Voice-Driven Fiction | Why You Can’t Afford to Ignore Voice

by Marylee MacDonald in General

Voice is like the juice in an apple. If there’s no juice, the apple tastes dry, and the reader won’t take another bite. And, readers aren’t the only ones who’ll take a pass. Unfortunately, apart from the issue of “likeable characters,” the single biggest reason agents send you a “bong” letter is that your manuscript lacks a distinctive voice.

Agent Rachelle Gardner says, “One of the most common problems with fiction by new authors is the lack of a unique voice on the page.”

On the other hand, if the voice pulls an agent in, maybe she or he will take a chance. In an article in Slice Magazine, agent Carrie Howland says, ” I very often take on books with potential, because I fall in love with the voice and writing, even if the work as a whole isn’t quite ready.”

The “premise” of the book doesn’t figure into what makes these agents grab a book. Neither agent mentions an excellent query letter, tight synopsis, page-turning plot, or compelling characters. No. What these agents focus on is “voice,” and I’ve heard many other agents say the same thing.

What this comes down to is that voice-driven fiction works just as effectively as plot- or character-driven fiction. Whether you’re writing Young Adult fiction or fiction about a marital crisis, you need to develop a narrative voice unique to that story.

Whose Voice Is Telling the Story?

To understand what voice is and figure out if your novel’s storytelling voice is working as hard as it could, let’s start with some basic questions:

  • Who is telling the story? Whose voice is whispering in our ear?
  • Is the voice that of a character in the story?
  • Is the voice that of a narrator?

Mind you, I’m not talking here about whether the story is told from a first, second, third, or omniscient point-of-view. Voice is different. It’s the intelligence behind the narration. It’s the attitude. Most of all, it’s the emotion. Readers have their antennae up. We’re picking up subliminal signals about a character’s educational status, gender, mindset, and angst. We’re on the alert for whether the character is reliable, untrustworthy, or self-deluded. Furthermore, the voice of the story gives us immediate clues about the problems the characters will encounter and the preoccupations of the book as a whole.

Robert Lewis Stevenson’s Treasure Island

The passage below is the second paragraph in Stevenson’s Treasure Island. Read it, and then let’s see what you can infer about the voice.

I remember him as if it were yesterday, as he came plodding to the inn door, his sea-chest following behind him in a hand-barrow—a tall, strong, heavy, nut-brown man, his tarry pigtail falling over the shoulder of his soiled blue coat, his hands ragged and scarred, with black, broken nails, and the sabre cut across one cheek, a dirty, livid white. I remember him looking round the cover and whistling to himself as he did so, and then breaking out in that old sea-song that he sang so often afterwards:

“Fifteen men on the dead man’s chest—

Yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum!”

Did you pick up on the age of the narrator? Older now, he is looking back on his childhood when his father was the “keeper” of the Admiral Benbow Inn. The narrator, whose name we don’t yet know, begins with the first instant he saw Long John Silver. To me the voice sounds objective. Indeed, the first paragraph of the novel tells is that “Squire Trelawney, Dr. Livesey, and the rest of these gentlemen” entrusted the person who’s narrating the story with the job of setting down the particulars.

The Voice in Daniel Orozco’s Orientationvoice Orientation cover

The next example is the title story in Daniel Orozco’s very fine story collection, Orientation. The story-voice is flat and affectless. To me it sounds like a man’s voice, a man who has worked in Cubeland too long.

Those are the offices and these are the cubicles. That’s my cubicle there, and this is your cubicle. This is your phone. Never answer your phone. Let the Voicemail System answer it. This is your Voicemail System Manual. There are no personal phone calls allowed. We do, however, allow for emergencies. If you must make an emergency phone call, ask your supervisor first. If you can’t find your supervisor, ask Phillip Spiers, who sits over there. He’ll check with Clarissa Nicks, who sits over there. If you make an emergency phone call without asking, you may be let go. These are your in- and out-boxes. All the forms in your in-box must be logged in by the date shown in the upper-left-hand corner, initialed by you in the upper-right-hand corner, and distributed to the Processing Analyst whose name is numerically coded in the lower-left-hand corner.

You can read more about the author by clicking here. I’ll just add that the narrator of this story sounds like the manager from hell. All the humanity has been sucked out of him, and the reader feels instant sympathy for the unfortunate new hire.

The Voice in We The Animals

If the voice above sounds like that of a computer, the voice in We the Animals, a novel by Justin Torres, brims over with emotion. To describe this voice, I might use words like “male,” “poetic,” “urgent,” “young,” or “passionate.”

WE WANTED MORE. We knocked the butt ends of our forks against the table, tapped our spoons against our empty bowls; we were hungry. We wanted more volume, more riots. We turned up the knob on the TV until our ears ached with the shouts of angry men. We wanted more music on the radio; we wanted beats; we wanted rock. We wanted muscles on our skinny arms. We had bird bones, hollow and light, and we wanted more density, more weight. We were six snatching hands, six stomping feet; we were brothers, boys, three little kings locked in a feud for more. When it was cold, we fought over blankets until the cloth tore down the middle. When it was really cold, when our breath came out in frosty clouds, Manny crawled into bed with Joel and me. “Body heat,” he said. “Body heat,” we agreed…

Note that Torres uses twelve consecutive sentence with the very same structure. (In my next post I’ll talk about diction and syntax, two elements in “voice”. Torres uses this repetition to establish a cadence. The voice compels us to keep going.) How would you characterize this voice?

