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!



The Things We Carry

Unlike personality, state of mind is constantly changing. But that doesn’t happen in a vacuum, not for people and not for characters. How we feel in any given instance is a complex interaction of who we are, what we face, and what we carry with us: our recent experiences, our relevant past, our concerns, our hopes and our fears. Progressing and expressing state of mind is critical to generating tension in fiction, as well as to forging an emotional connection with readers. However, simply stating how a character feels invites incredulity, and dumping a load of back story can undermine the forward action of a piece. Writers must look for more artful ways to convey what their characters carry.

1. Triggers for Memory

If your character was previously traumatized in a way that has significance for the present story, he or she will need to share those difficult memories, but only as they press upon the character’s mind. Relevance is key to building tension. Events in the present, even images or smells, can be used to trigger a vivid recollection of the past. Such memories are best shared in scene, so that readers can experience them along with the character. The Hundred Secret Senses by Amy Tan is a good example of how even extensive secrets of the past can be revealed in ways that enhance rather than dissipate tension.

2. Wear the Scars

A character who was raped should act like someone who was raped, even if the readers don’t know it. Same with other wounds, both psychic and real. Ernest Hemingway was a great believer in leaving his characters’ past in the past, but they wear their scars in how they behave. In The Sun Also Rises, Jake has clearly been injured in the war, but we don’t know much more than that; still, we ache when we see him and Lady Brett unable to consummate their love and overpowering attraction. His stoicism makes it impossible for him as a character to share more or even complain, but that only makes us as readers all the more empathetic.

3. Invest the Past in the Present

In The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, the loss of the main character’s mother at the beginning is tied up with his clinging to the painting of a goldfinch. When he laboriously wraps it in duct tape in a sad attempt to protect it, we’re reminded of the bombing that almost destroyed it and took his mother away. The trauma in the earlier part of the book has been invested in something that’s part of the real-time story, so that the reader carries it forward along with the character.

4. Objective Correlatives

Objective correlative is a fancy term for saying that perceptions are colored by feelings. If your point-of-view character is angry, the furniture looks hard, the food tastes bad, and the weather seems bleak. If it happens to be raining, all the better; if it happens to be sunny, then it’s painfully bright. This holds true whether you’re writing in first person or close third: we see everything, even solid objects, through the filter of the character’s state of mind. Your choice of telling details also comes into this – what you include should be guided by what would be most revealing of the character at that moment.

5. Figurative Language

Imagery and metaphor can reflect a character’s state of mind and keep it present for readers going forward. Figurative language can even amplify and deepen a character’s concerns. In Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann, the tightrope walker suspended impossibly high above them acts to unite the disparate characters, both literally and figuratively, as the reader grasps that in a sense they’re all walking a high thin wire. It is an aspect of state of mind that they share.

6. Intuition

Most important of all, writers need to use their intuition. (See Writing as a Full Body Experience.) They must internalize their main character’s state of mind to find the most real and honest reactions they can. We’ve all read books in which the main character seems to be suffering from sudden amnesia. If something big happens, it should impact the character’s feelings. We expect there to be cause and effect. To progress and convey the things that characters carry inside them, writers must first carry them inside themselves.