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.



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.