dialogue / writing

The Problem With Voice


A writer's voice is as identifiable as a fingerprint

Before I discuss the problem, let me define it. Voice is what makes Winston Churchill’s words as recognizable as his face. Or Rodney Dangerfield one-liner’s his unique take on the world. You wouldn’t confuse the way Erma Brombeck talks with June Cleaver, would you? Why? It’s the words they use, their syntax, the way they present their thoughts–it’s their voice.

The problem with voice is it has two layers.

First, it has to do with your characters. A reader should recognize your characters by the way they speak their dialogue, think their interior monologues, solve their problems, act in scenes. These are unique to a person, not formulaic. Think about your friends. Put them in a conversation with a fictional detective. One might focus on the fear of an authority figure questioning them. Another might wonder if the man is single. Those focuses would come out in how they act and speak.

That’s their voice and no one should sound like any one else in your novel. For novice writers,  you need dialogue tags to tell who’s talking. Not so with the pros. The antagonist should fiddle with her hair as she speaks. The protagonist might speak formally, carefully precisely, never using contractions. Another character might sway side-to-side. Those differences between speaking styles are what often escapes even experienced writers. To develop the character’s voice, you must get inside their head every time it’s their scene. As a fellow writer once told me, “The cost of rushing through this step is, your character is either unbelievable, unlikable, or both.”

Second, voice has to do with you as writer. Here’s what some of the top names in the publishing industry say about a writer’s voice:

A Writer’s Coach by Jack Hart says, “…voice is the writer’s personal style coming through in the writing. It’s as complex and varied as human personality itself.”

Writing the Blockbuster Novel by Albert Zuckerman says, “One precious quality int he best authors, which I believe is largely innate but is sometimes slowly acquired over time, is what editors and critics call ‘a voice’. The line-by-line writing of J.D. Salinger doesn’t sound like anyone else’s. Stephen King …has a sublime gift for the cadences and nuances of small-town American idiomatic speech…”

Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maas says, “A true breakout is… a breakthrough to a more profound individual expression. It demands that an author reach deep inside to find what is truthful, original, important and inspiring in his own world view. It requires that the author be true to his own ‘voice’.”

How do you develop your voice as a writer? Ben Yagoda calls it the “sound on the page”.

How do you release that inner muse that allows you to be unique on the page?



4 thoughts on “The Problem With Voice

  1. So eloquently put. I’ve only just began thinking about this. You call it a ‘voice’ but Steinbeck called it his own ‘holistic method of writing’. Something that is by essence unmistakably of yourself, yet flexible enough to morph into any number of individual characters.

    As a writer, my personal weakness is dialogue. So I’m keenly aware of how important ‘voice’ is in my writing. Oh, and thanks for the excerpts, this truly is a good book!


    • Leave it to Steinbeck to rename voice. He’s done a good job of it, too. I struggle with voice because of its mandate. How do I sound uniquely Me even in several character’s heads? What a challenge.


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