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Where lie the borders between Voice and Style?


Where does voice end and style begin? And while we’re at it, what is the sound of one hand clapping? No, seriously, my question about voice and style is not meant to be a Zen koan but is completely sincere. I have heard and read plenty of people (many of whom have been reading, writing, editing, and publishing for longer than I have been alive) talk about voice and style as if they are identical, or as if they constitute an indelible stamp the artist places on each piece of work. And, as I ratchet up the momentum on a highly stylized WIP, it has me thinking about what constitutes a “narrative voice” and how it relates to a writer’s (or a story’s) “style”.

If I had a nickel for every time I’d heard/read that “it takes time for a writer to find their voice” I’d probably have…well, at least a couple of bucks. But here’s my underlying problem with this statement: it assumes that an artist only ever has one “mature” voice, that it is theirs and theirs alone, that it is so intrinsically tied to them as an individual that it permeates everything they ever produce. And much as I respect the folks who say that, I have to wonder: is not voice the most fundamental facet of writing that we as writers exert control over? And because it is wholly in our control, can’t we employ different voices for different stories and to different effects? When we write, don’t we employ different voices for exposition by different narrators and dialog by different characters?

A Working Definition of Narrative/Authorial Voice

Bear with me, because despite thinking about this for the last several months, I find this a pretty difficult concept to articulate: The way I see it, a narrative voice is to a story as individual brushstrokes are to a painting. Every one of us writes one word at a time. What sets my writing apart – both from that of other writers, and from work I have written before or will write after – is the words that I employ, and how I put them together. Each story – regardless of what it is about – is composed of words and punctuation marks, which together form sentences, which in turn assemble into paragraphs, which coalesce into scenes, chapters, acts, and after much heartache, hopefully a finished story. Narrative voice is the shorthand we use to describe patterns in word selection, punctuation, sentence construction, and rhetorical structure.

That’s it. But despite its superficial simplicity, this is an enormous tool in the writer’s hand. In fact, it is the only tool that as writers we have. Because at the end of the day, the only facets of the writing we have any control over are the words we choose to use, the order we put them in, the punctuation we delineate them with, and the structures that we build out of them. Every higher-order facet of our writing – the structure, the characters, the themes – are constructed by narrative voice. Which makes it, in my opinion, the most important part of the craft, the most visible, and the hardest to understand.

The Purpose and Tools of Voice

The patterns in our writing are above all else purposeful. We might have many goals in writing (Fast cars! Beautiful women! The love and adoration of thousands! Oh, wait…) but at the most basic, all writing means to move the reader. We might want to move the reader emotionally or intellectually, but we want some degree of engagement and response. And narrative voice is the tool through which we effect that manipulation.

This isn’t so different from spoken conversation. When we speak with someone, we use our words and the structure of our rhetoric to achieve certain goals: it might be to keep our conversant interested, to amuse them, to anger them, to convince them – the particular goal is immaterial, but it is always there. However, auditory communication has an advantage over the written word: through the use of facial expression, body language, or the timbre at which we speak, the spoken word communicates emotion and intent in a far more condensed and physiologically evocative manner than writing ever can.

Consider a shrill scream. When heard aloud, it communicates instantaneously the speaker’s (screamer’s) emotional state: frightened, surprised, or excited. It also communicates the intensity of their emotion, ranging from mild to extreme. And all of this in less time than it takes us to read this sentence. But even if we engage in the most crass onomatopoeia or in clumsy adverbial writing (“Chris screamed shrilly.”) we cannot possibly evoke the same response with the same economy. Instead of using timbre, volume, or body language we are reduced to using words, punctuation, and sentence structure.

There are multiple levels at which these tools operate. When we write, the words we choose to use bring to the reader’s mind sounds. The phonemes and punctuation imbue our sentences with rhythm, which in turn contributes to pace and flow. They affect how caught up in the story we are. The words evoke images in the reader’s mind, which in turn color the text with emotional overtones. And they can invoke cultural touchstones, which add a further extra-textual layer of meaning to even the most prosaic sentences. Long, convoluted sentences with multiple clauses, often nested within one another, or recursively referring to initial clauses and thus extending their length, produce a certain set of effects. Syncopated sentences yield different results. The adjective “red” communicates one set of meanings, and “bloody” another.

