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Posts tagged ‘Style’

Balancing Beauty, Language, and Story


Recently, a friend and I were talking about writing (like you do), and he drew my attention to some comments from Jonathan Carroll about the relationship between beautiful language and storytelling. In a 2002 interview with Rain Taxi, Carroll says:

Too often, writers either write well or they story-tell well. Very rarely are they working toward the middle, and a lot of the time the guys who write well are considered hands-off, literary writers. I think that they are forgiven a lot. They may have beautiful language or metaphors, but when I read, I want both. I want to read a good book, and that’s one of the reasons why I don’t read genre fiction, because most of these guys can’t write well. They can story-tell well, but they can’t write well, and I just get bored. To sit on a page with furiously beautiful language: that entertains you for a while, but after a while, it’s like, come on! And if the guy tells a good story only and the characters are like film sets that have a stick behind them, and if you take it away they’ll collapse-no, I want both. I want both in what I read. And I’m trying to do it in what I write.

This is a nice quote because it is succinct and it communicates Carroll’s point clearly. However, I think that taken at face-value it oversimplifies the relationship between language and story-telling (bear in mind that an interview like this doesn’t really provide much room for nuance, and I suspect a writer as good as Carroll well understands the underlying nuance that informs such statements).

I agree with Carroll that beautiful prose and solid story-telling should not be mutually exclusive. However, I object to the use of the term “beauty” as a way of describing prose in any critical sense because it tells us more about the speaker’s literary tastes than about the text itself. It is an over-broad term, useful in colloquial, casual discussion (or in interviews), but useless in exploring how fiction actually works.

What Makes Prose Beautiful?

First, let me start by saying that I do not think that all books are created equal. Some stories are better than others, and some are just plain bad. But the beauty of prose alone, or the degree to which the story takes primacy over style, does not determine “quality” in my estimation. And that is because the style of a given story and the balance struck between story, character, philosophy, and style are consequences of authorial choice.

Consider for a moment three sentences, taken from three different “mystery” novels. While all three sentences serve a similar – technical – function, their constructions differ greatly:

Sentence A As our little mules strove up the last curve of the mountain, where the main path divided into three, producing two side paths, my master stopped for a while, to look around: at the sides of the road, at the road itself, and above the road, where, for a brief stretch, a series of evergeren pines formed a natural roof, white with snow.
Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose
Sentence B It’s a long drag back from Tijuana and one of the dullest drives in the state.
Raymond Chandler, The Long Goodbye
Sentence C I opened the front door with my latch-key and purposely delayed a few moments in the hall, hanging up my hat and the light overcoat that I had deemed a wise precaution against the chill of an early autumn morning.
Agatha Christie, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd

All three of these sentences serve a straightforward narrative goal: they set the scene, they establish the setting in which the rest of the action is to take place. It is a simple goal, but they are each written in a completely different style. Eco relies on a multifaceted sentence, with plenty of subordinate clauses and descriptive imagery. Chandler rejects all of that, and instead offers a flat description of a character’s perception of the environment. And Christie, whose prose Carroll calls wooden elsewhere in his interview, presents an unemotional portrayal of the narrator’s actions, with some characterization implied through the narrator’s value judgments.

Which is the more “beautiful”? Which the more effective?

I posit that they are each “beautiful” in their own way: Eco’s sentence is more complicated, with more components and more images than either Chandler’s or Christie’s. It relies to a greater extent on visual imagery, and its punctuation and rhythm imbues a serene ambiance to the text. Chandler’s sentence, though simpler in its construction, tells us more about the speaker/narrator, and uses an the elongated soft vowel (the “a” in “drag”) punctuated by the short “u” and hard “dr” (in “dullest drives”) to both suggest the experience described and offset it with a hard stop. Chandler’s sentence accomplishes just as much as Eco’s, but in far fewer words. By contrast, Christie’s sentence straddles a position between these two extremes: hers is a sentence verging on the “merely functional,” wherein she includes more sensory detail and more mental context than Chandler offers, but less visual imagery than Eco. One might suggest, as Carroll does in his interview, that Christie’s prose is “wooden” as a result. But I don’t think that is the case: Christie’s prose is functional; it gets the job done, but in her stories she focused her attention on aspects other than the prose.

