Friday, 5 November 2010

The writer's voice

Every fiction writer has to find a particular ‘voice’ for his or her story. There may be several ‘voices’ in the book (most often carried in the dialogue) but there is usually one prevailing voice that carries the narrative.

(An exception that proves the rule: I have just written a short story that alternates between two prevailing voices, but that is fairly unusual.)

More often than not, the ‘voice’ comes from the central character or protagonist of the story. That is especially true (or especially noticeable) if the novel is written in the first person; usually narrated by the central character. Not only do we understand the story is to be told by that character, but is also to be seen through their eyes. (Which can make it awkward when it comes to key scenes where they may not be around, or if it strains credulity that they are around – read Wuthering Heights for some particularly awkward examples.)

But a story that is written in the third person will also usually have a prevailing voice, either one of the characters or a consistent ‘authorial’ voice.

I give myself a challenge with the material I write, because I like to experiment with different genres and different ways of telling stories. So my ‘writer’s voice’ is always changing.

I want to illustrate this by extracts from three very different books of mine. Including the extracts could make this post excessively long, so I have used a show/hide button for each one. If you would like to read or even glance at the extract just click the button and it will appear - click again to hide it. Or you can skip altogether if you prefer.


These stories are written from the point of view of a junior school boy growing up in a northern mining town in the late 1950s. Here's a further ‘voice’ complication: the stories actually come from the narrative voice of a grown man remembering his childhood emotions and experiences. As I'm writing this post on November 5th I have chosen an appropriately seasonal extract.

Extract from Uncle Barney’s Box

Here are some points to note about the 'voice' I use for this extract: it is written in the first person (the same voice is used for all the stories in this collection}; the past tense is used for what we might term 'the set-up' and switches to present tense for describing the action, which should provide more immediacy for the reader; the vocabulary generally avoids dialect terms, except for the use of the odd word, phrase, filler or shortened form (that say ‘North East’ and ‘child’) to colour the ‘voice’ in the narrative as well as the dialogue; all these complexities of voice are designed to work naturally on the audience's inner ear even in silent reading. On this last point, I do a lot of public readings of my work, and this helps to assure me that the 'voice' is coming through, as do the read-alouds I sometimes offer to myself as part of the writing process.

(finished, but not yet published)

This is a historical novel about the railway pioneers George and Robert Stephenson. It is written in the past tense and in the third person, but the prevailing ‘voice’ throughout the novel is Robert (very occasionally and in specific circumstances the 'voice' shifts, along with the point of view, to one of the other characters). A challenge I gave myself in this book, in trying to provide a sense of the times, was to use only vocabulary that was available at the time, though I have tried not to be faux-Georgian or faux-Victorian.

Briefly the context of this extract is: Robert Stephenson, George’s son, is only 19 here. He is in London, shortly before he leaves to go to South America (early 1820s). He has met a fairly well-off and well-educated but decidedly rakish chap called Travis, who is about to introduce him to the delights of an opium den run by a Mr Chung. (It’s a historical fact that Robert smoked opium for most of his adulthood.)

Extract from Mr Stephenson’s Regret

Here are some points to note about the 'voice' I use for this extract: the writing is in the third person, but the reader experiences the scene through the mind and eyes of Robert; past tense is used throughout, but here it might be described as active past tense as the action seems to unfold more or less in real time (no historical summary in this extract); in contrast to the first extract, here we have sentence structure which is much more formal and standardised, even in dialogue; the long, flowing descriptive sentences near the end of the extract are there to aid the sense of Robert's dreaminess.


Another contrast in style, this is my newly-published novel, a contemporary thriller set in an unnamed city in the North East of England. It is written in the first person and mostly in the present tense. The 'voice’ of 11:59 is the central protagonist, Marc Niven, an educated Northerner who is a late night phone-in host on a local commercial radio station.

My challenge in this book was to find a style and language that not only fitted the character, but was appropriate for a story that reaches at times into the city’s underworld. Elsewhere in the novel there are some fairly graphic sex scenes, there are some pretty nasty characters, and (without being gratuitous) the language and attitudes had to fit. (Perhaps appropriately this posting is written in the month that sees the 50th anniversary of the landmark trial of Penguin Books for publishing the allegedly obscene Lady Chatterley's Lover, but relax, there is nothing shocking in the extracts I've chosen.

I am going to provide two extracts from 11:59. First, the opening couple of pages, set in the studio just before midnight. The ‘inciting incident’ occurs here; watch out for it. We also begin to get the measure of the type of character Marc is, or at least we think we do.

Extract I from 11:59: The Opening Scene

Here are some points to note about the 'voice' I use for this extract: we are firmly in the mind of central character Marc, first person present tense; the vocabulary is casual, informal, a tiny bit of technical language to establish the radio studio context and his familiarity with it, some DJ-speak; incomplete sentences; very importantly, lots of internal monologue - we live a lot in Marc's head in this novel, and it's not always an attractive place to be - emphasing his egoism, his sexual preoccupations, underlying sexism, slight coarseness. Did you get the 'inciting incident’? Have I managed to make it credible that Marc missed it while he is distracted with Marni? We later find that his former studio assistant Sam was his former partner, who has left him for a reason left unexplained until much later.

Here is some brief context to the second extract from 11:59: as a consequence of his failure to react to what Hassan says, and because he subsequently tries to cover it up, Marc is suspended, and the story gets into the local paper. Totally disillusioned, he seeks solace in drink in a city centre dive of a pub called The George. In this extract we should recognise he is getting steadily drunker – the language also deteriorates.

Extract 2 from 11:59: Marc gets drunk in The George

The main challenge here was to put across a sense of Marc’s drunknness, not only in his direct speech, but increasingly as the scene unfolds in his descriptions, and his perceptions of what is happening – at the same time, I am tipping the wink to the reader that Marc’s interpretation is (I hope comically) at odds with reality.

It has been my intention, with the help of these extracts from three very different products of my wandering muse, to try and make some sense of what I mean 'the writer's voice'. Let me know if I have succeeded in any degree.

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