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.



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!



Tension in the Telling Tension Series Part 6

Tension is key to how we bring readers to care about our characters and what happens in our stories. That tension begins with character and gets expressed and magnified in plot, but the way we tell our stories is every bit as important. To complete my series on tension, I’d like to highlight some of the storytelling techniques that may be exploited as part of the overall orchestration of tension.

1. Writing in Scene

Writing in scene means something is taking place right in front of us, and we don’t know where it will lead. We have the most rawness and risk. This is true for the writer originally as well as for the reader: scene pushes us to discover our characters’ reactions in the moment. When events occur off-stage or in summary, we’re more shielded from uncertainty and the tension that goes with it. Scenes encourage us to show rather than tell and to make the fullest use of plot devices such as time pressure and suspense. (See Dynamic Tension in Plot.)

Despite the advantages of scene, summary may at times enhance the tension. It can help to avoid losing focus or dragging down the pace. To choose between scene and summary in a given instance, your sense of tension can help you decide. Sometimes a quick summary will better sustain the tension in your story’s forward line.

2. Emotional Impact

If your protagonist seems unaffected by what’s happening in the plot, then the tension dissipates. Why should readers care if the characters don’t? Donald Maass writes eloquently about the importance of including emotions in fiction in Third Level Emotions on Writer Unboxed. As you write, you need to keep asking yourself: how does my point-of-view character feel? Then you want to look for ways to convey that in story, including the techniques mentioned below and elsewhere on this blog. (See The Things We Carry.) For more, check out Don’s book, The Emotional Craft of Fiction: How to Write the Story Beneath the Surface, and Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi’s The Emotion Thesaurus.

3. Activating the Senses

Sensory details provide the most visceral experience of tension. We can use them to increase the tension in our characters and readers simultaneously. What is being seen, heard, touched, smelled, and tasted? Keep in mind that what we want readers to share is the filtered experience: details that give us insight into a character’s feelings, as well as bringing home the larger forces of tension at play in character and plot. If your protagonist is angry, then the food might taste awful. Or if the food tastes good, then the angry character might have trouble choking it down. Readers will pick up on that choking sensation on a physical level and share in the tension that triggers it.

4. Staging and Gestures

How close we stand and whether we touch are other physical clues that can affect readers directly. Do the characters keep a certain distance? What happens when they break it? What gestures do they make without being fully aware? Literary editor, writer and teacher, Fred Shafer likes to ask writers, “Where are their hands?” How we move is revealing of how we feel, and can be a nuanced way to convey tension without wordy explanations. (See Movement with Meaning.)

5. Setting and Objects

The larger environment of your novel should reflect the protagonist’s fears and what he or she has to conquer, but within each scene, subtle aspects of setting can add to the tension. The closeness of a room, the atmosphere, the weather, the amount of light and noise, even the nature of objects. “Objective correlative” means that perceptions of objective things are colored by the feelings of the point-of-view character. If that protagonist of yours is still angry, then the furniture might be hard, the weather bleak. If it’s sunny, then it could be painfully bright. (See The Things We Carry.) The concept here is telling details. Details that tell us important things.

Also note that some objects are inherently loaded with tension: guns, knives, diaries, secret letters. Or writers can choose to load an object with meaning, such as Donna Tartt does with the painting in The Goldfinch. Acuteness of observation all by itself has a way of bringing things into focus and making them matter to readers. We listen harder when the details get crisp.

6. Poetic Power

Metaphors, imagery, and other figurative language can augment tension because of the associations they bring up in readers’ minds. A bird with a broken wing has meaning for us all. Writers can also infuse images with story-specific significance to carry import and tension from one point to another. Either approach can have the effect of exploding with meaning – the way sudden insight expands our vision.

7. Narrative Techniques

Readers can pick up on tension that is outside the protagonist. In first person, the protagonist may have blind spots or a certain obtuseness – he or she may report things, but not fully see. In third person restricted, this can go even further: even a virtually invisible narrator can include actions of which the protagonist is barely conscious, which can be quite revealing. In third person omniscient, this can go farthest of all – we can know thoughts in one head that are a complete mystery to another. But the trade-off in terms of tension can be the dispersal of identification. Readers may not as fully invest themselves on an emotional level with a series of point-of-view characters as they would with one.

When working with tension outside the protagonist, writers should try to reread their work with different experiences in the forefront. Read first for tension shared with the protagonist, then read again for all-inclusive tension. You never want to skip the former because you need to be sure to track how the protagonist is feeling throughout. A common error in genre fiction is for the writer to read only for overall tension. The protagonist can end up seeming relatively unaffected inside, as if he or she is shallow or amnesic. Good genre fiction has characters with authentic feelings.

8. Rhythm of Language

The rhythm of language itself makes a huge difference, both in creating tension and in sustaining it. Think of the oral storytelling tradition: holding an audience spellbound is about how a story is told as well as what is said. (See Making a Moment Count.) The words we choose and how we order them create a kind of music that contributes hugely to our experience of tension. These rhythms reach readers directly, akin to sensory data and figurative language.

The trick here is to match the rhythms of language to your intent. For example, try short, quick sentences for the kind of tension that goes with action. Experiment with sentence fragments when a character is under the most pressure. Try the probing quality of an extended sentence when the tension is mounting internally as a character moves toward unwelcome truth. Use the ends of paragraphs to leave a lasting impression. Held notes vs staccato. But don’t be afraid to mix it up either. The best music has variety as well as harmony, surprise as well as balance.

9. Final Thoughts

Because of the way tension resides in our guts, a range of sources can contribute. But as writers, we always need to exert some control. We want our instruments to be harmonizing – our subtler sources of tension to complement the larger ones. In addition, less is needed to sustain tension than to create it. Small content- or sensory-based hints will keep hearts thumping.

We also need to be careful of overwriting for tension. Restraint works better than hyperbole. Histrionics can turn readers off. Rather than forcing a moment to be bigger with lots of showy adjectives and adverbs, try to build your way up with strong verbs and specific nouns. Listen as you write to see what affects you the most. When you’re not writing, read books known for their powerful writing and learn from them.

Remember, too, that pace is different from tension. Tension can be slow, inexorable, quiet – too quiet. Hearing the machinery click in an empty room. Letting the pace slow doesn’t mean you have to lose tension. Details stand out that we didn’t notice before. In this way, a moment can take on significance and seem to enlarge. It can become a place for increased focus and sharpened perception.

Most of all, trust your gut. These are the kind of decisions that artists make. You’re an artist. This is what artists do.

My Tension Series examines the many opportunities for tension in fiction and ways to exploit and combine them, beginning with Tension: The Secret to Storytelling and concluding with this post.