These are the tools of the writer’s craft, and much as I love thinking about structure, and character, and pacing – at the end of the day, each of those higher-order tools is applied through the use of our narrative voice. And that is a voice dependent on the story we are telling.

The Narrator’s Voice and Not the Author’s

Most of us will write many stories over the course of our lives. Consider Anthony Burgess, who wrote the highly stylized A Clockwork Orange in the early ’60s where he employed highly stylized language, sentence construction, and neologistic vocabulary to achieve his narrative goals. At about the same time, he published The Wanting Seed which employed entirely different patterns of construction. To have written The Wanting Seed in the Nadsat argot of A Clockwork Orange would not have worked. And to have written A Clockwork Orange in the relatively accessible constructions of The Wanting Seed would have destroyed it just as well.

Burgess understood that the voice employed must above all service the narrative being told. The same holds true in the spoken word: if we had to tell a relative that a family member had died, would we present it in the form of a bouncy song? Probably not. The intent of the message, the goal of the communication, ultimately determines the narrative voice most appropriate. When we write, our job is not to find our “one voice” – but to master all voices, and to understand which vocal technique to apply when. Which, given the impossible flexibility of language, might be a Sisyphean task.

Some writers find a voice they are particularly comfortable with, and use it in story after story. Damon Runyon is a great example of this. His Broadway stories use a highly stylized narrative voice, communicated through a fictional first person narrator, with idiosyncratic speech patterns and word choices (including the extensive use of neologisms that have since entered the vernacular). But though he wrote many short stories, most were written in precisely this idiosyncratic voice. Is that the only voice Runyon used? Absolutely not. He also wrote perfectly “normal” newspaper articles for many years. But the stylized voice of his fictional narrator makes his prose instantly recognizable – and this is where his (consistent) narrative voice evolves into “style”.

The Difference Between Style and Voice

Voice is always contained. It is bounded by the covers of a book or by a given narrator within that book. And it is locked in the reader’s head, where we shape the voice in our own minds. I distinctly remember one of my favorite writers (who shall remain nameless) who uses words like a scalpel. He has written single sentences that brought me to tears. And so when I had the opportunity to go to a reading of his a couple of years ago, I jumped at the chance. And the story he read was a good one, utilizing the same flowing sentences and flawless word choices as I had come to expect. But he read in a horrendously thick Chicago accent completely at odds with the beautiful sentences he was using. Don’t get me wrong: I don’t fault him his accent (with the amount of time I’ve spent abroad, I’ve got heavy accents in several languages!), but this wonderful author’s speaking voice was completely at odds with the narrative voice I had built in my own head. It was a clash of expectations: I had naively expected the voice in my brain, and was confronted with a far different reality.

But if voice is internal to the narrator and the reader, then style is external: it is always comparative, as when we say someone writes “in the style of.” When we talk about a writer’s style we are talking about how a particular narrative voice they employed compares to narrative voices employed elsewhere. If they have written many stories employing similar narrative voices – as in Runyon’s case – we can say that they have a “distinctive style”. In this case, we are merely comparing them against themselves: the comparison is still there.

Compare for a moment the narrative voice employed in Steven Brust’s excellent The Phoenix Guards against the narrative voices employed in his To Reign in Hell. Two completely different books both by the same author, the former of which is in the style of Dumas, while the latter is wholly his own. Stylistically, the two books are very different. At the level of their prose, that difference boils down to their different narrative voices. And the difference in those voices is ultimately determined by their narrator.

The Narrator’s Voice

If there is a question about how a narrative voice should be a constructed, always look to the narrator. The narrator is a fictional construct in the story: the narrator is not the author. What would the narrator notice? How would they communicate it? The narrator – even if they are unnamed, omniscient, and outside of the action of the story – is always present, and always separate from the author. When we write, we put the words in the narrator’s mouth. They are a character like any other, even if a transparent one. Our job when we write is to consider the words we make the narrator say, and choose the words that are best able to achieve our narrative goals. Every narrator we create may well have a different voice, particularly suited to the needs of the specific story they tell.

Samuel Delany, in his excellent essay “About 5,570 Words”, says: “A sixty-thousand word novel is one picture corrected fifty-nine thousand, nine hundred and ninety-nine times.” The art and craft of writing lies in making the right corrections. And those choices constitute a story’s narrative voice.

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