Breaking Down Authorial Voice

Voice is one of those things that almost defies explanation: you know it when you see it, right?  Katy and Donna have already blogged about finding your character's voice.  I want to to talk about authorial voice.

And since I love to analyze these types of things, let's break it down.

My definition of Authorial Voice:  This is the unique writing style of the author. It's one of the reasons we fall in love with certain writers and want to read everything they've ever written, not just the story that first catches our eye.  It's a style that becomes the author's own personal brand.  Stephen King has a voice.  It doesn't matter whether he's writing a novel or a short story, a male or female character, a horror story or a dystopian thriller, his authorial voice comes through.  That's not to say his stories or characters read the same or even sound the same.  They don't.  But there's a certain style and pace to his writing that we come to expect.  His authorial voice.

The authorial voice encompasses many elements of writing, every element really.  It's how an author uses the tools of the craft to tell as story.  In mathematical terms:  V = C + A.  Voice = Craft + Art.  It's more than characters or story- it's how we use the craft to bring our characters and stories to life in our own unique way.

All writers have a voice. Is your voice modern or old-fashioned?  Literary or commercial?  Does your novel read like a science text or a fast-paced thriller?  Is your novel driven by character or plot?  What's the balance between the two?

Here are some things that I've noticed that can really impact authorial voice.

1.  Vocabulary and word choice

Does the writer use the same words over and over?  Does the text read like a SAT verbal test? Is it loquacious?  Simple?  What kinds of words does the author use to describe the world the book takes place in?  Is there slang?  Some authors make up their own slang or words, which can really add the voice of a story.  Scott Westerfeld's use of slang and word choices in his UGLIES series is a great example of how voice can become part of the world-building, and contribute to the enjoyment of a book.

2.  Ratio of dialogue to descriptive passages

A lot of short dialogue sequences will increase the pace, while long descriptive paragraphs slow it down. The balance between dialogue and descriptive passages is an important part of voice.  Do you prefer books with lots of descriptions of settings and people?  Do you like banter and witty dialogue? Do you have some of each on every page of your manuscript?  Should you?  Only you can answer these questions, but for me, I need dialogue in a scene, or I tend to skim.  I can appreciate a gorgeous setting as much as the next person, but I want things to happen fairly quickly.

3.  Length of sentences
Some authors write in short sentences.  Or even sentence fragments.  Others have mastered the art of keeping a sentence going, and going; adding clauses and commas to draw out the point. The length of your sentences and how you vary between them is part of your authorial voice.  Too many short sentences is jarring. Too many long sentences, and the reader loses interest.  Here, there is always a need for balance, but the degree of balance may depend on the characters, story and scene.  And of course, your voice.

4.  Use of adjectives and adverbs

Are you prone to flowery adjectives and purple prose?  Do you eschew adverbs and force yourself to use adjectives sparingly? Adverbs have a bad rap in modern day publishing, with adjectives running a close second.  According to some (who?  who are these people?), there is such a thing as over-writing, and the modern school of thought is that active verbs can often take the place of descriptive adverbs, while many adjectives can be eliminated through more careful word choice.  Adverbs and adjectives do have a place in modern publishing, but how and when you use them can impact how people view your voice.

5.  Use of Interior Monologue

A common mistake many writers make is to take the "show, don't tell" school of writing to the extreme, forgetting to put in the character's interior reaction or motivation for doing something.  One of the wonderful aspects of reading is that we can literally experience the main characters thoughts and emotions in a way we can't with theater or film.  Readers need to experience the character's thoughts, feelings and memories. How much and to what extent we get a peek inside your characters' heads is part of voice.
Editor Krista Marino believes that a book's interior monologue is its voice.  At LA SCBWI in August she read some pages from Jennifer Donnelly's REVOLUTION.  First she read the pages as written.  Then she read only the physical descriptions and dialogue, without the character's internal observations, thoughts and feelings about what she was seeing and hearing.  It was much colder and far less engaging.  Try this exercise with a random page from any book.  It's amazing how sterile a story is without the emotions and internal reactions of the narrator in the mix.

6.  Use of Setting

Some authors make such a wonderful use of setting, that the setting becomes its own character in the book.  Think of Hogwarts in the Harry Potter series, the arena in the HUNGER GAMES, and the prison in INCARCERON.  Just the word, Incarceron, evokes a mood and a tone of the story.  THAT is voice.

7.  Use of paragraph breaks

Are there long paragraphs, or even pages without a paragraph break?  Is there a lot of white on the pages.  Is there a new paragraph every sentence?   Like sentence length, the key is variety of some type or another.  Two many long paragraphs in a row and our eyes glaze over.  Too many short snappy dialogue quips and we get bored. 

A standalone sentence for emphasis can create drama.

Too many, and you risk losing your reader's trust. 

8. Use of pacing and plot

Voice impacts whether a book moves fast or slow, and how quickly we solve the stories' problems.  Generally, dialogue, short sentences and short paragraphs will increase pace.  Long paragraphs, with long sentences and lots of description, slow things down.  But plot can also be an important part of pacing.  Is there tension in every chapter, scene, or page?  Do you have quiet moments for internal reaction and character growth?  Does the story keep moving forward, or does it get stalled or jump off the rails?  Plotting and pacing definitely impact voice.
Do not confuse your authorial voice with character voice.  Each character within the story should have their own voice.  They shouldn't all sound like the author. The character's voice will reflect their individual background, upbringing, interests, socio-economic status, region, education, intelligence, attitudes, and personality traits.  A funny, outgoing main character (think Sophie in HEX HALL) will have a different voice than a lonely, sad one (think lower case Will in WILL GRAYSON, WILL GRAYSON).  A conservative teacher at a posh private school will speak differently from a backwoods mechanic with a sixth grade education. 

You can write all kinds of characters in your story, each with a unique voice, but your authorial voice, the way you choose to tell the story, will probably stay fairly consistent.

What are some things you've noticed that contribute to voice?


Thanks for the great post. This is the first post I read that's dealt with the topic.

Awesome, awesome breakdown! Thank you!! Good reminders too.

Great post! Agree with Stina on this one. You tackle it beautifully.

I think you've just about covered the things that contribute to voice. It's such a difficult aspect of writing for people to explain, most people don't even try. As the above commenters said already, well done, and thank you!

Lovely post, Talia! All of the blog posts on the issue have been great.

One other element that also contributes to voice, I've found, is the issue of narrative proximity or distance.

In other words, how close are we to when the story events unfold and how intimate is our connection to the narrator of those events?

The greater the distance, the more objective and dispassionate the narrative voice tends to be, creating a similar feeling in the reader. The closer we are to events and the more deeply immersed we are in the character's psyche, the warmer and more textured the voice tends to be.

Just two more cents!

That's the best explanation of authorial voice I've ever read, or heard. Thank you.

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