Fine-Tune Your Storytelling Voice and Make Your Book Stand Out from the Crowd

by Marylee MacDonald in For Writers Doing Revisions

Finding the right storytelling voice has launched the career of many a novelist. In this post I’m going to talk about how to discover where your voice is strongest and how you can build from there.

In a previous post, I provided a word cloud so that you could begin thinking about voice. Even with that word cloud, I find it hard to sum up what makes a voice unique, and I imagine you do, too. Let’s start by taking a look at a few more voices.

The storytelling voices below are American voices, written in the American vernacular–common speech that’s not gussied up by a lot of high-toned, Latin words.

Tom and Huck American voice of Mark Twain

Tom and Huck from an 1886 version of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Image from Open Clip Art via

  • “You don’t know about me, without you have read a book by the name of ‘The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, but that ain’t no matter.” (Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn)
  • “All this happened, more or less.” (Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five)
  • “First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross carried letters from a girl named Martha, a junior at Mt. Sebastian College in New Jersey.” (Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried)

Notice that the writers aren’t trying too hard. They don’t pile on adjectives. They don’t strain to make their words “important” or “poetic.” It’s as if a real person has seated himself next to you and begun to tell his story. “Listen to this. You’re not going to believe what happened.”

A storytelling voice is urgent. The voice buttonholes you until you listen. If the voice captures your attention, you will.

What Constitutes Voice?

The words we use to describe voice have to do with emotion. Because of that, most of the words in my word cloud are “feelings” words. In his brilliant book of essays, The Art of Substext: Beyond Plot, Charles Baxter talks about the nuances of intonation that make us worry, wonder, or stand agape.

We humans are attuned to listening for the emotional undercurrents in conversation. It’s not so much what someone says as how they say it.

When we read, we’re doing the very same thing. We’re subconsciously listening for the feelings.

103827 voice in fiction

If you were in a high school English class and learning about “voice” in fiction, the teacher might talk about diction, syntax, tone, and imagery. Image from Iconfinder

Unfortunately, knowing that “voice” is about feelings will not take us very far when it comes to revising our own novels. We need to know how to create those feelings in our readers. As writers we can do that only one way: with words and sentences.

I’m going to go into “English teacher mode” for just a minute, and say that “voice” has four components:

  • Diction
  • Syntax
  • Tone
  • Imagery

Diction is the unique way the voice speaks to us. It’s Yoda saying, “Hungry, am I” rather than “I am hungry.”

In a novel the voice may come from the unique diction of a single character or the diction that belongs to a novel’s narrator: authoritative, deadpan, or driven. However the book speaks to us, the choice of words and phrases”voice” in fiction stands apart from the words and phrases one sees in high school and college essays.

Expository essays generally have little or no voice. They’re fact-based and arranged to present a logical argument. They’re often grammatically simple and repetitive—subject-verb-object, perhaps with a subordinating clause thrown in for variety. In expository writing the sentences are flat and declarative.

In contrast, emotion suffuses the sentences in fiction. In my previous post I used an example from Orientation. The story’s flat, affectless sentences are like those found in office memos. In a sense, they’re as flat as those in most essays; however, they’re perfect for that story. The diction itself triggers the reader’s emotional response: revulsion.

Syntax means that the author has consciously shaped the sentences. The rhythms of the sentences please the reader’s inner ear. That’s surely evident in Justin Torres’s sentences in We The Animals, in Jayne Anne Phillips’ novel Quiet Dell, or Billy Lombardo’s short story,“Love Will Not Save You.” (Read a page or two from each of these examples.) All three authors have thought about the word order, length, and punctuation of their sentences. They’ve considered whether the sentences have a beat too many or just the right number of beats.

Tone is attitude. It’s the narrator’s (or author’s) implied attitude toward her subject and audience. Sometimes, we authors feel that we’re writing from our highest and best selves. We’re wiser than we knew we were, and when we read our words, we’re surprised that we could have written them. That’s the case in my story, “Bonds of Love & Blood,” cited below. In the circled paragraph, the tone is one of yearning for a connection with family, and perhaps a yearning for childhood innocence.

Imagery is the verbal representation of all five senses: sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell. If the reader sees how a character is “processing” his environment, the reader will feel closer to or further away from the character. Even if the reader doesn’t like how the character is talking–let’s say he’s a liar, as in Max Frisch’s I’m Not Stiller–the reader will keep reading if the author has put enough detail and attitude in the language.

By playing with voice, the author can help the reader completely imagine who is talking, what they’re seeing, and where they are. In “Orientation,” for instance, the reader can well imagine the poor, new employee, even though she or he doesn’t utter a single word.

Voice Emerges From the Subconscious

voice in Bonds of Love & Blood

I’m circling the passage in my short story, “Bonds of Love & Blood,” because I felt that it was in this passage that I most deeply connected to the emotion and yearning of the narrative voice. At other times this narrator seems disengaged or indifferent, but right here, in the sentence rhythms, that’s where her pain leaks out.

