How many times have you been at a writer’s conference where an editor says, “I’m looking for books with voice”? The editor might use the phrase distinctive narrative voice or authentic voice. Then, when pressed to explain what distinctive narrative voice is, the editor sheepishly shrugs and says, “It’s hard to explain, but I know it when I see it.”
Sometimes, it feels like there is an entire sense of secrecy built up around the concept of voice. You hear about it all the time, but no one seems to agree on what it is or how to get it. Here is a quotation I found in one of my writing books:
A strong, distinctive, authoritative writing voice is something most fiction writers want—and something no editor or teacher can impart. (p. 128, Self-editing for Fiction Writers)
Well, when I read Jennifer Holm’s book Turtle in Paradise, I thought to myself, “Here is a clear example of a distinctive and authentic narrative voice. I see it!” But what is that voice? How did Holm create it? Turns out, those editors weren’t lying. It is hard to explain.
Let’s start with a description of voice (note, I did not use the word definition). Author K. L. Going compares narrative voice to people’s actual voices:
Our word choices and speech patterns reveal who we are, where we’re from, and what we’re thinking…. The same is true for narrative voice. Your narrator can be revealed by what he chooses to say and how he says it. (p. 113, Writing and Selling the YA Novel)
A way of seeing
Eleven-year-old Turtle, who narrates the story, “sees things for what they are,” and she has no qualms speaking her mind. Take this commentary at the beginning of chapter twelve:
Everyone’s always saying that hard times bring out the best in people, but as far as I can tell, the only thing that hard times brings out is plain meanness. I left my shoes outside on the front porch last night, and some rotten kid stole them (p. 113).
She has her own perspective on the world, one that’s informed by her experiences, and she has no problem disagreeing with what “everyone says.”
The example above includes a couple of Turtle’s favorite phrases of speech, notably “as far as I can tell” and “rotten kids.” She also likes to say “it’s a fact,” “from where I’m sitting,” and “in my opinion.” Turtle has lots of opinions, and she shares them with authority and confidence. Returning to Going’s description of voice, Holm uses word choice and speech patterns to reveal Turtle’s character.
Given Turtle’s “see things for what they are” attitude, you might guess that the voice of the novel is plain and straightforward. It’s not. While Turtle is cynical and at times jaded, she’s also sassy and witty, with a wry sense of humor. She comes up with unique metaphors to explain her take on events and people. For example,
Mama’s always falling in love, and the fellas she picks are like dandelions. One day they’re there, bright as sunshine—charming Mama, buying me presents—and the next they’re gone, scattered to the wind, leaving weeds everywhere and Mama crying. (p. 6)
Metaphors such as this appear throughout the book, enriching the narrative with distinctive imagery and pleasing comparisons.
It’s important to note that the metaphors in the book fit with Turtle’s experiences and era. For example, about her mother, Turtle says, “’Mama’s head is so high in the clouds, I’m surprised she doesn’t bump into Amelia Earhart’” (p. 94). Every kid in 1935 knew about Amelia Earhart. It’s the perfect comparison, both showing us how crazy Turtle thinks Mama is as well as reflecting the time period of the book.
Gee, that's swell
While helping to reveal character, narrative voice also helps build a sense of the book’s time period and setting. The kids in the Diaper Gang don’t say things like “That’s cool,” or “That rots.” They say “gee whiz” and “aww.” Words such as fella, gotta, dough, gang, swell, folks, mama, and sugar all sound appropriate—even authentic—to the 1930s.
They call it banter
In fact, as I read Turtle in Paradise, I couldn’t help but think about a few classic Katherine Hepburn movies such as “Bringing up Baby” or “The Philadelphia Story.” It was more than the choice of appropriate words and historical details such as references to Little Orphan Annie. It was the wittiness of dialogue. Here’s Slow Poke and Turtle after Slow Poke rescues Turtle from the water.
“I thought you said you could swim like a fish,” Slow Poke chides me.
“A dead one,” I say, and cough.
“Honey,” Slow Poke says, shaking his head, “dead fish float.” (p. 68)
Slow Poke might be late to everything, but he’s got a quick wit, as do all the characters in Turtle in Paradise. This smart dialogue, which often ends on a perfect zinger, contributes to the overall narrative voice.
Short story writer Sylvia Watanabe wrote an essay on voice in the book Creating Fiction. After analyzing a story by Flannery O’Connor, Watanabe tried to “identify the specific aspects of a story’s voice.” These aspects, she says, include:
choice of genre, articulation of point of view, treatment of exposition and dialogue, selection of detail, use of language… and the handling of sonics (the sound and rhythm of the prose). Voice, it would seem, abides everywhere in the story. (p. 202)
Perhaps therein lies the issue: voice abides everywhere in the story. I saw one person summarize voice as “what you write and how you write it.” It’s the combination of word choice, attitude, phrases of speech, regional or historical details, and patterns of speaking.
The combination of all these elements in Turtle in Paradise work together to create a distinctive narrative voice.
StorySleuths Tip #93: When writing and revising, look for ways to use distinctive words, metaphors, dialogue, details and patterns of speech, as well as opinions and attitude, to enrich a story’s narrative voice.
Post #3: The Narrative Hook
Post #3: The Narrative Hook