saw the larger picture. I copied others’ styles and voices. I didn’t create my own. But how would I create a unique voice for my story if I had no idea what it was?

Here are the opening sentences for some of my favorite books:

Look, I didn’t want to be a half-blood.
If you’re reading this because you think you might be one, my advice is: close this book right now. Believe whatever lie your mom or dad told you about your birth, and try to lead a normal life.
Being a half-blood is dangerous. It’s scary. Most of the time, it gets you killed in painful, nasty ways.
The Lightning Thief – Rick Riordan

The year that Buttercup was born, the most beautiful woman in the world was a French scullery maid named Annette. Annette worked in Paris for the Duke and Duchess de Guiche, and it did not escape the Duke’s notice that someone extraordinary was polishing the pewter. The Duke’s notice did not escape the notice of the Duchess either, who was not very beautiful and not very rich, but plenty smart. The Duchess set about studying Annette and shortly found her adversary’s tragic flaw.
The Princess Bride – William Goldman

In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.
The Hobbit – J.R.R. Tolkien

The sun sets in the west (just about everyone knows that), but Sunset Towers faced east. Strange!
Sunset Towers faced east and had no towers. This glittery, glassy apartment house stood along on the Lake Michigan shore five stories high. Five empty stories high.
The Westing Game – Ellen Raskin

Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. They were the last people you’d expect to be involved in anything strange or mysterious, because they just didn’t hold with such nonsense.
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone – J.K. Rowling

In the land of Ingary, where such things as seven-league boots and cloaks of invisibility really exist, it is quite a misfortune to be born the eldest of three. Everyone knows you are the one who will fail first, and worst, if the three of you set out to seek your fortunes.
Howl’s Moving Castle – Diana Wynne Jones

Each of these openings has a unique voice. But again, what does that mean? I think I finally figured it out. Voice is equivalent to attitude. I don’t remember how this came to light, but somewhere in the last week, a bulb switched on with the ferocity of a billion-trillion lumens.

Now, that’s not to say the narrator has the attitude of a thirteen-year-old girl. It’s more of a perspective. If you noticed, each of these openings has a very opinionated perspective about something.

Percy Jackson thinks normal life is better than being a half-blood. William Goldman points out the most beautiful woman in the world and sets up her demise. Tolkien makes sure the reader knows that hobbit holes are not nasty. Ellen Raskin points out the strangeness of Sunset Towers. J.K. Rowling points out that the Dursley’s are normal. And the late Diana Wynne Jones shares the perspective that the eldest of three is the worst off, no matter what.

I think (I don’t know for sure), but I think that it’s this attitude, this perspective, that makes a voice what it is. So, to create your own voice, be opinionated.

Write with attitude.


  1. Hey, this is a really good idea. I've always struggled to explain to my family what voice is, and I've also wondered if I have it. What you've said gives me a lot to think about. Have I made my narrator more like a movie camera and less like a story teller?

  2. Attitude is a decent way to look at it. The author's tone and style play into it as filtered through the protagonist or any other character's point of view in the story.

    Quite often, voice refers to how the writer chooses to write--that which makes his or her prose identifiable.

    Nice post.


  3. Reece - my first novel turned into that. the novel WAS a movie camera, and there was no emotion or attitude or anything! i hope to one day fix it, but for now, i just have to step away.

    Malcolm - thanks for the comment! i think that the author's style definitely plays into it. the choice of tense and point-of-view is half the battle. but i think that there is that little bit extra, what you call tone, that makes it so much more. "tone" is such a dull word, and it doesn't really click with what voice feels like to me. "attitude" and "perspective" better describe it and capture what i think voice really is. some people may prefer "tone" and "style", or the term "voice" is plain and simple for them. i'm a bit thick-headed, so it took a while for me to understand this much. ;)

  4. I really, really have to work on my voice in my MIP.