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Friday, July 18, 2008

Voice - What Does That Even MEAN?

Voice. Doesn't it sound sort of pretentious and indefinable? Does your writing have a "voice"? Can "voice" be taught? Where does it come from? What exactly does it even mean, really?

Voice in your writing - whether that's screenwriting, poetry, prose or non-fiction writing like essays, memoirs or articles, refers to a particular, unique style in the writing. It means that no one but you could have written the material in question because it has a particular rhythm, point of view and flavor.

It's still a little ineffable until we think about writing examples which (purposely) are totally devoid of "voice". When is the last time you read the newspaper, for example? This is straight journalism - you aren't intended to identify with the writer, just to glean the facts. What about National Geographic Magazine? Anyone still read that besides the Wave-inatrix? Last month's article about the Altiplano in Bolivia was fact-filled and...fact filled. Because, again, in venues such as those, voice is not the point. I don't exactly want my doctor's "voice" in his prescriptions, know what I mean? I want the facts. Same with the grocery list. Or analytic piece in the Atlantic Monthly about whatever happened to Hilary Clinton. Of course, there are brilliant non-fiction writers who lightly combine voice with fact but let's set that aside for the moment for the sake of simplicity. Ahem.

When writing prose, voice is indispensable. It is the delivery system for the story, without which one is reading a third rate pulp romance novel. Does Danielle Steele have a "voice"? Not so much. And, by the way, the Wave-inatrix feels pretty confident that my theory that Steele employs a cadre of mini-Steeles who churn out her books is not a myth - in the same way that Nancy Drew author Carolyn Keene was like, in fact, eighteen people. But I digress.

So - what is voice? How do you know if you have one or not? Can you download one on your iPod?

Voice is something that takes time to develop. The Rouge Wave is written in a voice, is it not? Those who know the Wave-inatrix personally know that the voice with which I write the Rouge Wave is not terribly different from my own. But it's still a voice. And not the same voice I employ when I write scripts, short stories or stern notes left behind for the Mini-W.

It is a conscious choice used to evoke a specific tone and reader reaction. But - voice is also a paradox - it is both conscious and unconscious - it is who the writer unapologetically is and it is also a way to evoke a specific reaction to the writing. It is a tool and a gift. A scalpel and an aura. An eclair with cream filling.

And that, dear Wavers, gets us down to the heart of the matter. How does one go about obtaining a voice? So often, new writers and particularly new screenwriters become, and rightly so, very pedantic about the craft of screenwriting itself. So pedantic that they are more concerned about getting it right than just letting loose and being themselves. If there's one thing most readers LOVE in a script - it's voice. It's the writer who lets loose a bit and is fearless in the writing.

However, particularly relative to screenwriting, voice is dessert while execution is the vegetables. By execution/broccoli I mean that voice will get you exactly nowhere in a script if you don't have an excellent premise, tight structure, proper action lines and unique characters with a distinct arc. So yes, you really do need to nail the craft before you start popping wheelies with voice. But be thinking about it now - be developing your voice alongside your craft skill set. Who are you? We know that writers are liars, thieves, truth tellers and magicians. We illuminate, we entertain, we provoke and we reflect ourselves back to ourselves. We are living proof both that no two people are alike and yet - we are all one.

Don't hold back - develop your voice and do it now. Because voice is indeed something that cannot be taught - only unleashed.

Here is a very short list of fiction writers, in no time/date order, who have made a living and a contribution to the medium with fearless VOICE.

Garrison Keillor
Raymond Chandler
Dave Eggers
Jonathan Safran Foer
TC Boyle
Stephen King
PG Wodehouse
Evelyn Waugh
Truman Capote
Flannery O'Connor
Sherman Alexie
Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Tim O'Brien

And here is a very short list of screenwriters who have distinctive voices:

Quentin Tarrantino
Richard Linklater
John August
Chuck Palahniuk
Kevin Smith
Diablo Cody
Shane Black

So - what's your voice? Who are you? Where are you from? Where are you going? What is your opinion about things large and small like love, death, betrayal, growing up, dope smoking, bike riding, mothers, fathers and easter egg hunts?

Don't make the mistake of trying to please everyone with your point of view. Develop a voice that is totally distinctive. Just effing entertain us. And maybe teach us a little something, too.

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PJ McIlvaine said...