For me, there is beauty in all three approaches (and I suspect that Carroll too would recognize the beauty in Eco and Chandler at least, particularly in light of his other comments regarding Chandler). But what makes all three sentences “beautiful” is not their elegance, their fluidity, their economy, or their rhythm. Their “beauty” stems from the fact that they are effective: they produce a response in the reader, and put the reader in a certain frame of mind. And they are particularly effective, and so particularly beautiful, because their construction and the response it elicits align with the themes, characters, and plot of their respective stories.

The Right Tool for the Job

When we write, words are the chisels we use to carve our marks on the readers’ minds. In general, we would be unlikely to use a shovel to turn a screw. The craftsman and the artist must both select the tools best suited to the task at hand. If words and the style in which they get assembled into sentences and paragraphs are the tools of a writer, then they should be used as needed for a particular story. This is probably easiest to see when considering the relationship between prose style and pacing.

A complicated style, stuffed to the gills with literary allusions and luminous metaphors, might work very well in a mainstream literary novel. But by its very nature it slows the reader down: to be appreciated, it forces the reader to consider the ways in which a sentence is constructed, to savor each syllable and the way the sentence rolls off of the tongue, to luxuriate in velvety imagery like a lounging cat. There is a place for that.

But sometimes, like when a character is literally hanging over a precipice by their fingernails, the reader doesn’t want any of that artistry. They want to know: will they fall or not? They want to know what happens next, and are on the edge of their seat waiting to get it. Allusions and flowery metaphor, in such a situation, risk just getting in the way of what drives the reader’s engagement with the story (see my earlier thoughts on that score).

And this is why when we write, we need to carefully select and modulate the way in which we write to suit our needs. Because the right style for a particular passage will depend on our goals for that passage, and it will vary from story to story, or even within the same story. I am reminded here of the movie Blade Runner, which Caroll himself references elsewhere in that interview. He and I share a favorite line from that movie, apparently, namely the scene where Rutger Hauer’s character is dying and he says to Harrison Ford:

Rutger Hauer in Blade Runner

I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die.

For me, this is an excellent example of code-switching, of getting the audience to the right emotional point where they can experience a cathartic moment, and then to amplify that catharsis by a switching into a different style.

Prior to that scene, Blade Runner toes a fine line between a straight noir science fiction detective story, and a more poignant exploration of life and humanity. The philosophical dimensions are alluded to, suggested more by their absence from the story (and highlighted by the excellent score) than by its explicit dialog. But those allusions and tantalizing hints crystallize in that one scene, where the action of the detective story gives way to sublime beauty as voiced by the film’s ostensible villain.

That trick worked in the film because of the way the movie teetered on a point between straight detective story and philosophical conjecture. And therein, I think, lies the secret to unifying prose, theme, and character: balance.

When we write, our job is to balance the myriad devices of our fiction to achieve our artistic goals. The “right” balance will vary from story to story: one story might skew more to heart-pounding action, another might teeter in the direction of poetry, etc. But for a story’s prose to unify with its themes and narrative, we must determine where the right balance for that story can be found. Once that has been done, we must “merely” (Ha! Easier said than done!) write the text that adheres to that balance, and hope that the balance that tickled our fancy as writers will likewise resonate with our readers.

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.

Narrative Voice as Mind-control: Thoughts on Manipulating Reader Perception


Voice: Purpose, Function, Technique

A Conceptual Framework for Narrative Voice

I’ve always considered voice one of the most important tools when writing alternate history, and over the past couple of weeks I’ve been thinking about how that tool really works (both within and outside the sub-genre).

There are probably as many valid descriptions of voice as there are writers, editors, and critics out there. For my part, I believe that voice has three components: its purpose, its function, and its technique.

The Purpose of Voice: Establishing a Relationship with the Text

The purpose of voice is to establish the reader’s relationship to the text. Different stories, different narrators, call for different relationships. Would Nabokov’s Lolita be as powerful if we weren’t sympathetically engaged with the monstrous Humbert Humbert? Would Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories be as effective if the narration were as coldly dispassionate as the detective himself? Voice – both in narration, and in dialog – establishes how we relate to a story. At its most basic level, it controls the emotional distance with which we perceive it, and is most powerful when wedded to the story’s themes.

