Is Your Story’s Voice Turning Away Readers?

Is Your Story’s Voice Turning Away Readers?

A story’s voice is always a hot topic among writers. What is it? How does it work? How can you get one? The difficulty in teaching about a story’s voice is that it’s one of those “you know it when you see it” things. Recently, I encountered a powerful example of voices that work—and voices that don’t.

This is a tale of two books. Neither were in “my” genres. One was suspense; the other was romance. But, for various reasons, both ended up on my Kindle. I started the romance first, because it appealed to me a bit more. Sadly, I barely made it past the first chapter and I finally gave up on it—something I do to maybe only one out of a hundred books.

Now a little grumpy and disillusioned, I clicked over to the second book, rather expecting to be disappointed once again. But this time I was pleasantly surprised to be sucked in right from the first chapter.

What made the difference? Both books were by experienced authors. Both were getting good reviews. So why did one turn me off and the other pull me in?

You already know the answer: voice.

The first book’s voice was dull and flat. The protagonist’s personality wasn’t coming across at all. The author was telling readers what was happening and how the protagonist felt about it. The result was not only dry narrative, but also a character whose personality—what little she offered—came across unattractively.

Contrast that to the second book (which I ended up not liking for other reasons, but not because of its voice). The author used a first-person narrator, whose personality practically exploded off the page. Every sentence was in this character’s personal voice: snarky, cocky, wry. The author didn’t need to tell me who this character was because every carefully chosen word of the narrative was showing me.

Take a look at your story. Who’s telling it—you or your character? If the narrative doesn’t sound like your POV character’s personal voice, it’s time to dig a little deeper. And if your POV character’s personal voice doesn’t have a sound, that’s a sign he’s lacking in the personality department.

Here’s the surefire formula for a strong voice: find your character’s personality, then make sure that personality appears in every word of the narrative. If you can do that, your story’s voice will be sure to pull readers in rather than turning them away.

Tell me your opinion: How have you established your story’s voice in your opening paragraphs?

Is Your Story's Voice Turning Away Readers?

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. Great post, Katie. For me the concept of an engaging voice comes down to engaging characters. If your 1st person narrator turns off the reader, you’re in for a long slog. Even in third person, with strong, intimidate POV, one can get that character voice out. What I try not to do? Let my own voice get in the way!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      It’s my opinion that we have no business even writing a first-person narrator if he *doesn’t* have an amazingly strong voice. We have a little more wiggle room with third-person, but as my experience with the third-person romance mentioned above shows, we can’t get away with a flat voice even in third.

  2. thomas h cullen says

    Knowing the character – that’s how I knew how to narrate. Knowing who Croyan is, knowing what he values – knowing what his essence is.

    The key to finding a voice is knowing your story; what’s its true identity – what’s its façade?

    The Representative’s narrator is independent, yet speaks on Croyan’s behalf…..it’s actually a text of bias (but the right one!).

  3. Great post. I was just reading a book for a blog tour that I was slogging through, because while the 1st person narrative had a distinct voice, she wasn’t taking the time to describe ANYTHING. She had so many opportunities to do so (and do them well, like a meet-cute), but didn’t. It’s given me insight to my own writing, however, and how important it is to show, not tell, while giving as much personality as appropriate.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      The good thing about being a writer is that even bad books are never a complete waste of time!

  4. This reminds me of a blog post about a video game called Kudos 2.

    In it, the programmer said that his first instalment of the game (Kudos) was too dark and too negative.
    To change that in the second game, he changed the variables:

    “Pretty early on it became clear that the original game was too dark and miserable, and to sell better, it needed to be more upbeat, more engaging, and less like the diary of a manic depressive. To this end, I rewrote tons of the text, and changed the variables in the game to be more positive. So stress++ becomes relaxation–, and so on.”

    http://www.positech.co.uk/kudos2/postmortem.html

    It mirrors what you’re saying here: find the personality of the POV you want to take and have every word (variable) reflect that personality.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Nothing wrong with writing a character with a dark personality, but we definitely do have to factor in the effect it’s going to have on readers and whether or not they’re going to want to continue immersing themselves in the story.

  5. Great post. I find that when I’m in the ‘flow’ it’s easy. The character speaks from the page whether it’s dialogue or description.

    When I’m not in the flow, everything is wooden. The voice and tone are totally flat – and then even I can’t stand to read it!

    For me the key is getting into the flow faster so there’s less of the garbage that I’ll have to edit out later.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      True. If the words are coming hard, it’s often a sign to look closer at the narrating character.