Another great post, Miss Cupcake. Voice is to a writer as a fingerprint is to CSI. Everyone has a voice, everyone has fingerprints---but voice and fingerprints are unique to oneself. No two people will have the same voice or fingerprints.

So it is with a writer's voice. A writer an mimic another's style or voice...but that's all it is. A fake, a forgery, a sham, a phoney.

Clear your throat and let your voice sing! And if somebody feels threatned by that, then you're on the right track.

I had a good friend once say to me that when he reads my scripts, he knows damn well it's a PJ McIlvaine script. Because of my, dare I say it...voice?

You can get away with many things, but faking voice is not one of them. It's like faking an orgasm, sooner or later your partner will figure it out.

JPS said...

Years ago, when I was living in England, BBC Radio 3 ran a series called "Finding a Voice". Each thirty-minute segment was devoted to a single writer who talked about how he or she became the writer so easily identifiable by readers. In nearly every case (and including such writers as Doris Lessing, William Trevor, and an acquaintance of mine, Beryl Bainbridge, who possesses one of the great voices of modern fiction), he or she talked about how their voice became their own only over time and years of writing. As most of them put it, voice was a combination of the writer's background, education, class (this was England, after all, and class is very important), accent--the rhythm of the language used at home and among friends was key to how their voices developed (Beryl, being a Liverpool girl, sounded just like one on the page)--and, finally, style, that one big thing that really does grow over time.

A literary critic once wrote that when he was young he wrote a piece of fiction and showed it to his mentor. He said, "Who does this sound like?" "Well, it sounds a little like Hemingway and a lot like Beckett. Show me your stuff when it starts to sound like you." It took him, he said, another five years before he dared show his mentor his work. And by, then, of course, it sounded like him alone, and no one else.

Julie Gray said...

Great comment, JP! Which prose writers are your favorites in terms of voice? I know I hogged some of the greats on my list and I know we share a similar taste but I bet you could add to this list!

Chris said...


Do you find that different writers have different voices for different scripts? I've noticed that I have one voice that's a little more breezy and irreverent for comedic stuff. With drama, it's more straightforward and to the point. Do you think a writer's voice should be consistent across genre, even if it might be somewhat incongruent depending on the subject matter?

Julie Gray said...

That's a great question, Chris. I can only answer for myself which is to agree with you - the voice with which I write comedy is almost polar opposite from the voice I use when I write thriller. And my short fiction blows people away because it's usually quite sad and reflective. If you read the RW often, you'd NEVER in a million years guess you were reading the same writer. So I say follow your voice where it leads you. For some writers, cross-genre writing might evoke the same voice - definitely not true for me.

JPS said...

You know me well, Julie, as your sometimes co-writer, so you know something of my voice. I've been writing so long that my influences have all been subsumed, I hope.

I like a whole range of writers' voices, from Philip Roth to Proust to Kafka and Tolstoy; from Jean-Patrick Manchette to Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh. Depends on my mood. These days I do a great deal of rereading, so I get to revisit those voices I've always liked so much.

Beryl Bainbridge, mentioned in my post, has one of the most distinctive and wonderful voices in modern fiction. All of these writers are one with their voice; meaning that without voice there is no story, as both are welded tightly together: voice is the story, in fact.

I find that even when I'm writing prose that's in a different genre from what I'm used to writing, my voice is recognizably mine, which is the goal of all writers, I should think. What changes is the rhythm, the vocabulary, the imagery or lack of same.

When I'm writing fiction, especially, I try to avoid reading fiction, unless it's in French (so if I'm influenced very few would notice it!). My scripts, too, have a certain offhand quality to them, with characters who tends to stand at a certain angle to the universe. Without that angle, and without the shadow that character casts, my voice is mute.

geomom said...

One of the joys of having children who are READERS is to read wonderful children's literature with them! So many perfectly wonderful voices--my two current favorites are Daniel Pinkwater and Lemony Snicket. Those are Voices :-)

Luzid said...

I cannot believe you left out Joss Whedon! :o

(No, I'm not a hyper-obsessed Browncoat - just a fan. But he's so good!)

Interesting topic. I recently did some notework with Pilar Alessandra, and the area I was most nervous about, that I felt was my biggest gamble, was voice - which she appeared to really love.

Taking chances can pay off, if you let it!