Nabokov wants us to view Humbert Humbert up close and personal. The power of his book relies on juxtaposing our the intellectual horror at Humbert Humbert and the visceral engagement his voice engenders. Had Nabokov employed a distancing technique, for example making Humbert’s story epistolary, or telling it from the dispassionate perspective of a court stenographer, it would not have the resonance it does.

John Crowley in Little, Big uses voice to distance us at once from our reality, and the reality of the text. The lyrical, metaphoric voice he employs puts us in a liminal state, somewhere on the borders of what is, what was, and what might be. In this, the voice employed is fundamentally aligned with the book’s themes.

Olaf Stapledon in Last and First Men keeps the reader at arms length, so that we can view the events of his future history dispassionately, as if we were observing them from billions of years removed.

When Michael A. Stackpole employs a voice reminiscent of 17th century colonial texts in At the Queen’s Command it instantly links his book to that time in the reader’s mind.

The relationship created between us and the text is foundational in the act of reading. It sets the context for everything else, determining how we perceive a story’s pacing, how we engage with its characters, and how we identify its themes. In this sense, the purpose of voice transcends any individual sentence, or any paragraph. It is a combination of the voice’s expression in narration, in dialog, even in its epigraphs (shout out to @DDSyrdal for reminding me of this term!). But apart from its broad and abstract purpose, voice has a function within the story which is variable over the length of the text.

The Function of Voice: Manipulating the Reader’s Perception

I often think that it is the writer’s job to manipulate the reader, to take us on an emotional roller-coaster the author has designed. By influencing how we perceive events, settings, and characters, the narrative voice becomes the rail which guides us along the ride. It imparts the twists, falls, and rises. If well-constructed, it shouldn’t be noticeable (unless we’re looking for it). But if it’s shoddily put together, well…I’d rather not consider what happens when a roller-coaster comes off its rail.

Voice’s function can be modulated for specific effect. This is easiest to see in dialog, where each actor has their own voice, more or less distinct from the voices of other characters. Those differences exert a subtle influence on our perception of those characters. Consider the following exchange from George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones:

“Boy,” a voice called out to him. Jon turned.

Tyrion Lannister was sitting on the ledge above the door to the Great Hall, looking for all the world like a gargoyle. The dwarf grinned down at him. “Is that animal a wolf?”

“A direwolf,” Jon said. “His name is Ghost.” He stared up at the little man, his disappointment suddenly forgotten. “What are you doing up there? Why aren’t you at the feast?”

“Too hot, too noisy, and I’d drunk too much wine,” the dwarf told him. “I learned long ago that it is considered rude to vomit on your brother. Might I have a closer look at your wolf?”

From his short, staccato sentences we get the sense that Jon is direct, straightforward. He answers the question asked of him, but by offering little additions he avoids being brusque. He asks direct questions, wanting to know the answers. By contrast, Tyrion Lannister’s dialog is more complicated. His first sentence is broken apart by prose narration, imbuing a meaningful pause that – were the text read aloud – might suggest either humor, or shock. His second sentence, with its precise list and brutally honest self-assessment shows us Tyrion’s precision and self-deprecation. His third sentence gives us further insight into both his sense of humor, and his relationship with his brother.

The entire exchange is used to manipulate us into liking both Tyrion Lannister and Jon Snow, though for different reasons. Even if we cannot articulate it, even if we don’t notice it at the first reading, we respond to Jon’s simple directness. And we appreciate Tyrion’s self-deprecating humor. And Martin achieves this subtle effect just using voice in his characters’ dialog.

Prose narration – descriptions of setting, of action – can similarly affect our perception of and emotional response to the story. Consider two brief passages, each describing the same actions (sorry for the quality of my example sentences – I’m coming up with these on the fly):

Version #1 Version #2
The rain-slick leaves left the tree like snowflakes, gently spinning to melt into the mud. Rain battered the leaves. Glop! Glop! Glop! And down into the mud.

Hopefully (if I’ve done my job right) the two example sentences establish an entirely different mood. The first is more laconic, gentler, quieter. While the second is harsher, more abrupt, and louder through the use of onomatopoeia. The events are identical, but the difference in voice puts the reader into a different frame of mind. Voice becomes the tool I use to control the reader’s response to a particular scene, passage, or sentence (even a particular word!). And like any tool, there are a variety of ways in which it can be applied.

