Voice in writing is that illusive “something.” It is mood, attitude, personality, perspective. It’s the tone of the narrator; the personality of the character from whose eyes we see the story unfold.
Eve Adler, children’s editor with Grosset & Dunlap spoke to our SCBWI conference about voice. She said that voice is the one thing an editor can’t fix. An editor can help a writer with plot, character and pacing. But if voice isn’t there or isn’t right, she’ll pass on a manuscript.
Drawing from Nancy Dean’s book, Voice Lessons, Ms. Adler shared with us five elements that make up voice in writing.
1. Diction – the choice of words that are used. For example, the choice of whether to use the word “house” or “home” might tell a lot about the narrator speaking.
2. Detail – puts the reader into the story; reveals aspect of story and characters; we see his perception of what’s going on; facts, observations, incidents, reasons, elaboration; creates a precise mental picture; shapes the reader’s attitude. If the character comments on the majesty of a stormy sky, we’ll know something different about him than if he sees storm clouds and comments about impending doom or disaster.
3. Imagery – Show, don’t tell. Imagery should reveal aspects of character and story that you wouldn’t otherwise get. For example, does the protagonist race to the corner or meander? This will tell the reader something about the character or his mood.
4. Syntax – technical aspect of writing – grammatical structure, length of sentences, etc. Syntax gives a feeling for the personality of the character. Long, flowery sentences for example, might indicate an intellectual or romantic character whereas short, breathless sentences might indicate a scatterbrained character.
5. Tone – Is your tone chatty, distant, funny, dramatic? This will set a relationship between the writer and reader.
You should become conscious of these elements as you’re writing. And purposefully develop the story using each of them.
If your voice is not working, Ms. Adler suggested, try writing the story from a different point of view. If you had written in third person, try using first person. Or tell the story from a different character’s point of view. You might try reading the story out loud to help you become emotionally involved with your character. Doing those things may help you recognize the voice you have and see how you might need to change it.
Scripture has voice, too. God’s voice. If you think about it, God’s Word also includes five elements that make up His voice.
1. Diction – the choice of words in scripture is specific. For example, Mark 1:11 records Jesus’ baptism:
And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”
Note the specific words used: “heaven”—not the sky or some other location; “my Son,” not “my child” or “this person.” The words used were specific and denoted specific meaning, which could not have been conveyed using any other words.
2. Detail – puts the reader into the story and shapes the reader’s attitude. Look at the Book of Revelation. John’s vision gives us a very clear visual image of heaven—it includes a throne, a rainbow resembling an emerald, encircling the throne; 24 other thrones with 24 elders with white robes and crowns of gold. The entire Book of Revelation is filled with details that help us see what John saw.
3. Imagery – reveals aspects of God’s character. For example, after Adam and Eve ate from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, God was forced to discipline them. But in Genesis 3:21, God created clothing for them before he cast them out of Eden. This imagery reveals God’s caring provision for His children even when He disciplines us.
4. Syntax – the Book of Revelation uses an amazing variety of verb tenses. At times, John uses the past simple form of verbs, where he is conveying what has been completed; done; forever finished. For example, Revelation 6:1 “…the Lamb opened the first of the seven seals.” He opened it once and that action was completed.
At other points, the text is written in present tense, implying that it is a continuing, ongoing action. For example, Revelation 4:10: “…the twenty-four elders fall down before him who sits on the throne…” This implies that the 24 elders never stop worshipping Jesus and that Jesus remains on the throne forever.
This use of verb tenses is a fabulous way to use syntax to convey feeling and meaning of the text.
5. Tone – One of my favorite examples of tone in scripture is Mark 10:21 when Jesus was answering the rich young man’s question about how to inherit eternal life. It says:
Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”
Those 3 little words “and loved him” say volumes about the character of Jesus. It sets a relationship between God and the reader. Instinctively we understand that if Jesus loved the rich young man, knowing the young man would struggle with what he needed to do, Jesus certainly loves us, too.
God doesn’t need to impress an editor. His book is already the number one best seller of all time. For the rest of us writers…voice is key.
PRAYER: Thank you for speaking to us through scripture. Thank you for telling it like it is, for giving us details to help us understand, for revealing aspects of your character and for using tone and syntax for emphasis. Most of all, thank you for loving us enough to want us to spend eternity with you. Amen.
WHAT ABOUT YOU? Are you a writer? In what ways have you struggled with tone in your writing? If you're not a writer, what bits of scripture do you see provide examples of God's voice?