October 1st, 2014 | The Writing Craft, Uncategorized | 4 Comments
If you caught last week’s post, you’ll know we’re going to be talking about author voice for the next few weeks in the hopes of demystifying a crucial yet often elusive piece of the writing puzzle. Now that we’ve discussed what elements contribute to the presence of author voice on a page, we’re moving on to some ways to identify what characterizes your voice so that you can direct your writing energy towards refining and strengthening it. To help you in evaluating your voice, I’m going to break down a passage of writing from an author with a terrific voice and then talk you through doing the same for yourself.
In examining the writing of an author with strong voice, I’m forced to revisit an oft-referenced author on this blog, Mr. P. G. Wodehouse. Wodehouse’s brilliant comic novels and short stories very often have similar subjects and settings– the British aristocracy, the English countryside– but the content similarities don’t characterize his voice as much as the way he tells his stories. Don’t confuse topic with voice. To get a better idea of what I’m talking about, let’s look at the opening passage to Wodehouse’s Money for Nothing.
“The picturesque village of Rudge-in-the-Vale dozed in the summer sunshine. Along its narrow high street the only signs of life visible were a cat stropping its backbone against the Jubilee Watering Trough, some flies doing deep-breathing exercises on the hot windowsills, and a little group of serious thinkers who, propped up against the wall of the Carmody Arms, were waiting for that establishment to open. At no time is there ever much doing in Rudge’s main thoroughfare, but the hour at which a stranger, entering it, is least likely to suffer the illusion that he has strayed into Broadway, Piccadilly, or the Rue de Rivoli is at two o’clock on a warm afternoon in July.”
Okay, so, just by dissecting this first paragraph, we can identify several characteristics of Wodehouse’s author voice. First, we can say with a fair amount of confidence that this writer’s tone is humorous. The hyperbolic “flies doing deep-breathing exercises” clues us in almost right away that this author’s treatment of a quiet country village is going to be a bit more colorful than average, and primes the reader to be on the lookout for more jokes.
In addition to identifying his writing as comic, the deep-breathing flies set up the type of humor he will be using in the future. Sown artfully among a nice, quiet descriptive passage, this joke informs the reader that the humor to come is at times subtle, less slapstick or situation-based than it is dependent on the author (by means of the narration), and again sets us up to appreciate the humor to come more readily and to look for more hyperbole.
Further scrutinizing of this passage might lead one to say that the author favors long sentences. (You and me both, Plum.) Two of the three sentences above are 50 or more words in length, with parenthetical clauses and a fairly complex syntax. By acquainting the reader’s “ear” with this sentence structure, he lets them know right away what to expect and sets the pace for the rest of the novel. The reader finds out from the start that this author is going to require them to pay a little closer attention than required by certain other authors.
So, after only three sentences, we have gleaned a lot of information about the voice of the author. His tone, his type of or approach to that tone, his sentence length, and his syntax all contribute to the sum of his voice, and it’s this sum that Wodehouse fans can recognize after reading only a few paragraphs, even if they don’t consciously break it down into all these elements every time they read him.
You can use this same method of examination to figure out what characterizes your own writing. Take a passage of your writing– probably more than one paragraph, so you have plenty to go on– and look for the answers to these questions:
- What is my tone? Humorous? Irreverent? Chilling? Gritty? Flowery? Melancholy? Dark? Zany?
- How do I approach my tone, or where on the scale does it fall? I.e., if your writing tone is humorous, what kind of humor are you using? If your tone is dark, is it horror-movie dark or Lifetime-original-movie dark? If it’s chilling, is it rated PG-13 or R? If it’s irreverent, is it only mildly offensive or are people going to burn your book?
- What is my rhythm/sentence length? Is the majority of your story written in short, punchy sentences, or in long, flowery sentences? Or are they of average length?
- What is my syntax? Are my sentences simple and straightforward? Are they complex?
If you have trouble answering these questions for your own writing, farm out the chore to a competent reader. Ask a good writer and reader to look at your writing and pass her observations on to you; see how they match up with your own observations. The better you know your tendencies as a writer, the more successfully you will be able to recognize writing of yours that detracts from or weakens your voice, or that stands out by being substantially different.
I’m going to use this same method again next week to expand the discussion to some additional characteristics of voice, such as word choice and descriptive style, so if you have any favorite authors whose voices are especially distinctive because of their word choice or descriptive style, let me know in the comments and I might use them for examples next week. Thanks for reading!