If you were asked which writers wrote with a unique voice, you’d have no trouble naming several. My list includes F. Scott Fitzgerald, Karen Blixen, Raymond Chandler, Jane Austen, Harper Lee, Stephen King, John Irving, and Ann Rice. But if you were asked to define “voice” in writing, perhaps your task would be harder.
I recently attended a writers’ conference and listened to a publisher explain her definition of voice. Her definition true and clear, so I decided to share my thoughts on this element of writing that is often a challenge to define.
When I began studying the craft of writing, my focus was mainly on plot, because I hadn’t a clue how to construct one. I hadn’t given much thought to voice until I picked up a novel by an author I’d never read before. It was his fourth book and it had landed on the bestseller list. I’d heard so much about the book, I feared I wouldn’t like it. But I did. At first, I thought it was the characters that grabbed and whirled me along for the more than four hundred pages. When I finished the book, I rushed out and bought his first three. My fear materialized as I struggled through each one, and finished reading them only because I was curious to learn how he developed his craft. Then I realized it was his voice that captured my interest in novel number four. It was also clear to me that I couldn’t hear that voice in his first three novels. Maybe he was still struggling to find it. Who knows? Since then, I’ve read everything the author has written and he’s now one of my favorite contemporary writers.
What I gleaned from that writer’s conference was that voice is the emotional thread that connects the writer to the reader. It’s the writer’s unique style of expression that adds a personal element to the story, which character, plot, and setting can’t do alone or together. Consider F. Scott Fitzgerald’s, The Great Gatsby. It’s an extraordinary story of love, loss, hope, and betrayal, with these opening lines: “In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since. ‘Whenever you feel like criticizing anyone,’ he told me, ‘just remember that all the people in the world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.’ ” Narrator Nick Carraway is telling a story as naturally as if you were sitting in a room with him and chatting over a cup of coffee. The natural ease draws readers in and keeps them turning the pages.
Or how about To Kill a Mockingbird? Harper Lee tells a story of social injustice through the eyes of a child that is so powerful because Scout (Jean Louise) Finch is experiencing prejudice for the first time. Readers connect with her struggle to understand the condemnation of an innocent man. Who doesn’t relate to some sort of inflicted injustice? Who hasn’t felt that pain and learned from it? And in Mockingbird, it’s conveyed through the voice of an observant, articulate child. Voice is a strong emotional thread that connects readers to the story. Scout’s voice speaks to us, asking, “How can this happen?”
Every book that has earned its place on my bookshelf has connected with me on a deep level. Sometimes it’s the ideas that resonate with me, sometimes the voice, sometimes both. But absent that connection, even if I finished and enjoyed the story, that book usually ends up in my giveaway box.