Previously, I asserted that the above four words–diction, syntax, tone, and imagery–are words English teachers might use. However, in my experience as a writer, those words won’t help you when you’re in the midst of a creative firestorm. No. When you’re writing, you’re not picking apart your sentences. You’re just getting them down on paper.

Fortunately, when you’ve put your book aside for awhile, you will have an opportunity to read your pages with greater objectivity (or the way the “English teacher” might read them). Read quickly and with a marker. Look for places the words rise up and strike at the heart of your story. Listen for sentence rhythms that evoke feeling. (Whatever else voice is about, it is primarily concerned with emotion.) Circle those sections where the voice feels true. You will know when you’ve “got it right.” (And, by the way, don’t think this is something you can rely on a developmental editor to do. You’re the author. You have the deepest emotional connection with your material and, thus, the deepest investment in getting it right.)

How to Use Those Circled Passages

Look at the passages you circled. Why do those passages resonate with you? Here are questions to consider.

  • Is the imagery strong?
  • Does the vocabulary seem perfect for the story?
  • Have you hit upon a pleasing sentence rhythm?
  • Does the tone capture the menace or whimsy of the story?
  • Is the voice unique? (Let’s not all copy the voice in J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher In the Rye, but the first few sentences of that book provide another good example of voice-driven fiction.)

Wherever a passage works, use the word cloud to fine-tune your understanding of the story’s emotional undercurrents. If you can find three or four words that “sum up” the voice, you will have gained insight into what you’ve written. You may also be able to find other places to make your story even more “voice-driven.”Jacob de Zoet voice

An Example from David Mitchell

Let’s take a brief passage from David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de  Zoet.

Gulls wheel through spokes of sunlight over gracious roofs and dowdy thatch, snatching entrails at the marketplace and escaping over cloistered gardens, spike-topped walls, and triple-bolted doors. Gulls alight on whitewashed gables, creaking pagodas, and dung-ripe stables; circle over towers and cavernous bells and over hidden squares where urns of urine sit by covered wells, watched by mule drivers, mules, and wolf-snouted dogs, ignored by hunchbacked makers of clogs; gather speed up the stoned-in Nakashima River and fly beneath the arches of its bridges, glimpsed from kitchen doors, watched by farmers walking high, stony ridges.

Mitchell, David. The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet: A Novel (p. 480). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Look at Mitchell’s use of active verbs. Gulls “wheel,” “snatch,” and “escape.” Look at the imagery of thatch and dung-ripe stables and urns of urine. Pretty terrific on the imagery front, I’d say. If we search the word cloud, we might fasten on “old-fashioned” or “wise” or “authoritative.”

Now, look at the sentence structure and all those phrases set off by semicolons. Each snippet contains action and imagery. The sentence construction allows Mitchell to pile one image on other. He keeps going for another page. Mitchell scores extra points for his period phrasing. Truly, this voice gives us a “bird’s eye” view of Nagasaki.

How Can You Improve the Voice in Your Work?

Develop a vocabulary list that’s unique to your novel. If you’re writing historical fiction, then read books of that time period, but don’t slavishly try to replicate period diction. Here’s how Mitchell puts it:

To a degree, the historical novelist must create a sort of dialect— I call it “Bygonese”— which is inaccurate but plausible. Like a coat of antique-effect varnish on a new pine dresser, it is both synthetic and the least-worst solution.

Mitchell, David. The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet: A Novel . Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

I like Mitchell’s term “Bygonese.” It perfectly describes the voice he’s developed for his novel, but it also suggests that all of us who write ought to develop a syntax, diction, and tone that’s unique to our projects. If an author found herself writing a novel about a teenage girl whose mother picks one bad boyfriend after another, then that novel’s voice might be called “Teenagese.” Maybe it’s snarky and put-upon. Maybe it’s adult-like because such a child might have been expected to take on adult responsibilities. Or, if an author were delving into the collapsed dreams of a young mother whose handsome husband is addicted to internet porn, the language of that novel might be called “Desperate Housewifese.”

I hope these hints will help you think about voice for your novel-in-progress. Voice is not the last thing you should think about. As you can see from the examples above, voice often begins with the very first sentence. For more on “voice,” go here.

I’d love to know how you’re dealing the voice of your novel or memoir. Please leave comments below.

4 Responses to “Fine-Tune Your Storytelling Voice and Make Your Book Stand Out from the Crowd”

  1. Frank Daley says:

    Marylee, I have emailed myself and posted several of your posts this morning on my regular Facebook page and my nascent author page. They are excellent.


  2. Harmony Kent says:

    Thanks for this lovely post, Mary Lee. I have posted a link over on Story Empire for our Friday’s Curated Content, as I thought a few folks might finds this helpful 🙂 All the best!