Story Begins With Voice


“I sent one boy to the gas chamber at Huntsville.” No Country for Old Men, Cormac McCarthy.

“They shoot the white girl first. With the rest they take their time.” Paradise, Toni Morrison.

Do you hear the storyteller’s voice? Do you hear two different voices? 

McCarthy’s protagonist is a Texas sheriff. The old man in the title is himself. His tone is nostalgic and mournful.

Morrison’s story is reckless with violence. Her tone is passionate, sinister, shameless.

Both are among the thousands of suitable answers for the age-old question, “How do I start my novel?” 

“It Starts With Voice,” Michael Orlofsky wrote in June 1993 for Writer’s Digest. 

But exactly what is voice? The answer isn’t obvious, but it’s what readers hear inside their heads when they listen to an author tell a story. 

Think of voice as the narrator. Even if there is no narrator, voice is who tells the story. 

“Voice is your mind,” wrote Orlofsky, professor of English and director of Troy University’s creative writing program. “Increasingly in contemporary fiction, the energy of the narrative has been shifting from characterization to the author’s voice.”

Think of the best narrators: Morgan Freeman in March of the Penguins and Shawshank Redemption. Scarlett Johansson in Her. Sam Elliott in The Big Lebowski.

Their storytelling moved the audience, because people love to be told stories. Why? 

“A story expresses how and why life changes,” Bronwyn Fryer wrote in the June 2003 issue of Harvard Business Review. March of the Penguins wasn’t about the scientific mating habits of birds, it was about the survival of mothers and fathers and how they keep their and their eggs and hatchlings from freezing or being eaten by seals. 

Think about that, writers. Your readers want to be told stories, so that’s your job. The best part of fiction has always been the author’s voice, so just tell the reader a story. Start with your unique characters, and tell the readers how the characters’ lives change.

The definition of voice is vague, Orlofsky wrote. It’s not style. It’s not tone. It may be intrusive: in some fiction, it’s the first quality readers notice. In other well-written fiction, readers may not notice voice. 

But like our conscience, and that sound we hear inside our heads when we talk to ourselves, they symbiotically control what we do. 

Nonfiction writers, pay attention. As Deb Caletti points out in The Nature of Jade, voice applies to any work: “The barnacle discards its own body to live inside of a crab, growing and spreading until it finally takes over the crab’s body, stealing its life, reaching its tentacles everywhere, even around its eyes.”

That, my fellow writers, is a powerful voice. That is why Peter Coyote narrates Ken Burns documentaries. Powerful voice.

Listen to Laurie Halse Anderson in Catalyst: 

“And then, after the elephants separate for the good of the herd and each other, they will sometimes later reunite. There is no doubt they recognize each other, even after long periods apart. Mothers and daughters and sisters. New sons. They raise their trunks in salute, bump and dance in greeting, entwine their trunks in warm embrace. They bellow and trumpet sounds of joy and triumph…”

“I can’t tell you much about Author Voice. That’s all you, and everyone is different. No two Author Voices are the same,” Beth Lewis, who wrote The Wolf Road, separates the author’s voice from the character’s voice. “Don’t try to write like someone else, it’ll sound fake.

“Character Voice, on the other hand, that I will talk about. A strong voice is what will make your character feel authentic to readers. Several friends who have read The Wolf Road have given me the same comment – I forgot you, my friend, wrote it. They don’t hear me or my voice in the book at all. Even my mother said the same. This is a good thing. It means the character voice was strong enough to overtake mine.

“Character voice is the way your characters speak and think. This comes through in spoken and internal dialogue/thoughts,” Lewis wrote. “Writing voice is not character specific. It’s encompasses the manuscript as a whole, in terms of sentence structure, phrasing, use of figurative language, and other writing tools.”

A first person story is usually told in character voice, third person usually in author voice. First person is limited; third person can be unlimited.

“It’s easier to inject voice into first person,” Lewis wrote. “I love writing this way. I can get deep into my character’s head and explore their feeling and reactions in every situation.”

But, cautioned thriller writer Steve Berry, the first person narrator is limited to what he knows.

“It can be frustrating not to have a second voice,” Lewis agreed. If something happens out of the first-person narrator’s sight, how to get that into the story? 

“But I’m happy to forgo that convenience to get close to my main character,” Lewis wrote. 

So, exactly how do authors develop a unique voice? 

“By giving yourself the freedom to say things in your own unique way,” literary agent Donald Maas wrote in his book, Writing the Breakout Novel, Donald Maass. “You do not talk exactly like anyone else, right? Why should you write like everyone else?”

Publishers, editors and agents want to read an author who is like no other, Maass explained. “An original. A standout. A voice… Your voice is yourself in the story.”