Writing With Voice

Writing with voice can be one of the most difficult things about writing. It’s how you–the author–express yourself within the story. Voice can be found in the kind of comparisons you make. For example, if you enjoy baking, your metaphors/similes may revolve around sweets. She was as sweet as a summer cherry. His eyes were rich as dark chocolate. It captures your sense of humor, your age, outlook, and personal influences. The reader can tell a lot about you by your writing voice.

Now, I separate voice from a character’s narration. If you have some omniscient person narrating the story, that is not you putting yourself on the page. For me, the author’s voice should be seamlessly woven throughout the novel. I don’t want to be distracted from the story by incessant interruption–thus leading me to the inspiration for this blog post, the book: Peter Pan.

photo courtesy of performingartsadelaide.com.au
photo courtesy of performingartsadelaide.com.au

As the mother of a toddler, I have been bombarded with Disney’s never-ending stream of Neverland shows. Jake and the Neverland Pirates and Tinkerbell being most prominent. I’ve seen the Disney version of Peter Pan and we own the live-action, musical starring Mary Martin from the 1960’s. My daughter even owns Jake Legos. I think it’s fair to say that my interest in the original text has been piqued.

photo curtesy of disney.wikia.com
photo curtesy of disney.wikia.com

I recently picked up a copy of Peter Pan at Barnes and Noble. While the novel is witty, J.M. Barrie’s voice is so distracting that I’m constantly pulled out of the story and reminded that I’m holding a book. Instead of getting lost in the fantastical world of Neverland, his little quips break the magic. I’ll give you an example. On page 45 we’ve just been introduced to Captain Hook. Barrie goes into great detail concerning his clothes and mannerisms. Hook seems a most intriguing character, then Barrie bumbles into this horrible segment, breaking the spell.

“Let us now kill a pirate, to show Hook’s method. Skylights will do. As they pass, Skylights lurches clumsily against him (Hook), ruffling his lace collar; the hook shoots forth, there is a tearing sound and one screech, then the body is kicked aside, and the pirates pass on. He has not even taken the cigar from his mouth.”

“Such is the terrible man against whom Peter Pan is pitted. Which will win?”

I’m just gagging at the rhetorical question! And that’s not even the first one. There have been several throughout. I want desperately to enjoy this book, but the author’s constant intrusion makes it impossible for me to lose myself. And that’s why I read. If I wanted a constant reminder that it’s not real, I’d watch a soap opera.

There are other books, such as Good Omens, that I haven’t been able to finish because I find the author as intrusive as any nosy neighbor or butt-in. Luckily, Peter Pan is not a long story, so finishing it shouldn’t be a problem.

An author’s voice should compliment the narrative, add spice and character, but not overwhelm the text. I’m sure we all have examples we like, I’ll post an excerpt from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice as one of mine.

“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”

“However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighborhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families that he is considered as the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters.”

For me this contains clever humor leading directly to the arrival of Mr. Bingley, and in no way distracts from the story.

Has anyone else had a similar experience with voice, or just plain disagrees with me? I’d love to see some great examples of voice, so feel free to post excerpts in the comments below! Let’s get a conversation going!

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32 thoughts on “Writing With Voice

  1. Good post! I think, for me, it tends to depend on context. Sometimes I do find the author’s voice a bit distracting, but I also tend to like the little asides. If it’s that particular author’s style and it’s something that’s carried throughout the book, then I usually enjoy it. But if it’s something that only happens once or twice in a novel, then I tend not to like it. I also find that I enjoy it more in a humorous novel than in, say, a serious one.

    1. it does work better in humorous novels, and to be honest, whenever i start a novel with excessive author quips, i usually enjoy it until about 1/3 or halfway through, when it gets old.

      i like my authors to leave a subtle hand. 😉

      thanks for commenting miranda!

  2. Great post! I am 100% for the intrusion when placed in such a way that doesn’t distract the reader and only when briefly illuminating some larger truth.
    After all, a story is an argument of some kind. There is a point, and the generally accepted goal is to make the reader understand that perspective in a way that gives them no choice but to understand (and hopefully agree).
    Great thoughts in this post!

    1. great observation brian! i never really thought of a story as an argument, but that really does make sense. and i totally agree with authors adding in info that illuminates their “goals.” great incite. 🙂

    1. i agree. 🙂 obviously there are lots of great authors who capture voice in an intriguing way, but i knew for my purposes i could find something i liked on any page in a jane austen novel. thanks for commenting!

  3. I think the subject of voice is the most intriguing and frustrating in writing. It’s something we want so much to be right, but something that can’t be created or tinkered with. When it’s true though, I find reading and writing as beautiful as ever.

  4. Good heavens! You couldn’t finish Good Omens? I couldn’t put it down. In that one, the narrator’s voice is part of the fun. I wouldn’t go to that length with just any writer, but when the narrator is the combined voices of Neil Gaiman and (sadly, the late) Terry Pratchett, I’ll follow them anywhere. It’s such a wonderfully clever book that assumes the reader is smart enough to follow them in some very strange places, with wry, almost sacrilegious glee. I suspect the more of a religious upbringing you had, the more delightful the book would be – assuming you’ve relaxed since then. If I kept a list of 10 favorite books, I’m sure it would be on it.

