The Qualities Of Voice

Every writer has an individual voice, a natural and personal mode of expressing ideas. When you first take on the challenge of writing fiction, you may sound tentative, unsure, and ordinary. As you keep writing and your skills and confidence grow, your narrative voice will develop too, becoming stronger, fresher, and more original.

Authors' voices vary in much the same way characters' voices do. One writer may be terse while another is garrulous. This one is straightforward and direct, but that one hints obliquely at actions and their meanings. Writers choose different styles, ranging from casual to formal, from lean to lush, from dark to light.

In Chapter One, we called narrative voice the "artful way" a story is told. I've identified seventeen qualities that contribute to that artfulness—the constituents of narrative voice. The list is not necessarily exhaustive; you may be able to think of more. Nor is it prescriptive; it is not meant to imply that you must handle any of these things in a particular way. The list simply pinpoints some of the choices a writer makes in deciding how best to present the story:

1. Choice of words.

2. Structure and arrangement of sentences and paragraphs.

3. Rhythm of the language.

4. Degree of formality in the language.

5. Linear versus layered narrative structure.

6. Balance among action, dialogue, description, and exposition.

7. Use of details.

8. Level of suspense.

9. Pace of the story.

10. Amount and kind of humor.

11. Amount of emotional color.

12. Regional or cultural flavor.

13. Use of imagery, metaphor, and simile.

14. Use of symbols.

15. Kinds of allusions and references in the story.

16. The worldview implicit in the story.

17. The consistency with which the voice is maintained.

The Tip Sheet: Narrative Voice on page 134 provides a more complete understanding of these qualities. Questions are listed that define each category. When you read a short story, these questions can help you analyze how the author tries to achieve an impact—and whether to your mind he succeeds. When you are writing a short story, they can suggest the many possible tools you can use to express your vision clearly and powerfully.

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