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Voice and tone: Figaro, Feydeau or the Moor of Venice?

In the Self-Editing Your Novel course that I co-teach with Debi Alper, Week Three is about Voice, and an old friend of a question came up: "How do I find my voice?". I've blogged about Voice before, and explored how it's the combination of "What you want to say", and "How you want to say it". So at the micro or midi-level, finding the voice for a piece of fiction is about two things:

1) Fully imagining your characters-in-action and their predicament: their actions, their emotions, their experience of the world that they act within, and their take on that experience.

2) Being in writerly training: having a rich language-hoard and free, flexible, writing muscles which can respond to whatever it is that those characters-in-action do and experience. It's about read-read-reading, doing exercises on all six senses, free-writing, taking a poetry course to sharpen your instincts for sound and rhythm and to clean out the second-hand language, and then getting out of your own light.

But that micro- and midi-level work isn't enough if the voice doesn't work for the novel as a whole, leading the reader on from that opening promise, through a story which really is worth our time. You may be able to catch us with a fantastic opening, and write engaging and vivid characters and settings, but how do you find your voice for the novel as a whole?

In What's Your Project I suggested that, at novel-scale, "What you want to say" becomes "What story you want to tell". And so the move to "How you want to tell it" needs thinking about too. I think it's Christopher Booker, in his brilliant and entirely fascinating book The Seven Basic Plots, who points out that The Winter's Tale and Othello are driven by essentially the same mainspring, as is many a Feydeau farce and The Marriage of Figaro. So what's the flavour of your false-accusation-of-adultery story? Does your old-lovers-re-encounter-one-another story taste more like Persuasion, or Private Lives? Is your tragedy of inaction Death of a Salesman or Hamlet? Is your irresistible central villain Julien Sorel or Humbert Humbert?

Tone is a rather feeble name for this question - it makes something very fundamental sound  superficial - but there doesn't seem to be a better one: it's the tone of that narrative which controls the spirit in which readers feel and think about the events they experience: first love can be agonising, nostalgic, light-as-a-feather, farcical, tragic ... This, I'd suggest, is how you find a voice for the narrative (who may or may not be embodied in the novel) that will hold us all the way through. Whether your narrator is inside, or outside, the events narrated, is one decision, and that has implications for your answer to several of the the questions you need to ask your novel: "Where does the narrator stand, relative to the events narrated?", "Who is telling this story?", and "Why are they telling it?". 

All those Why and Who and Where questions add up to an answer about How you're trying to tell this story. After that, again, it's a matter of getting out of your own way and letting that knowledge sieve out the right words and arrange them in the right order. But that will only work if you've developed your flexibility of word and phrase, trained yourself to dig through second-hand language and off-the peg characters and ideas, so that you see people and places and things with the new eyes of this narrator - whoever they are - who speaks to us with a new voice. And a new voice is, after all, the thing that will sell your story.

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