Purpose and Function Applied: Techniques for Controlling Voice

The range of control that we choose to exert over voice lies on a spectrum. At one end is banally utilitarian prose – the bland monotone of “Dick and Jane run after the ball.” On the other end we find the inimitable mastery of Nabokov, whose fine-grain manipulation of voice makes its inner workings invisible to the reader. Most of us operate somewhere between these two extremes employing a variety of techniques that are universal:

Perspective as a Window to Voice
Every one of us uses perspective to imbue our story with voice, whether consciously or not. In terms of purpose, the choice between first, close third, omniscient third, or the rare second-person narration has an immediate and major impact on the reader’s relationship to the story.

First person narration – when executed well – earns the reader’s instant engagement precisely through its link to voice. The narrator is a character in the story, with their own perceptions, predilections, and foibles. They have their own way of seeing the world, a tendency to pay attention to certain aspects that others might not notice in the same way. One narrator might comment on people’s appearances. Another might pay closer attention to facial expressions. And just like a character’s personality should affect their speech patterns in dialog, the same affects a first person narrator. For example, in Lisa Yee’s excellent YA novel Millicent Min, Girl Genius the narrator (the titular genius) uses complex sentences, a refined vocabulary and sprinkles in a little Latin every now and again. Her defining characteristic – her intellect – is intrinsic to how the narrator’s voice is portrayed.

In first-person narration, we are generally locked into the narrator’s voice throughout the story. That’s the trade-off we make for building that super-close reader/narrator relationship. Close third-person narration trades a little more distance between the reader and the POV character, in exchange for greater latitude in vocal manipulation. With close-third narration, we can shift POV characters (typically at chapter or section breaks for decent narrative flow) employing different voices for different points of view, as well as make more gradual, subtle shifts in tone and mood within the confines of a scene. This facility to shift vocal strategy is a double-edged sword and must be used judiciously. Do it too often or too fast, and we risk either confusing the reader or putting too much distance between her and the characters. For a great example of this technique employed well, I recommend Tad Williams’ Otherland series.

The relationship between voice and distance is less clear-cut for omniscient third-person perspective. As the most emotionally distant of the perspectives, omniscient third may well suit our thematic or stylistic purposes. However, by requiring a consistent narrative voice throughout, omniscient third loses the vocal flexibility that close third enjoys. There are situations where this trade-off makes sense. For example, J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings requires an omniscient narrator and consistent voice to evoke its linkages to epic storytelling and myth.

Style and Structure as Voice
If we were to ask five writers to write one sentence describing something, we would inevitably get five different sentences. How those sentences are composed – how the writer employs clauses and adverbs and conjunctions and even punctuation – determine what is typically called the author’s “style” and represents one of the most influential aspects of voice.

Pick up any book from the 19th century. You’ll immediately see that the way 19th century authors put their sentences together differs dramatically from contemporary styles. When we say an old classic hasn’t aged well, what we are really saying is that the modern reader’s emotional response as controlled by the story’s voice differs from an original reader’s presumed response. The variegated, many-claused sentences that characterize 18th and 19th century texts have a distancing effect for the modern reader. Bulwer-Lytton is a great example of this at work. In his day, he was one of the most influential, most celebrated writers in the English language. Today, there are awards named after him that celebrate purple prose.

This is not to say that contemporary voices are simpler than their predecessors, or that such simplicity would be a good thing. Many excellent authors – John Crowley, Gene Wolfe, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Jorge Luis Borges, to name a few – write lush, complex sentences. However their structure differs substantially from what came before. For one thing, contemporary authors adhere more strongly to the principle of “show, don’t tell.” Consider the following two sentences selected at random:

Sentence #1: “But they were entirely ignorant of what had passed; and their raptures continued with little intermission to the very day of Lydia’s leaving home.” Jane Austen, Pride And Prejudice, 1813
Sentence #2: “Then an expectant silence, followed by a firmer start, and the station wagon backed warily out into the drive, making two soft and delible marks in the wet leaves.” John Crowley, Little, Big, 1982

Both come from excellent books. I would in fact argue that the Crowley sentence is more structurally complex than the Austen. However, the voices are quite dissimilar: the Austen voice tells us that their raptures continued. It does not show us those raptures, nor does it provide any metaphor or analogy by which we can emotionally connect to them. The voice is – by design – at a remove from the emotional significance of the events. Austen’s voice leaves it to the reader to establish that connection, through the implications of certain facts dropped and hinted at: the “little intermission” and “to the very day”.

