With this post I am focusing on voice. I’m asking for your feedback as well for a change. Below are three examples of the same information but in three different voices. Why and how are they different? Notice the sentence structure and word choice, the tense and point of view. The tones should be similar but not identical. Comments welcome!
You know when you picture yourself in a show down with some person who has caused you grief; when you see yourself blocking their punch or doing some sort of fancy spin thing where they end up with their arm behind their back completely at your mercy? That is not how it ever really goes. I know it. You know it. They do too. What actually happens is they shout and embarrass you and make you feel small in front of God and everybody. And then you say ‘fuck off,” before shuffling away to relive the moment in your head for the next five years, coming up with amazing come-backs and learning self defense so that if you ever see them again you can actually karate chop them in half. Ok, not that last bit, but you get it, right? You can’t stop, especially when they’ve really ruined everything for you – the place where it happened, the people it happened in front of too. It just keeps coming up like too much tequila. I only hope it doesn’t drive me crazy one day, one of the many more days I have to spend with my tormentor. At home. Every day.
I had that moment. That moment where you feel like you are 12 again. Or whatever age it was when you felt most bullied (ages? decades?). She came in and just shit all over me, screeching my faults in front of the whole office; the whole world for me who has little else. It was almost like I wasn’t there. Like she only came in to ruin it for me. Or was it that she thought if she did it here I wouldn’t push back? Obviously she isn’t wrong. I didn’t. She left, an almost deflated look in her eyes, whilst every other eye in the office looked away from me. I was a ghost until I left for lunch and didn’t return. And all I could think going down the elevator was how I should’ve fought back. I thought of intelligent arguments and sarcastic replies. I even imagined hitting her, but in that movie way where people fly up and backwards against walls. I don’t want to hurt her like that really, but I get to imagine it, right? I imagine more, worse even, until long after dark, after she’s kissed me goodnight.
The woman’s mouth ripples as her voices rises to a shout, giving forth on the man’s every failure as a being in the world at large. All the while he shrinks down into his battered leather shoes, down into the thread bare carpet, and further into the shell he created for himself when he came to work in this unimportant office. She shatters it. She crushes it under a shoe of razored words that are designed to cause harm and see that he can no longer hide here. He senses it, the crumbling away, and part of his mind sees that she’s doing it so the only place left for him will be with her, though he can’t quite touch it in the blood red of the moment. Afterward, when she’s slammed her way out of the room, he evaporates from the heat of it and escapes as steam into the street where he can be anonymous again and forever. While he drifts, he sees himself a hero. Visualizes all the ways he could have saved himself but his mind turns away from the righteousness anyone would forgive him for and darkens to the ways he could end her. Even if it means an end to him. He will make a dozen plans before he sleeps, long after she’s turned out the light.
Ways I create and maintain voice:
- Reading the dialogue aloud with someone else. Helps you see where things don’t quite fit or if the characters sound too similar.
- When I am writing YA, I can’t read outside of YA. At least not much. I have to stay in genre so I can maintain the young voice. Like an actor keeping an accent through filming.
- I generally give characters a phrase or tick or habit in a first draft. It helps me keep them distinct. In later drafts I mostly remove it. I also replace it with other movements or similar things, but try to keep repetition low unless the character has a genuine tick of some sort.
- When writing more literary fiction, I sometimes write a scene with no dialogue. Then write it again only using dialogue. Then see where the two meet and gel.
- Similarly, when stuck it can help to write a bit from the perspective of a different character in the story for a bit, even if you don’t use it. The knowledge it gives you will help you.
- If you are writing for children, be aware of reading levels. Don’t write literary fiction for 9-11 year-olds.
- Show don’t tell. In the case of voice, when we are telling, telling, telling, it’s often because our character has become inactive. Give them something to do even if it is as simple making tea or opening the post.