Voice in storytelling

When I sold my first story to Orson Scott Card’s InterGalactic Medicine Show back in 2007, editor Edmund Schubert told me what really made that story work was the voice in which it was told. The second story I sold–this time to Apex Magazine, also had a unique voice. And I realize now, looking back on it, that it is the voice in “Take One For the Road” (Analog, July 2011) that makes the story work the way it does. Sometimes a lesson doesn’t sink in right away and I can certainly be thickheaded about some things. But I have finally accepted that what makes my stories work is finding the right voice from which to tell them.

Today, I found the right voice for a story that I’ve been struggling with for a really long time and find that voice has made all the difference. I wrote a short scene this afternoon in this voice and although it is short (a little over 600 words), I think it is the best scene I’ve written in more than a year.

Voice in storytelling is interesting because it isn’t always integral to making a good story. Some writers have a kind of flat voice that appears through much of their work, but they have other strengths that make the stories work. I think Isaac Asimov is an example of this. His stories often lack a distinct voice, but those that have one tend to be the special ones. That said, Asimov had other strengths that made his stories work. Barry Malzberg is an example of some whose stories and novels have a strong, clear voice, a unique voice that is unmistakably Malzberg in almost every case. (Remaking Sigmund Freud may be the exception.) Robert Silverberg had a distinct voice in novels like Dying Inside where the voice of the narrator is critical to the impact of the story. Stephen King is, in my opinion, a master of voice. Even in those stories where I think the plot fails (not many, but a few), the voices are strong and distinct and unique.

And yet, voice isn’t something that I often see being talked about in workshops and writing groups. Workshops focus on mechanics like plot and setting and character but never really touch on the voice from which the story is told. I wonder if this is because voice is one of the most difficult things in storytelling to achieve. It is for me, at least. Plot comes easily once you’ve read enough in your genre and trained your mind to think of the appropriate twists and turns. You learn how to flesh out your characters and make your setting feel real. But voice, the unique sound and point of view from which the story is told–that’s a tricky thing. In fact, for me it is the crucial thing, and I might never have understood this if Edmund Schubert hadn’t pointed it out to me.

You can have two stories with roughly the same plot, similar characters and setting, but if they are told in distinct voices they can be completely different stories. And the voice the writer choses can be all the difference between a story that gets rejected, a story that sells but makes not a splash, and a story that wins a Hugo or Nebula.

In the current story of which I speak, I probably wrote tens of thousands of words before it dawned on me which voice to use to tell the story. But those tens of thousands of words aren’t wasted because they finally led me to that voice, and it is the right voice, I can feel it in my gut. And I suspect the story will move along much more easily now that I have found it.

4 thoughts on “Voice in storytelling

  1. Good blog on a unspoken topic. I have felt that way often in my stories – both in telling and in writing. I sometimes find that when the voice is found – I no longer am in control of the story – and at the end of the story, I am somewhere I didn’t expect to be….and usually plesantly surprised.

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