On voice

Voice is an unavoidable component of all forms of writing. To slightly paraphrase Janice Hardy, voice is the sense that there is a person behind the words. That sense of person is how the reader connects with what the writer says. If there is a problem with voice, the connection will be faulty or won’t be made at all.

How can there be a problem with voice? Isn’t the writer always the person behind the words? Well, yes and no. Yes, the writer is always somewhere behind the words, but often the writer wants to communicate or connect through a particular perspective or persona, even in non-fiction. Any time the words don’t clearly convey that perspective or persona, the connection shorts out.

Although this can happen in several ways, inconsistency is the most common problem with voice. It’s like someone changing channels during a broadcast without warning: inconsistent voice makes it hard to follow what’s going on, whether that’s a line of reasoning or a plot line. The simplest way to be consistent is to maintain the same perspective throughout a written piece (much harder than it sounds). This is not to say, however, that shifts in perspective make for poor writing or need to be avoided. When executed properly, they bring a delightful complexity and nuance to writing.

How can changes in perspective, by their very definition, be consistent? They happen in a manner that makes sense, that arises naturally from the plot or argument and advances it. They follow a structural pattern, usually visible, occurring at section or chapter breaks. They take place when a scene changes or when new source material is introduced.  Here’s the real kicker: when shifts in perspective add to the plot or line of reasoning without disruption or distraction, they weave together to form a single, rich, complex voice.

The writer’s voice.

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2 responses to “On voice

  1. I thought about this a lot. A lot. Still thinking. Perhaps all those classes on writing and classes in literature where we examined voice in writing were totally wasted because while I know intellectually what this means, I can’t think of a single gol-darned example of voices shifting. I could only think of the Dixie Chicks song I loved (Traveling Soldier). In one part, it’s this omniscient narrator describing the girl and the soldier, and the chorus is the girl speaking about her feelings. It was really dissonant to me. In fact, drove me nuts. Still does. I kept trying to reconcile the shift, rationalize why it was written that way, or if maybe I was misinterpreting. Very distracting from the message. I imagine as a fiction writer this is much more difficult to maintain throughout a work, as you’re assuming the personality of a character as you. go. I have only attempted fiction rarely, and never finished anything. Might be good for me to try.

    • That Dixie Chicks song is an excellent example, and your response is exactly why inconsistent use of voice can be a problem. It pulls the audience out of the story by forcing them to divert brain cells to figure out what the heck is going on. I find the popular Cee Lo Green song, “FU” similarly confusing, with portions of it apparently addressed to the singer’s former flame and portions seemingly addressed to her new beau. It took me a while to sort that out, and now that I have, it annoys me.

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