When I was a teenager and my mother got mad at me, she used to say, “It’s not what you said, it’s how you said it.” This is a pretty good definition of writer’s voice. You might have read interviews with agents or editors who say they’re looking for a writer’s voice that jumps off the page. They want that special sauce that hooks them into the story. But what is writer’s voice and how does it differ from narration?
What is Writer’s Voice?
Writer’s voice is the way you tell the story. It’s not your plot construction or your character development. It’s not even how your narrator unfolds events. It’s the way you, the author, write. Are you a little sarcastic? Are you serious? Are you youthful? Experienced? Hopeful?
Two people can write mysteries, but one can write something genuinely terrifying while the other remains soft-edged. There’s an ocean of difference between Stephen King and Joanne Fluke. It’s like comparing CSI to Murder, She Wrote. It’s voice that makes an author distinctive.
The narrator and the author can be slightly hard to separate, especially in a close third-person narrative, but they are different. I just wrote a story with a 17-year-old protagonist. She and I have different backgrounds, interests, and lives. I never did the things she does in this book. However, it’s me, the writer, who decides the tone of the story, what this character notices, and how she copes with her ordeal. The author imprints him or herself onto the story by choosing how to tell it.
Writer’s Voice Example 1
Let’s look at a couple of examples to illustrate writer’s voice. Voice is much easier to explain with case studies. As you read each blurb, think about how each of these voices are distinct.
…only then did I scream. Not the scream of a startled little girl, mind you, but a manly scream: the scream of a fellow who has caught his enormous dong in a revolving door while charging in to save a baby that was caught on fire or something.
This is from Christopher Moore’s Noir. The narrating character Sammy has just found his boss dead, and he’s telling the reader about his reaction to the discovery. It’s clear from both the subject and word choice that the writer likes to have fun.
Sammy is embarrassed that he screamed when he saw his murdered employer. Obviously he thinks this is not a manly reaction, so he uses over-the-top masculine tropes to explain it away and save face. He screamed when saving not just anyone–but a helpless baby–endangered by fire, no less. Can we, the reader, still blame him? No. We cannot. This is kind of ridiculous, but then, in case we still don’t get it, he references his “enormous dong.” Now we know for sure. This is going to be an irreverent read.
How do characterization, narration, and voice differ in this example? Christopher Moore is letting Sammy tell the story. However, even though Sammy is our narrator and his personality is expressed through word choice, Moore is the one with his hand in the puppet. Sammy is his creation, and when Moore creates a funny, silly, cheeky read, he is sharing his writer’s voice through Sammy’s narration.
Writer’s Voice Example 2
The four car-stops so far this evening have been washouts: three municipals—a postal inspector, a transit clerk, and a garbageman, all city employees off-limits—and one guy who did have a six-inch blade under his seat, but no spring-release.
This second blurb is from Richard Price’s Lush Life. It’s a story about a crime committed in New York City and the investigation of it. You can hear from this one sentence how different in tone and yes…voice this is. We can surmise the narrator is in the police force because he uses technical terms like car-stops, municipals, and spring-release. These aren’t observations or word choices the average citizen would make.
These word choices say something about our narrator—a law enforcement officer—and they also say something about our author. This author is knowledgeable about how police go about their business. This knowledge makes us expect a more realistic story than in the first example.
Another instance of realism is the use of the word “washouts” to refer to the first four stops of the night. “Washouts” implies the officer wanted action and instead got non-criminals instead. This tells me about the narrator’s point-of-view, but it also tells me about the author. This author writes true-to-life books. He has an ear for the way actual people talk. When Richard Price has his narrator use these terms, it is Price’s voice we hear.
No one can tell you how to develop your voice other than by writing and reading more. When you read, be analytical. How do your favorite authors convey their style through word choice and storytelling? What tone or mood do they create? Look at your own writing. How are you telling your story? How are you sharing a unique point-of-view? The more aware you are of writer’s voice, the more you can infuse your manuscript with it.