Monday, April 21, 2008

Finding Your Voice

Over the last few blog entries, I’ve listed a few things that have helped me break through a lengthy block—these are developing my characters, having those characters form opinions about others and their situation, and coming up with a simple premise that calls the characters to action. The final piece—the piece that I’ve found really makes a story take off—is the voice.

The voice of a novel is the overall style and tone. It can be wry, ponderous, intimate, lofty, delicate or in-you-face, just to name a few. It can be a unique combination of any of these styles. The key to pulling off the voice is that it must complement the characters and story, but most importantly, it must be consistent throughout.

Think back to a movie you’ve seen where the characters and story seemed ok, but for some reason that you couldn’t quite put your finger on, you didn’t like the movie. This is often a tone problem. There was something in the way the story was told that didn’t quite reflect the story. Maybe the tone was too melodramatic for the lightness of the situation, or too breezy for a story that requires a little emotional depth. When the tone is wrong, we find ourselves laughing at the wrong times or shaking our heads in disbelief. Using the wrong voice can undermine the credibility of your entire work.

Finding your voice can be a long and elusive quest. A good place to start is to think about your natural speaking voice. How do you tell a story? Are you a person of few words or are you more leisurely? Tell the story out loud and write it as you go. You can also try switching points of view, which is one of the quickest ways to change the voice. Another method is to free write, alternating between dialogue and narration, without trying to force a particular style. What I’ve discovered is that often a bit of dialogue or a turn of phrase will bubble up and suddenly, you’ll just know…. you’ve found your voice. If you can build on this little bit of discovery, zero in on what kind of voice you have, you can use it to re-write previous scenes in this new tone. When I’ve done this with my own work, it feels a bit like performing CPR. It feels like I’m breathing life into the prose.

Even after you discover your voice, there will be times when you'll get a little off track, when your storytelling becomes flat. When this happens, return to that moment on the page when you first discovered it. Or, find a particular scene that really sings. Revisit your successes and use them as inspiration to move forward.

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