Voice as a Way In

Voice is often associated with literary writing, but it plays a huge part in successful commercial and genre fiction as well. How we gain insight through voice alone can be especially enriching to more plot-driven work.

1. Voice communicates character

Think about how in a movie, actors and actresses convey character beyond the script. They use facial expressions, intonation, pauses, gestures, movement – not just their lines, but the way they speak their lines. Similarly, voice in a novel can give us words and texture, personality and state of mind. It can carry the weight of our characters’ histories and project their conflicted feelings: the vulnerability in arrogance, the toughness in pain. Voice gives us the opportunity to telegraph depth and complexity without losing pace.

2. Voice acts as a hook

You may otherwise have a very worthy novel, but if you don’t have voice, you may have trouble getting an agent past your first page. In contrast, a strong voice can act as a powerful hook all by itself. When we refer to a “hook,” we’re talking about what gets the readers’ attention in the opening of a story and makes them want to keep reading. To accomplish this, the voice should start right away – a well-voiced first sentence can be an especially strong way to open – and it should be distinctive, as well as hint at complication. Trouble should already be brewing. Main characters should be the product of their past, but you want to resist over-explaining it on the first page. Try instead to be intriguing, with secrets, mystery, irony or threat, or just the sense that there’s a lot to be resolved.

3. Voice sets up story

Voice is not just a character, but a character in a specific moment of his or her life. Voice can convey rueful experience, loss, doubt, bitterness, pushback, broken courage – the kind of inner conflict that sets up a story. Consider the brilliant first sentence of Shirley Jackson’s young adult mystery novel: We Have Always Lived in the Castle:

“My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all, I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the death-cup mushroom. Everyone else in our family is dead.”

In that brief paragraph, we get a flash of personality, looks, history, but even more: we get issues. A wish for dark power in someone pretty powerless, and a possibly unhealthy fascination with death.

4. Voice can expose low-insight characters

The concept of “insight” comes from psychiatry. It refers to how aware a patient is of his or her mental state. Both of the main characters in Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn have very little of this kind of insight. They each feel justified and right, and are pretty much blind to anything else. It’s up to the readers to perceive how messed up they are. The main way we do that is by hearing more in their voices than they think they’re telling us and seeing more in their actions than they think they’re revealing. Take this example with the character Amy (p 221):

“I grew up feeling special, proud. I was the girl who battled oblivion and won. The chances were about 1 percent, but I did it. I ruined my mother’s womb in the process – my own prenatal Sherman’s March. Marybeth would never have another baby. As a child, I got a vibrant pleasure out of this: just me, just me, only me.”

Talk about revealing. Voice becomes a vehicle for taking us deeper and increasing complexity, even when characters don’t want to let us inside.



Action and Reaction

Action drives so many of our stories these days. Films that leave us breathless, but also strangely unaffected. Dialogue reduced to pithy quips. Even novels, like a kind of sugar high, can kick up our adrenaline with action, but still fail to move us inside. Readers need to understand the main character’s feelings for there to be real stakes in the action. At the same time, if we get feelings without enough action, readers can start to detach. Compassion fatigue can set in. Characters have a tendency to get stuck if they’re not destabilized with outside events. Stories need both: external action and internal reaction. An ideal place to accomplish this is in scene.

1. Discovery

Scene is where things happen, not just for readers, but for us as we’re writing. Scene gives writers the opportunity to discover both action and reaction – to convert character issues into plot, and the reverse. For example, try confronting your main characters with things they’ve avoided. You may not know for sure how they’ll react until you write the scene. When you discover something in the moment of writing, the freshness of that discovery – its power to surprise and enliven – will be captured in the writing for the eventual reader as well. Even if you outline the overall plot of your novel, try to write scenes with openness toward what could happen, to encourage these discoveries.

2. Drama

Scene carries the immediacy that heightens drama and generates tension. The stakes are higher in scenes than in summary, because we have the sense of not knowing what could happen next. In summary, the writer cushions the blow. Scene gives us the most potential for rawness and risk.

3. Propulsive Power

A scene has natural propulsion – its very nature is to move forward in time. The clock ticks. We know where and when we are. Internal reactions can be interwoven in scene without losing pace. In contrast, extended interiors and summaries can shift us into a kind of timelessness. That’s part of the magic of writing, and something at which literary novels can shine, but scene helps to keep our stories on the move, while including both action and reaction.

4. Staging and Showing

Scene allows us to show reactions through staging: how close the characters stand, where and when they move, how they gesture, whether they touch. We can choreograph our scenes with a view to exposing interiors in an external way. Scenic elements can be used to augment a character’s internal thoughts, or even to reveal feelings of which a character is not yet aware. Telling details also come into this – how the point-of-view character sees and otherwise senses things in scene will be colored by his or her feelings.

5. Vivid Voicing

When characters do simply think their reactions, try to bracket phrases such as “I feel” and “she felt” in early drafts to see if you can convey those sentiments in a more vivid and original way. The rendering of thoughts can be a place for voice to shine. Don’t just tell us the character is happy – have the voice itself be happy. Use fragments, silly metaphors, goofy words, whatever seems authentic. And remember that moods can change. Be your own emotional continuity expert by keeping track of your characters’ preoccupations and the evolving feelings they bring to each scene.

6. Question of Grounding

A useful and revealing question to ask yourself is whether you see your novel as grounded in scene, with internal reactions and summaries interspersed, or whether you see your novel as grounded in the protagonist’s head, with scenes interspersed. I’m going to say to do one or the other. But I’d like to suggest that if you see it as grounded in scene, then what might need more attention are your internal reactions; and if you see it as grounded in the main character’s head, then what might need more attention are your scenes.

In the end, hard work on action-reactions will bring you closer to the truth of your characters. And keeping a strong connection between actions and reactions will act to intensify them both. The actions will carry more import and the reactions more potential for exposure. The stakes will continue to mount.



Best of Both Writing Workshop

Please join me at Off Campus Writers’ Workshop on April 20 and 27, 2017, from 9:30 a.m. to noon, for my workshop on Best of Both: Depth and Artistry with Plot (week one) and Plot and Pace with Depth (week two). Both sessions will be relevant to all kinds of writing, whether your work is more literary or more commercial.

Are you familiar with the hot topic of MFA vs NYC? It came out of an article that drew attention to the gap between the kind of literary writing that comes out of the MFA programs and the more plot-driven work that gets attention from agents in New York. My belief is that the way forward for us is MFA and NYC. To improve our work in both directions, so that our literary novels become more saleable without losing depth or artistry, and our well-plotted novels become more significant and profound without losing pace. To draw from the best of both – not only to stand out in a competitive publishing environment, but also to challenge and elevate our writing.

Topics in the first week will include plot for the non-plot driven novel, planning vs improvising, the propulsive power of scene, pace beyond plot, seamless backstory and interiors, the release of energy into action, and finding your hook. Topics in the second week will include voice as a way into depth for more plot-driven novels, the importance of emotional impact, telling details, the role of internal tension, movement with meaning, and finding your truth. I plan to conclude with advice about how to translate what you’ve accomplished to agents when you pitch your book, as well as the importance of always returning to what inspires you to write in the first place.

The workshop will take place at the Winnetka Community House, 620 Lincoln, in Winnetka, north of Chicago. Members: $10; nonmembers: $20. All are welcome. Members of OCWW may submit manuscripts in advance for critique by sending them by email to Manuscript Chair Susan Levi at 2012susanlevi@gmail.com no later than April 13 for week one and April 20 for week two (up to four manuscripts per week). Critique fees and guidelines are posted under Manuscripts on OCWW’s website .

I hope to see you there!