    1. hey john, yeah, i’m well aware that i’m in the minority in terms of my feelings towards good omens. but i’ll admit that there were parts of that book that i really did enjoy, such as the part near the beginning where it says something about how crawly slowly sauntered downwards from heaven, instead of being cast out. 🙂 i just found the voice overbearing towards the end. i should probably finish the book. i was only thirty pages or so from the end. i’m also not terribly religious, so there are a lot of things i had to take at face value, but that’s no criticism of the book. thanks for commenting!

      1. That’s OK, I’m the one person in the world who doesn’t think the “Seinfeld” show is funny. I’ve never laughed at it – not once. Something wrong with me, I guess.

      2. ha, i love seinfeld, but there’s a whole new generation of twenty-somethings who haven’t even seen the show. 🙂 but i don’t think you’re alone, there’s a lot of people who hate jerry and find his acting skills somewhat lacking. 🙂

      3. I don’t hate Jerry Seinfeld, he’s a very funny comedian. I just did not like the show. At all. I have seen several episodes and it never made me laugh even once. I found the characters obnoxious. There has to be *somebody* to like, and I just found them all self-centered and unlikeable. But that’s me.

  5. Great post. Voice is definitely what I look for in reading a story and I think one of the hardest things writers struggle to achieve. Doing the blog hop over from QOTKU’s place.

    1. thanks for popping over! i love her website!

      there’s definitely a balance to establishing a writing voice. some authors come on more strong than others. i think it’s harder to convey voice in a query letter than it is to establish it in a story though.

      thanks for commenting!

      1. Agree b/c you can’t use your characters voices, you have to query in your own “voice.” Having said that, we read/experience it everyday on her blog which just goes to show – be yourself and it will show in that query! 🙂

  6. Hello, popping over from the Shark’s tank. I love that quote by Jane Austen too. I just finished reading “Loverboy” by Bernadine Evaristo and she has voice. It’s not a story I’ve read before; it’s humorous and heartfelt.

  7. Voice is definitely a key element for my enjoyment of a book. I read Peter Pan many years ago, and obviously don’t remember it because your post was all new to me, lol.
    Stopping by from the QOTKU blog 🙂

  8. hopping over from the Shark’s blog. Great definition of voice. Thanks. As far a Peter Pan, the original, you have to take into account the change in literature over the ages. Personally, I hated Narnia. I didn’t finish it. Art and music are the same. The historical context when a story was written, or a painting was made are important. It doesn’t make it more readable but tastes change in time and place. Also Peter Pan was written for children and they love it, even now.

    1. you’re completely right. taste changes over time, but i’ve read a lot of classics and most of them aren’t quite so in your face with the author’s voice. that being said, obviously barrie did something right. 🙂 and i think my tastes change the more i learn about the writing industry. i grow intolerant of things that are “no no’s” nowadays–such as the rhetorical questions part. had i read this book 5 years ago, it may have been a different experience. thanks so much for stopping by!

  9. I agree with your overall point about voice. It’s important to distinguish between the author’s voice, the characters’ separate voices, and the voice of an omniscient narrator, if any. They all need to fit together and strengthen the story, not detract from it. Cases like the example you give from Peter Pan may have worked well at one time, but not any more. On the other hand – I LOVED Good Omens, so for me that cheeky narrator fit right in. It’s all about individual taste.

    Greetings to another fan of Her Sharkiness.

    1. i enjoyed the first half or so of good omens, but the cheekiness kind of wore on me over the length of the book. i think for me if they’d backed down on the sarcasm just a little i would have finished it. i know i’m in the minority with good omens, and i might actually finish it one day–i think i only had 30ish pages left. thanks for stopping by celia!

  10. Stopping in from Janet’s blog. I agree voice is everything. I think one thing we should keep in mind about Peter Pan is it’s a children’s novel written in 1902. I don’t particularly care for Tolkien’s style, but the story sucks me in completely.

    1. you’re right. styles change over decades and centuries. i think it’s barrie’s particular brand that doesn’t sit well with me. i enjoy jane austen, charles dickens and a whole slew of other old timers out there. i just prefer my author’s voices to be witty, yet distanced from me. i don’t want the narrative interrupted by comments made directly to me. i’ve read lord of the rings, it’s been a while, but i’m pretty sure i enjoyed it. i don’t remember tolkien’s style off the top of my head. thanks for stopping by!!

  11. Stopping in from Janet Reid’s blog. I loved Barrie’s works as a kid, and I got into him in just the same way you did – I read the books that Disney based his movies on. It’s funny, I never thought about the author asides as being distracting, because it was so in line with the story-telling style of the day. A.A. Milne, for example, does the same thing.

    However, I did struggle with Bambi, for the same reason you didn’t like Peter Pan – the author’s style pulled me out of the story too much.

  12. Interesting point you make. I think there’s a difference between voice and authorial intrusion, and the line between the two can be very thin. Sounds like Peter Pan (the book) has a good bit of the latter (I haven’t read the book, so I don’t know). I’ve heard some writers say they’ll never write a full novel in first person because they know their voice is very strong and it would dominate the character’s voice in 1st. Again, a fine line.

    I’m another who has wandered over from JR’s blog. It’s almost like there’s a disturbance in the force this weekend, what with all this commotion. 🙂

    1. you’re right about the fine line. i think ‘d enjoy peter pan more if barrie backed off just a smidge. no more rhetorical questions for instance would go along way. 🙂 first person is tricky for anyone, i think. it can be easy to fall into your own voice than stick with your character’s. i know what you mean about the force, i don’t think my blog has had this much traffic over such a short period before, and i’ve certainly never received so many comments. thanks for stopping by!

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