As it happens, even the most astute readers have trouble finding words to articulate what makes a voice unique. However, we, as authors, must strive to understand “voice” so that we can enhance the narrative voices in our novels.

The Word Cloud

Here’s a word cloud to help you fine-tune your understanding of voice and what “voice-driven fiction” actually means. As an exercise, see if you can find one, two, or three words to describe each of the examples above. Can you add qualities I haven’t mentioned?

Abstract – Aged — Ambiguous – Analytical – Anecdotal – Angry – Anguished – Argumentative – Austere – Authoritative – Bland – Boring –  Bossy – Bostonian – British – Businesslike – Childlike – Cinematic – Classical – Colloquial – Concise – Confessional – Contemptuous – Conventional – Cool – Cringing – Cynical – Decadent – Deceitful – Depressed – Derivative – Disadvantaged – Dreamlike – Dreary – Earthy – Elderly – Elegiac – Emotive – Emphatic – Ethnic – Evasive – Evocative – Experimental – Fashionable – Farcical – Fatalistic – Female – Finicky – Flamboyant – Flighty – Funny – Gaelic – GenX – Gimmicky – Heavy – Heroic – Hysterical – Immature – Iconoclastic – Incoherent – Ironic – Irreverent – Journalistic – Juvenile – Know-It-All – Loyal – Lyrical – Lying – Male – Maternal – Melodramatic – Metaphorical – Metaphysical – Midwestern – Minimalist – Mistrustful – Monotonous – Mournful – Mystical  – Nostalgic – Objective – Obscure – Old-fashioned – Ominous – Oppressive – Parody – Passive – Philosophical – Poetic – Polemical – Political – Pompous – Pragmatic – Precious – Pretentious – Prissy – Profound – Psychological – Puritanical – Realistic – Repetitious – Reportorial – Rhythmic – Romantic – Sarcastic – Sardonic – Sassy – Satirical – Secretive – Self-pitying – Sensuous – Sentimental – Sharp – Silly – Sophisticated – Southern – Spiritual – Stark – Stilted – Subjective – Subtle – Superficial – Surrealistic – Symbolic – Talkative – Trite – Truculent – Urbane – Vague – Venomous – Victimized – Weary – Western – Whimsical – Wise – Wise-cracking – Witty – Wordy – Working class – Wounded – Young

Test Your Understanding of Voice

In my next post I’ll talk about some ways to inject more “voice” into your manuscript. However, before I launch into that, I want to make sure you’ve taken one more step toward understanding the power of voice. Below are several voice-driven novels. Click on the Amazon links and read the first few pages. Look at the word cloud, and see how you would characterize the storytelling voice.

Poe's Desk--Edgar Allan Poe Shrine

Edgar Allen Poe’s desk
Image from Flickr via VCU Libraries Commons

I’m Not Stiller by Max Frisch

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon

The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud

You Are Not a Stranger Here by Adam Haslett

Rule of the Bone by Russell Banks

Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned by Wells Tower

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell

The Fall of the House of Usher by Edgar Allen Poe

“Voice” isn’t just an add-on. It’s the foundation of our writing house.

What did you think when you read these excerpts?

Please leave comments below.



8 Responses to “Voice-Driven Fiction | Why You Can’t Afford to Ignore Voice”

  1. Christine Phillips says:

    Very helpful that for the most part you cited contemporary authors. I find it difficult to learn from the craft of the “old masters” because the “rules” of writing have changed. And thanks to you, I have three additional books I want to read.

    • I’d suggest not reading the whole book. Just look at the first chapter on Amazon’s “preview the book” page. That’ll give you a sense of what I’m talking about. Each book has its own unique voice. That includes sentence structure, tone, and diction. Even vocabulary comes into it. As to the voice of your book, I would think you might consider that word “saudade.” How can the book both embody the saudade that permeates the world view of one of your characters AND the manic, absurb, and obsessive personality of your other protagonist? For me, having seen your manuscript, I think of a teeter totter swinging between those two poles, and I would be looking for a voice that allows room for both.

  2. MAGZ MORGAN says:

    Oops, forgot something.

    Next week on my website, just before my next chapter, I referred to you in my blog comments and gave your links.
    Just do you know. Cheers, Magz

  3. MAGZ MORGAN says:

    Hello Marylee
    I thrilled to have found you. Your writing tips are so stimulating and so practical at the same time. I love this page on Voice.
    As I write to you from Melbourne, Australia right now, I’m just trying to work out how and when to put my current memoir/ historical fiction work in front of a publisher. Since reading what you have to say about Voice, I’m reading over my work.
    Cheers, Magz

    • Hi Magz,
      Thanks for writing. An Australian writer, Margaret Ann Spence, just left my house. Last night, we had a terrific “novel release” party for her book, Lipstick on the Strawberry. I’m so thrilled to meet another writer from Australia. I have another post that will come out next week, and it, too, is on voice. It’s such an important topic, and I’m glad it’s sending you back to your work. My next post should give you a few more ideas about voice. I hope so, anyway.

  4. Thank you. 🙂

    • That’s a very powerful blog you’ve got going, Jeannette. The truthfulness of your lived experience shines through in your writing. I have a couple of friends who will totally identify with your journey.

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