  6. You’re right that this is one of the trickier aspects of writing to teach. I think much of it comes down to understanding just how many different elements of storytelling are touched by voice. Setting is a great example. One character’s idyllic August day is another’s scorched and obnoxiously bright summer hellscape. One’s brisk breeze is another’s foreboding chill. I think determining how your specific character would describe her world is one of the fundamental ways to begin to internalize her voice.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Great, great observation. Voice isn’t just a technique of story. It’s story all of a piece.

  7. I would love to see a follow-up post on this with a side-by-side example. Your examples are always telling and helpful, and voice, as one commenter remarks, is tricky to teach.

  8. I’m curious what your suggestions are for creating an engaging voice with a 3rd person narrator. I’m currently working on a story where the POV changes back and forth between the protagonist and the antagonist, and I’m having a hard time with that.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Deep third isn’t really all that different from first. Pretend for a moment that you *are* writing in first. How would the narrator’s voice sound? Then just switch out the pronouns.

  9. Katie, great post on voice, something we memoirists struggle with often. I’ve taken the liberty to share your post on Twitter, FB, my writing FB page, and two FB groups. I hope it draws some followers for you but encourages those writing memoir to pay close attention to voice. Thanks for always teaching me something new!

  10. Interesting post, Katie! Thanks for sharing. I always considered my voice different from the character’s voice. I try to make sure their internal thoughts and dialogue is theirs, but the rest me. Something to consider.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      It’s true: authorial voice and character voice, while certainly integral to one another, aren’t the same thing. Every book and every character should have its own voice, slightly apart from the author’s.

  11. I’m deep in edits right now, and what makes my hero stand out with a unique voice is he’s grieving, but still manages to be snarky and a bit of a smart-ass. He always looks for the funny stuff. He pushes the boundaries set around him by his social status. It opens with him sort of in jail, and he’s finally getting out, so he’s afraid and relieved at the same time.

    In the one I most recently finished the hero has a great deal of training for his job, serves the highest levels of society in said job, and has a very refined manner with a proper way of speaking. He’s very polite and giving and puts everyone else in his life ahead of himself. Overcoming that is a big part of his character growth. This one opens with longer, more complex sentences and sets the stage for the world he lives in.

    The one currently being written has a hero who’s a bit of a know-it-all. He’s in a very privileged position and has a tendency to use it to his advantage in situations where he shouldn’t. He can be demanding when he’s set on getting access to something.

  12. Wonderful post! This is exactly where I’m at with my current project, giving my protagonist a unique and engaging voice. I’ve found (through trail and error) that it works best for me to have a scene all planned out before beginning to write it; that way, I can focus more on how my character is acting and speaking and less on the plotline.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      That’s my approach as well. I want to get all the planning out of the way, so my creative brain can go to work.

    • thomas h cullen says

      That was my priority, with The Representative:

      Always knowing the final destination, as well as the intermediate steps….meaning then the ability to focus on what mattered most – the narration’s personality.

  13. It seems whenever people talk of great example of ‘voice’, the voice is always sarcastic, funny, or has some sort of accent. Could you give an example of where this isn’t the case?

    My MC is kinda timid so I’m wondering how this could come across in my writing.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      You’re right. We inevitably equate “voice” with “personality.” But even a timid person is presumably brimming with personality, since he was interesting enough to be your protagonist. Does he maybe have a wry, self-deprecating sense of humor? Is he wicked smart under all that timidity? Figure out what makes him so interesting and use that as the core around which to build his voice.

    • thomas h cullen says

      Stockett’s ‘The Help’: one that comes off the top of my head Joe for creative use of ‘voice’.

  14. Thanks for another great post Katie. 🙂

  15. This is great information, and timely. I’m a few chapters into my WIP and still trying to find the voices of the two main POV characters. I’m not used to writing third person with a “voice.” (To me, third person has always been the voice-less POV.) It will be great fun to write their different voices, once I can let go of my inhibitions and be brave enough to immerse myself in their personalities. 🙂 Have you ever written in first person to establish the voice, then gone back and changed the pronouns?

  16. To me, the voice was what made Hunger Games so powerful. It was like she had a camera on her head and you were seeing it as she did. That made scary things scarier.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I agree. First-person voice, when done well, is hard to beat for intimacy and immediency.

  17. You used an example of good voice that was written from first person. I’m writing from limited third person, and I’m wondering if voice is developed in the same way from that POV.

    • thomas h cullen says

      The principle, by which The Representative’s voice behaves, is that it’s manner of speaking is according to Croyan himself:

      His context – is it the moment of purest satisfaction, watching his daughter perform? Is it the current moment, of the highest intensity, where all on him lies the hope of countless many?

      The Representative’s partly third-person voice – provided the emotional honesty’s in tact, I’d say third-person is as useful a choice of POV.

      (Nice talking to you again by the way).

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yes, voice is developed pretty much the same in tight third as it is in first. The pronouns are just different. 🙂

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