V is for Voice: the sound(s) uttered through the mouth of a living creature, especially of human beings in speaking, shouting, singing, etc. (Dictionary.com) Also, the literary term used to describe the individual writing style of an author [specific to a story.] (Wikipedia)
Literary voice is probably the single most difficult concept to explain in the craft of writing. I think it’s that feeling the reader has that there actually is a person and a personality speaking the words written on the page. It’s like you’re sitting around a campfire with the narrator and you can see and feel, as well as hear him. It’s the very flavor of the story.
Every voice has its own style that comes from deep inside the character. It’s his way of speaking, his syntax, jargon, or particular vernacular. Even his opinion is laced throughout the voice. It is the intimate details of that character’s life experiences that make his voice unique, that call to the reader to come close, have a seat, and sit a spell while he tells you a story.
Several mechanics help construct the voice, such as the point of view or who exactly is telling the story, which tense the character is using, first, second, or third, and the chronological order in which he shares the tale—whether it is linear or out of sequence. In addition, the story’s voice comes from what drives the author to tell the story, what the author’s own unresolved inner conflicts may be. Even though it may not be the author’s personal story, she assists the voice by filtering it through her own experiences.
Jami Gold recently wrote an interesting post on voice that gets down to the nuts and bolts of what it is and how to use it. While I don’t necessarily agree that it takes a lot of practice, what I do think is that it takes a keen understanding of who exactly is telling the story and why. The voice is the embodiment of that spirit. And in the end (as well as the beginning), it is what keeps the reader reading.
No matter how good the plot, if the voice falls flat, the reader loses interest. Same holds true for too much voice. I notice this a lot in YA novels. Too many authors feel the need to make their protagonists—especially the female ones—overly snarky, sarcastic, acerbic, or just plain too dramatic, which drives me up the wall. Shatter Me anyone? That book drove me mad with its melodrama.
But even adult novels can have irritating voices that keep me from bonding with the main character. The Descendants comes quickly to mind. While I did enjoy it in the end, all throughout the novel, I wanted to smack the protagonist, Matt King, upside the head for being such a dimwitted dumbass. He was so clueless, it was hard for me to believe he was supposed to be an attorney in charge of his vast familial fortune, not to mention the husband of a supermodel wife who lived life by the seat of her pants. So while voice can pull the reader and tuck him in, it can also chase him away.
What kind of voice most attracts or distracts you from getting involved with a story? How important to you is the voice in relation to the plot?