Looking for that next step up in your arts & entertainment career? In this column, Dr. Eileen Wirth shares everything she has learned about being a creative professional.
If you’re a fiction writer, your “voice” may be the most important aspect of your work, according to Dr. Brent Spencer, an award-winning novelist who directs the creative writing program at Creighton University in Omaha. His books include “The Lost Son.” Here, written exclusively for The Greenhouse Journal, is Dr. Spencer’s outstanding advice on strategies for establishing and expressing your unique voice. – Dr. Eileen Wirth
By Dr. Brent Spencer
Voice may be the first thing the reader becomes aware of in your story. The sound you make as storyteller has to do with the attitude you take toward your characters and their problems. Do you find them darkly funny, tragic, or do you observe them with cool detachment? There are many possibilities, of course.
Voice is the personality of your story, and in addition to attitude it’s created through sentence length and variety, word choice, syntax, and so much more (what we call “the elements of style”).
Voice is the cart that carries your story to the reader’s door. It’s the way the porch light reveals a figure standing in the darkness. It’s the booster rocket that pushes the spacecraft of your story into orbit.
Establishing the voice of a third-person narrator (“He,” “She,” “They”) is more difficult. You’re not telling your story through a character. Instead, it’s a voice coming to the reader from the dark, but it’s still a voice, still a personality.
Establishing a narrative voice and keeping it consistent can be very difficult. Even the best-intentioned writer finds voice difficult. There are so many voices clamoring in our heads—the voices of people around us, media voices, the voices of all those writers who came before us, the voice of the singer in our ears (which is why it’s so hard to write fiction will listening to music with lyrics).
Developing writers sometimes make the mistake of trying to sound “literary.” What’s wrong with a literary voice? It’s not the literary voice that’s the problem, it’s the self-conscious effort to sound literary that’s the problem. It leads the poor writer into all kinds of verbal quagmires. What comes out often sounds pretentious, preachy, overly solemn, weirdly old-fashioned, or as if it’s been translated from a foreign language. Here are passages from actual stories, all of them with virtues but all of them with voice problems. I include them, by the way, with permission from the writers.
I was 20 years old, working pest control, and living in St. Paul, Minnesota when my little sister broke up with her boyfriend, of four years, over the phone. The problematic part of this was that this lanky mid-west, meat and potatoes mechanic was at my apartment when this happened. In response to this I started watering my plants thinking that this action would somehow alleviate the situation.
I like the idea of putting the woman’s brother in the apartment with her boyfriend when she breaks up with him. It puts an interesting pressure on the characters. But look at that last line. I like the fact that he waters his plants in order to keep busy in the face of what’s happening, but what about those last words—“thinking that this action would somehow alleviate the situation”? Where did this flat, business-like voice come from? And why is it appropriate for this highly charged moment? Short answer: it ain’t.
Here’s another example:
At these moments, she had felt the tenderness of his hands and the desire of the gaze of his eyes to be met favorably.
I like the tenderness the writer’s going for, but the stiltedness of a phrase like “the desire of the gaze of his eyes” undercuts the passion it’s meant to describe.
And what about this one?
Stella debated whether she should make a come-back, after all, she knew she should be insulted, but then again, Cecilia had unwittingly esteemed her boobs a notch above her own assessment.
I like the effort to show us the character’s thought process, but—yikes!—that last clause mixes the abstract language of the boardroom (“unwittingly esteemed” and “assessment”) with the faintly obscene (“boobs”).
So in the face of all that complexity and all that clamor and all the difficulty, I want to suggest a simple way to deal with voice.
Imagine as your reader one of your friends, an actual person, someone who knows you very well, someone who’s smart, who won’t accept any bull, either from you or from anyone else. Do you have such a friend? If you do, you’re lucky. If you don’t, try combining two or more friends.
As you write, imagine that you’re telling the story to him or her or them. Imagine, in fact, that you’re not writing a story at all but telling it face-to-face or writing an email to that person. If it helps, actually tell or email your story to your friend. Don’t think, “I am a literary artist writing a story” but “I’m telling my friend about something that happened, something I urgently need them to hear.”
If you do this, every time you find yourself writing a line like “She walked amongst the tourists,” you’ll hear your friend laughing like a loon. Amongst? Amongst? Who talks like that? Not you! Not me! Not anyone on the planet! At least not anyone I want to listen to!
Instead of trying to sound like the narrator of your favorite book, try to sound like yourself. Honor your natural voice. Your story should sound more like your emails, text messages, and the tweets you post than like your favorite book.
It’s hard to capture your natural voice in writing. Try to let as much of your personality come through the writing as possible.
One more strategy.
You’ll note that I used the word urgency in my description of your narrative voice (“telling my friend… something I urgently need him/her to hear”). Why urgently? One way to keep writer and reader on their toes and to keep your story moving forward briskly is to tell it as if you’re compelled to tell the story. At the end of his long ordeal in Moby Dick, Ishmael, quoting The Book of Job, says to the reader, “And I only am escaped alone to tell thee.” That sense of urgency starts the book, too, with its opening words: “Call me Ishmael.”
So put those words (“And I only am escaped alone to tell thee”) on a Post-it and stick it to the edge of your computer screen. It will remind you of the need for urgency. But why? Why urgency? Urgency is just one of many tones a voice can take, but adopting it over the others can make your stories more engaging, more energetic, and less self-indulgent. The danger of the over-literary voice is especially present in sad or serious stories, which don’t have the implicit energy a comic story has. If you prefer, think of the word energy instead of urgency.
The Greenhouse and Dr. Wirth express their deep gratitude to Dr. Spencer for sharing this advice with The Greenhouse Journal!
Got a question or topic on creativity you would like Dr. Wirth to address for The Greenhouse Journal? Shoot her an email at EILEENWIRTH@creighton.edu.
Dr. Eileen Wirth is a professor emeritus of journalism at Creighton University and is an author specializing in Omaha history. She was a reporter at the World-Herald and a PR Writer for Union Pacific before joining Creighton in 1991. Eileen’s books include The Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium, Historic Omaha Houses of Worship and From Society Page to Front Page. She is on the board of History Nebraska and a member of the Nebraska Journalism Hall of Fame, the Nebraska Women’s Journalism Hall of Fame, and the Omaha Press Club Hall of Fame. She also has been active in numerous groups particularly the Omaha Public Library.