The Golden Voice - Do You Have it?
by Sheri Gilbert
The subject has been debated a thousand times over in authors' round table discussions. What is the single most defining ingredient to an exceptional manuscript? What makes an editor or agent say, "This is the one!" while they snatch up the phone and punch in your number?
Some say it's the intricate weaving of plot and subplotsa story telling ability that hooks readers from page one
Or, perhaps it's the nature of the characters themselves: stunningly original, quirky or unique
Could be its highly fleshed-out tension and conflict within a brilliant, descriptive setting
As writers we realize that great stories incorporate all these elements, BUT there is a key, an essential element, that many people overlook, simply because it is so hard to pinpoint and/or define. This isthe author's Golden Voice.
What is Voice?
I have found that the best introduction to the distinct flavor of excellent voice, is reading the opening tidbits from the masters of 'voice' themselves.
From Newbery Award winning author Jerry Spinelli's, "Maniac Magee:"
"They say Maniac Magee was born in a dump. They say his stomach was a cereal box and his heart a sofa spring."
From the undisputed master of horror, author Stephen King's, "The Stand:"
"Hapsomb's Texaco sat on the US 93 just north of Arnette, a pissant four-street burg about 110 miles from Houston."
Or, from exceptionally popular author J. K. Rowling's, "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone:"
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."
What do all these books have in common? Original, unique, sum-it-up from the get-go, voice. Where does this 'voice' come from? Nine times out of ten, voice originates from the main character, his thoughts, perceptionsinner personalitybut that's only one aspect. As in the examples above, the way in which the author dictates how the reader will interpret the tone and flavor of the story and its characters, are what truly define voice.
What gives "Maniac Magee" a strong voice?
1. Bold, in-your-face comparison phrases - "born in a dump" - "stomach as a cereal box" - "heart a sofa spring" (which continues throughout the book)
2. Strong imagery
We realize right away that the story is being told by an omniscient narrator. It's his voice that will form our perceptions of the settings, characters and mood.
And in Stephen King's "The Stand?"
1. Instant, graphic, intimate views of the inner workings of his characters lives.
2. The 'every man' portrayal
This is a constant in King's work. A vital component that latches onto a readers attention like a writhing tentacle that never goes limp.
Although each story may contain subtle alterations in a writer's voice, in most cases there will be an underlying thread unique to that author that runs through each piece, identifying its maker, and if done well, galvanizing a readership.
How to find the right 'voice' for your story
Knowing your main character more intimately can help 'draw out' that voice and give it life. If you haven't already done so, do a character sketch, jot down character essentials and quirks: where they live - their favorite subject in school - hobbies - siblings - favorite types of music - likes and dislikes, etc. Once that is done, you might also consider interviewing your character. This is an excellent way to begin feeling out your character's unique voice. Let the character speak directly to the interviewer. This is a very telling exercise, as quirks and opinions you had no idea your character possessed may surface! Also, if you get stuck, go back to the character sketch and pick out essential elements of the character that may impact voice. For example, is the character belligerent, timid or blunt? Certain obvious qualities in your character should 'stand out' as you write, and in turn, affect the voice.
Looking to real life
models can also help a writer develop a unique voice for their story. If you can,
search out and study a personality that closes matches that of your view point character.
If your MC is an outgoing child, take the time to listen and observe a child of this
nature. Listen to the tone and even the timbre of their voice, their word choices AND
their mannerism for clues to help you further define and create a compelling image of your
MC. All this can lend to the authenticity and impact of voice in your story.
Role playing is another tool to use when searching for the 'voice' of your story. You can do this either on-line, or in person with a critique buddy. Interact AS your main character, using your MC's voice and perceptions for a predetermined length of time. Using instant message rooms or chat rooms, works well for this exercise, providing you, once again, with a chance to develop your character's voice freely, without any thought to plot, scene or story direction.
Once you have an idea what makes up good voice, and how you might achieve it, it's time to look at your work with a critical eye. Your voice should be apparent to the reader in that first paragraph, not a chapter or two later. That's too late to capture a reader's interest, especially an agent or editor's! It should convey in a sentence or two, what the reader might expect from your story: