A story in four dimensions
The paradoxical cave

Hearing voices

How many times do you hear an editor (less often, perhaps, a reviewer) say that the all important thing which will make them take a book on is the voice? Here's the latest version I've come across, from a 4th Estate Editor on the Authonomy blog:

The most overriding thing I look for, though, is that all-important but impossible-to-define ‘voice’. You’ll no doubt have heard that a hundred times, and will hear it another thousand, but I can’t overestimate how important it is; there is no point in worrying about character or dialogue or pace or plot if you don’t have a voice to begin with. The thing about voice, from a reader’s perspective, is that it’s unmistakeably there; there is a subtly different shift in the way you read a paragraph that makes you sit up and pay attention, and want to hear what they’ve got to say.

Which is all absolutely true - I know it from my own reading, and from doing manuscript reports - but from the point of view of the aspiring writer, it doesn't get you a lot further. We'd all say that we know a good voice when we hear it, but it's very hard to pin down, and so equally hard to explain, or teach, or help you to learn. Moreover, like any single element of craft, trying to tease it out just shows you how inseparable all the elements actually are. And what is the relationship of voice to tone and style?

Well, to start with, what is voice in in creative writing? Just to check, we are talking about the voice of the narration, aren't we? Voice in dialogue is a much easier thing to work out, because generally speaking you're trying for something like verisimilitude: a seemingly authentic representation of actual speech, albeit selective, heightened or affected by other kinds of artifice. 

As one commenter put it, everyone has a voice, just as everyone has an accent. Ask someone in the street to say what's happened in the last five minutes, and they'll choose words to tell the story which are shaped by who they are, and so they'll tell you in their voice. And yet we all know the difference between them and a true raconteur, a born storyteller, the sort who can grip you with a tale of buying a pint of milk and going home with it. That's what editors mean by a voice. It's a voice we keep listening to. 

Voice is the product of the storyteller's consciousness, in other words: it's human interface between the listener/reader, and the events of the story. How much we have a sense of the storyteller as an actually person will vary, of course, but it's still words formed by a consciousness who'se chosen those words, rather than different words, to convey this world and what happened in it.

If it's a characterised narrative in first person, then, too, the nature of the beast is fairly clear. Here's a protagonist, telling their story, and that protagonist's background and character dictates the nuts and bolts of how they say things: vocabulary, grammar, sentence length and syntax, and so on. Their character also controls what they do and don't notice, which is about controlling point of view, and what they think about themselves and others, which shades into matters of tone. (I would define tone as a matter of dark/light, humorous/bitter, cynical/cheerful, warm/cool, detached/involved, passionate/amused and so on...)

You can think clearly about all these things, digging in fiction and non-fiction of the period, analysing grammar and making lists of words, or sitting on buses and making notes. Or you can imagine your narrator sitting across the pub table from you, note his nose ring and tattoos and the chihuahua tucked into his pocket, offer crisps to the dog, ask him what happened  and keep your ears open. Most of us do a bit of both. If you've... I was going to say, fully imagined your protagonist, but many aspiring writers are taught that that means having written pages and pages of where he went to school and whether he minds doing the washing up. But it doesn't have to be like that. Once your protagonist is fully present to you, however little you yet know about him (you'll find out as he talks, after all) the voice may well come naturally.

It becomes trickier for beginner writers when the narrator is external to the story. Still, if it's Gardner's third-person-limited (or subjective) then it's not so different from first person: character and point of view shape what's seen, what's said and how it's said. To a greater extent than in first person, you also have the possibility of sliding into a more neutral voice, less closely shaped by a particular personality, until you carry that all the way to Gardner's third-person-objective, where the neutral narrator has no opinions about the events and people s/he narrates. And it's in that seemingly innocuous term 'neutral' that voice becomes difficult to pin down. Whose voice? Even George Eliot - who's often suggested as the exemplar of the omniscient narrator who is not only god-like in knowing everything, but god-like in judging it - fades in and out, as a personality, of her own narration. But, still, we have a sense - however inchoate, however undefined - of the nature of the person we're listening to. Who is that? Is it you? Is it the person you wish you were, or regret that you are?

When it comes to deciding what kind of voice will tell your story best, it's worth thinking about what fiction (like all art) is fundamentally trying to do: to make us see the familiar afresh, and make the new seem "familiar" in the sense of real.

Sometimes we listen/read because the voice is giving us a new take on old things, and that, in itself, is life-enhancing. I've just been to a reading by Stephanie Calman. I laughed a lot, and I'm remembering why her long-ago book, Dressing for Breakfast, still makes me laugh even though the life she's skewering these days, like mine, is very different. Either way, I'm the better for it. Or it may be because a voice admits us to a mind, a spirit and soul, which is distant from our own and yet the voice makes us live and breathe it. It doesn't mean that your narrator must be narrating explosions or heartbreaks, it means that your narrator must be someone we keep listening to. 'Listen!' s/he says, and we do.

Some of it is about confidence: the readers trust the narrator, go with the flow, wait out the story, trust that it has beginning, middle and end, and some time or another the story will make us laugh, or cry, or both. Readerly confidence is engendered by a confident narrator who him/herself has confidence: they have a fascinating story to tell, and their fascination transmits. And that confidence is engendered by... I'm not sure what. A certain take on the world? We're back to tone. A certain way of telling? That's style. Yes, we could break that down into which verb, which noun, what syntax, what grammar. But you can do that for yourselves: help yourself to a handful of strongly-voiced books on your shelves - Chandler, Ackroyd, Austen, Bridget Jones, Barry Unsworth, Marian Keyes - and get on with it. Make notes, read aloud, feel free to decide when it slips, and whether it matters. Then go to the voices of the place and time of the story - diaries, letters, anthologies, documentaries, the National Sound Archive, and do the same. And, of course, take your headphones out on buses and trains, and listen, with your notebook discreetly in your lap. 

And then, as this post suggests, put it all away down, imagine your way into the head and heart of your narrator or character, put them under pressure, and open your ears. Try free-writing - it helps vastly for this kind of thing. Once you can hear something, it's possible to work quite cold-bloodedly to amplify those early murmurs, and consciously develop contrasts and variety in the different voices of the novel.