In all my time writing, both in developing my own pieces and in working with other writers, the most difficult area for me to master has been voice. Narrative voice is something like your DNA in the writing world. It’s your unique ability to craft content and string words together to convey your message. The problem with mastering it is that it’s complex. Because there is no other voice like your own, there’s no blueprint to follow. So how can we first define voice and then enhance it to enrich our stories?
Voice as a Noun
Your voice is you, and you are your voice. Voice is a giant tapestry, woven with the qualities, language, concepts, and beliefs that make you who you are. While your characters will undoubtedly have minds of their own, your voice is what shines through in the overall piece and in the narrative to tie it together. Now, that doesn’t mean that you have to agree with your characters. In fact, it’s almost guaranteed that you won’t. But having a strong voice is the key to tying their story together.
If you’re struggling to find your own voice in the sea of characters, start by looking at what makes you tick. Would you describe yourself as an optimist or a pessimist? Do you tend to wear your emotions on your sleeve, or are you more discreet and maybe even reluctant to open up? Your personal traits will often have a direct impact on your words and how they are delivered.
Voice as an Adjective
I love analyzing voice as an adjective. This is probably my favorite layer of voice, partly because I know immediately whether or not I’ll click with a piece I’m reading based on it. Sarcasm, innocence, intelligence, skepticism, humor, and boldness are all concepts that could be applied to enhancing your voice. In my own writing, I tend to have a sarcastic undertone with a bit of dark humor. And overall, the mood is serious, oftentimes with intense emotions. Because of that, genres like horror and thriller speak to me the most. If you’re lost on the adjective part of your voice, first look at what genres really captivate you. Chances are, there will be a few elements that bind those works together. Find that, and you have the second layer of your voice.
Voice as a Verb
The third part of voice has to do with how it’s executed. A previous article of mine about themes covered how you can use them to amp up the tone and mood of your story. Voice is no different. If you have the noun and adjective aspects of your voice nailed down, think about the delivery. What kind of impact do you want to have on the reader? Do you want them to be scared, happy, uneasy, sad, empowered? How you use your voice to create elements such as tone and pacing in a story can alter the mood of the story and the way that readers connect with it. Voice as a verb is one of the trickiest parts to master, because it has to marry well with your theme and plot. It also should contain signature features that will leave a unique and distinct mark on each piece you create, one that sets yours apart from everyone else’s. This is where wording comes in the most. The vocabulary and phrasing you choose in the narrative will depict a style that is all your own. It’s basically the combination of the noun and adjective forms joined with the conscious decision of implementation.
Pushing the Limit
Enhancing an established voice can be difficult. Just as with the technical side of writing, shaping the creative elements of writing, like voice, takes practice. For a lot of us, it can take years to master. One way is through experimentation. I often recommend starting by dabbling in new genres and points of view to do this. The idea is to stretch your boundaries and push past your comfort zone. By doing so, you’ll discover new ideas and techniques, adding depth to your voice. But how do you know if a technique is really part of your voice or not?
My rule of thumb is to examine your gut reaction when you’re working with this new idea. Does it feel natural? Does it leave you feeling empowered about your writing? Or is it difficult to churn out and awkward to pursue? View testing your voice like you would shopping for a new outfit or buying a new car. Each one you try out will have a different feel to it, and chances are, your gut will give you an initial reaction, one of joy or contempt. And with each new outfit/car that you try, you’ll discover individual elements that fit with your style and ones that clash. Even after a commitment is made, it might feel foreign for a few days. But once you’re settled in, not only will you feel completely comfortable in it, but you’ll also start to view it as an extension of yourself.
That extension is EXACTLY what voice is. It’s everything that makes you who you are and who you want to be in your writing. It’s your signature move that no one will ever be able to pull off, because it’s as complex as you are. Which is a pretty cool thing if you think about it.