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19 Questions to Ask (and ask again) about Voice

First of all a big

HAPPY NEW YEAR

to all the readers of This Itch of Writing. May your resolutions be resolved, your writerly shadow never grow less, and your infinitives split precisely how you want them to be.

And since New Year has a way of prompting thoughts about the work-in-progress, or the work-not-yet-in-progress, here are some of mine, for that happy little window when the last family person has gone but the first work colleague hasn't yet arrived, and you can actually get some writing done.

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One of the challenges of a big writing project is finding a voice for it. I've blogged about what voice is here, but for now, the first question is, of course, is whether the narrator is a character in the story, an internal narrator, or the story is told by an external narrator.

In my post 17 Questions to Ask Your Novel, the first three go a long way to forming how the narrator tells the story, which is what Voice is all about.

  1. Who is telling this story?
  2. Why are they telling it?
  3. Where do they stand in time and space, relative to the events and settings they're narrating?

Either way, the voice of the narrative will be formed by who the narrator is, and so by your thinking about characterisation-in-action. But even when you have found a voice for the narrative, how do you keep it strong, and consistent, in the long haul? Characters change - change is the motor of storytelling - but how do you make sure that the voice or voices change convincingly, and don't just lapse into the bland default that you've taken such trouble to get away from?

So here are some specific questions to ask yourself about the voice/voices of your story. They apply to narrative but also to dialogue, and to any kind of novel but also to creative non-fiction such as memoir and travel writing. You could use them to focus your ears towards hearing the voices before you start the first draft, but they're equally useful - perhaps more so - diagnostically, later in your work, when you're beset by doubt, or get feedback that the voices aren't working.

  1. Length of sentences: short, long, wildly varied, fairly consistent
  2. Sentence structure: simple (a single unit of meaning), compound (a series of units, linked with words like and and but), complex (units nested inside one another)
  3. Does the narrator or character feel their way through sentences, or have they got the thought all organised before they start?
  4. Do they finish their sentences, or interrupt themselves, or tail off without finishing the meaning? From lack of confidence, or getting distracted by another amazing thought?
  5. Formal/informal? Chatty/slangy/poetic? Abrupt or circumlocutory? Rolling clichés or office speak (careful!) or vivid and individual?
  6. Vocabulary - does it fit with their gender/job/region/ethnicity/class/generation? Nonetheless, have you found ways to make them seem individual and specific, not off-the-peg and tick-box? Why and how might they not conform to what you'd expect of such a character?
  7. What images/metaphors do they tend to use? From their job, their reading, the movies they like? Do they use figurative language as similes (which is simpler), or metaphors (which is cognitively more complex)?
  8. Do they always have the words they need to express themselves, or do they run out or get frustrated? Do they know that they're limited in how they can express themselves?
  9. What's the tone like? Amused, angry, detached, passionately positive, hyperactive, grumpy, naive, focussed, weary, passionately negative, empathic, gentle ...
  10. Do they interrupt others, or wait for them to finish? Do they get interrupted by others?
  11. Do they respond and change in response to what others say, or do they go barrelling on with their own motives and agendas?
  12. Do they talk differently to different people?
  13. Is there a gap between what they say out loud, and what they actually think? How big is that gap? Does it get bigger, or smaller, through the story?
  14. How wide is the narrator's range of psychic distance? Can this narrator move outwards sometimes, to see and convey the bigger picture and other points of view, or are we trapped inside a totally subjective consciousness?
  15. Have you stayed consistent with where your narrator is standing, relative to the story they're telling? I think of this as the "last year when I was young" question. If you started off with her saying, as it were, "If I'd known then what I know now, I would never have ..." have you kept on working with that sense of the narrator narrating? How reflective and knowledgeable the narrator is can really colour the voice of the narrative, and it's one of the most important influences on your choice of narrative tense.
  16. As the stakes get higher through the story, your character will change but they'll also becomes more strongly themselves, because we all revert to our true, core selves under stress. Have you looked at the voice in later sections in those terms, so that it really embodies the cranking up of narrative tension, and the changes that sets in motion? Terse, economical voices get terser as they fight to keep their grip. Long, rambly thoughtful types get longer and ramblier and more thoughtful and we perhaps realised that it's defensive ... until a crisis comes and each snaps: the long rambly person is driven to act and speak fast and brutally, and the terse person, perhaps awkwardly and un-practisedly, begins to pour out all their love and longing,...

Are you  worried the voice is slipping or fading, further on in the story, or because you've been revising madly and lost sight of the vocal wood in tackling the plot-trees? You could take a chunk where you feel it's working best, and a chunk where it's working least well, and ask the questions I've just asked above. Wherever you spot a weakening, can you strengthen it? And remember the Christmas rule: green looks greener and red redder when you put them next to each other. So, wherever you spot a contrast in voice - between characters, and between how a character-narrator talks and how they think; between the voice of the narrator and the voice of a character in free indirect style - can you boost that contrast by strengthening both sides? When you've done everything you think it needs, try reading things aloud, to get a bit of distance. Does it still sound consistent, and consistently convincing?

Questions like these can sound alarmingly cold-blooded, but I'd urge you not to be afraid of working this way. Yes, Voice, overall, is one of the archetypal writerly things that you can't, completely, make happen by sheer force of will. But as I was discussing here, it's a mistake to assume that the only good decisions are those which come from that mysterious place we call instinct and intuition. A bit of clear thinking and precise focus can make things clear for your intuition to recognise. And besides, there are always times in your writing life - the depressed moments, the hungover and lack-of-sleep moments - when intuition fails you. But even then, you can always ask practical, technical questions about language and grammar, and - as I was exploring here - so often when you do get practical and technical, you're led back to the strange, instinctive stuff of our imagined worlds.

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