Crowley’s voice, by contrast, employs evocative imagery to show the reader a prosaic event. His adjectives, and the order in which they are placed all communicate an emotional significance (which may or may not be important). By calling the silence “expectant,” the start “firmer”, and the marks on the leaves “soft and delible”, Crowley anthropomorphizes insensate objects, imbuing them with emotions. The sentence describes no characters, yet we still have an arc that rises from expectation (expectant), to action (firmer), and descends through denouement (soft and delible).

The complexity of sentence structures is of course infinitely varied. However, stealing vocal tricks from other authors is a good idea and can lead to some truly impressive work. In her 1973 essay “From Elfland to Poughkeepsie” Ursula K. Le Guin calls Lord Dunsany “the First Terrible Fate that Awaiteth Unwary Beginners in Fantasy” – specifically because his mastery of voice and style is so inimitable and so frequently imitated. Lots of us fall victim to this trap (I know I’ve been guilty of it!), but this ability to imitate past masters, to emulate their voices and styles, is actually a skill for any writer. It broadens our vocabulary, adding new tools to our toolkit. Archaic voices have a place in fiction, as do Gothic voices, or Lovecraftian voices. Imitation is the finest form of flattery, after all, and a writer’s skill lies in deciding where to use which voice.

For example, The Phoenix Guards is Steven Brust’s homage to Alexandre Dumas’ The Three Musketeers. Of course, Brust’s story is an out-and-out fantasy, with dragons and semi-immortal elf-like people. But his plot structure has clear ties to the d’Artagnan romances and his sentence constructions echo Dumas’ voice flawlessly. Reading The Phoenix Guards today is an experience much like reading The Three Musketeers, and it is precisely because Brust not only built off of Dumas’ plot, but because he adopted Dumas’ vocal methods as well. Had he chosen to emulate only one facet (either the plot, or the sentence structures), the book would have rung off-true: somehow not quite complete.

As I’ve mentioned before, the best writers of alternate history and historical fiction employ such emulation to cement the reader in the time period depicted. Examples can be found in Michael A. Stackpole’s At the Queen’s Command, or Cherie Priest’s Dreadnought (see my reviews here and here).

But we can also have too much of a good thing. For example, in Freedom and Necessity Steven Brust and Emma Bull (otherwise, two masters of vocal technique) pull off their emulation too well. The combined effect of the novel’s epistolary frame and its flawless emulation of 19th century sentence construction create a sense that one is actually reading a genuine 19th century novel…despite the fact that it was written in 1997. Technically, it is a masterpiece of voice. However, I find that it establishes too much distance for the contemporary reader. The reader’s engagement with the events of the story is held at arm’s length, slowing the pace of what would otherwise be an amazing, exciting book.

The Invisible Voice
Voice is the ultimate mind-control, affecting how the story resonates with us, how we feel about the characters, and what we remember when the last page is turned. At its most impressive, it should be invisible. When we notice the voice, its influence on our responses and perceptions is lessened. I can’t think of anybody who has mastered voice more superlatively than Nabokov. His Lolita is the perfect union of purpose, function, and technique. No matter how many times I read the story, I still cannot figure out how Nabokov hooks me. I dream of finding the time to dissect his work word by word, sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph: to take it apart like clockwork and examine its movements and physics. Maybe someday I will. But until then, a more productive use of my time – and one which will probably get me farther – is to just imitate him. I’m sure anything I write won’t even approach the quality of his invisible voice (and I’m even more sure my practices won’t be fit for any editors eyes!), but by tracing over his lines maybe I’ll pick up a thing or two. And then when it’s time to apply those techniques, I’ll have some new and useful tricks up my sleeve.

What about you? How do you approach constructing and managing narrative voice in your own writing? What are some of the best-voiced books you’ve come across? If – like me – you’re looking for good books that use voice in interesting ways, below is the list of authors and books that I’ve mentioned in this post. I strongly recommend you pick up a copy from your local bookstore or library, and enjoy:

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