Continuing with editing, let’s talk about voice. As previously mentioned, there are two: your narrator’s voice (how he or she thinks and speaks or, if you like, how the story is written/told) and yours (how you, as a writer, convey your personality and approach through words and content). Let’s focus on the first today.
A narrator’s voice can be distinctive or veiled, depending on the aim of the story. If distinctive, the goal may be that the narrator evokes a particular personality; if veiled, the goal may be that the narrator blends into the background so that all else leads. Whatever the objective, ideally, the reader should be grabbed from the get-go. Not only should that first “it-was-a-dark-and-story-night” sentence attract readers immediately, it should set the mood and tone of the story (another post).
How do you create a unique voice for your narrator? Start by outlining what he or she’s all about. Consider character traits (throw in likes and dislikes, hobbies, background and history, and so forth). Is he/she:
⇒ cold-hearted / bubbly / bold / diffident / angry / depressed / honest / crazed / funny / serious . . . ?
⇒ like kids and animals / have phobias / possess a deep, dark secret / do volunteer work / have a hobby / come from a poor or rich family . . . ?
What motivates your narrator? How does he/she speak—with a Swedish accent, a Southern drawl, a lot of colloquialisms or swearing? Does your narrator hail from another era?
You’ve got the idea—develop your narrator to breathe life into him/her.
Here are two examples of openings that introduce the narrator/main character—one from a cozy I’m currently reading and one from an old manuscript of mine (that may still, one day, evolve into a book).
Example #1—British Manor Mystery (Leslie Meier)
“If only they’d send a ransom note,” wailed Lucy Stone, pulling her old gray cardigan tighter across her chest. “Then at least we’d have a chance of getting Patrick back.”
What do we immediately know about Lucy from the opening paragraph? We can deduce that she’s:
- older (the old gray cardigan suggests someone who’s not fashion-conscious and likes comfortable clothing)
- caring and emotional (Lucy’s anxious about someone).
We also sense that it’s a mystery or drama because of the seriousness of her speech.
Example #1—Sardines & Cheese (Me)
This is the zany tale of Johnny “Baloney” Tino Vespuzzi and Sammy Mohammed “Mo-Mo” Martine, two dime-store mobsters. How factual it is, is anyone’s guess, but all gossip and hearsay, even that related to murder and mayhem, begin with some kernel of truth.
We know who the tale revolves around, but we don’t [yet] know who’s telling it. It has a casual tone, so we can assume that he/she speaks informally and is likely someone not in a highly professional career. The fact it’s a mystery is obvious, thanks to the “murder and mayhem”, and “zany” suggests humor’s to come.
Has either pulled you in? Maybe yes, maybe no. Sometimes it depends on the reader’s personal tastes and interests, other times on the success of the paragraph’s suck-you-in drawing power.
Your narrator shouldn’t just tell us what’s happening, but draw us into his/her world. We should envision the action and setting, feel the mood and ambiance, taste food, smell odors, and hear sounds.
Here’s something from Sardines that incorporates the above:
Strolling along a tourist-heavy, bustling side street were three men—one would be reluctant to call them gentlemen, for reasons that will become clear later—who’d just finished a three-hour stick-to-your-ribs meal at Reg’s Parmigiano, owned by gourmand-glutton Regulus Febrezia, a rotund and rapacious young proprietor. The dinner had consisted of crostini de fegato, quaglie, tortellini and tagliatelli, and osso buco, a favorite of Sammy Martine’s. There’d also been three bottles of Regulus’ homemade red wine, an intriguing little red number that might not have made the top ten list in Wine Spectator, but received rave reviews from the locals because of the way it pricked the palate with a salty-sweet astringency, not to mention the way it complemented any dish.
Give thought to expressions and cadence. Does your narrator have a certain tempo? What about jargon or particular phrases? If you capture your narrator’s [genuine] voice from the onset, things might fall into place a little easier, because you’ll have an idea of how your narrator’s tale should unfold, how he/she will proceed and react.
When I first started writing back when, I wanted to sound [overly] clever and witty. I came across as anything but. I overused the thesaurus and wrote how I thought I should sound (without giving much thought to the reader or how the story should advance). Looking back at the super old stuff prompts winces. I wasn’t being myself and I wasn’t being true to myself. I’m inclined to say write how you speak, but perhaps it’s better to say: write from the heart and gut.
It took many years to develop my voice, but it may not take you half that long. For some it comes naturally, for others it’s acquired through trial and error. (We’ll look at before and after samples next post.)
Voice is the key [selling] component in fiction. Don’t be afraid of experimenting with a few voices until you get the right [write] one. . . . You’ll know it when you’ve got it.