I’m about to circle back around to the questions I started this essay with, about queries, pitches, and the strange difference between how writers see their work and how that same work is viewed by readers, particularly the specialized readers working in publishing. But first, I feel like I need to make one more digression, this time about that thing of which all fiction is made: language.
I find it tougher to generalize about language than the other elements of dynamic storytelling I’ve written about so far. But a terrific essay by J. T. Bushnell in the current issue of Poets & Writers (titled, somewhat misleadingly, “The Unreliable Narrator”), got me thinking about one aspect of it: that nebulous and perplexing thing we call “voice.”
One thing's for sure: you don't want to sound wooden. (Thank you, folks, I'll be here all week.)
In the piece, Bushnell first wrangles with pinning down a definition: “What is voice, exactly, and where does it come from? Most craft books and teachers say the same thing as the agents: It’s how the writing sounds, what words are chosen, how sentences are arranged.” But for Bushnell, this doesn’t get to the bottom of the matter. In a sharp bit of prose, he adeptly imitates the word choice and sentence arrangements of Holden Caulfield to prove that, in fact, these verbal tics alone do not a voice make:
“I think you’ll agree… that it can’t be Holden Caulfield if the narrator is explaining his fondness for school fund-raising: ‘Boy, I loved working with old Dempsey. What he’d do, he’d dress you in some lousy tuxedo and send you to the phoniest bastards at the concert, right up to their Cadillacs, and have you shoot the old bull as they came inside. When they took their seats you sort of asked for some money. It made me happy as hell to do it. It really did.’”
The issue, Bushnell points out, is that, although this paragraph bears a superficial resemblance to Holden Caulfield’s voice, it’s about something entirely different – and that matters. In The Catcher in the Rye, “Caulfield is obviously lonely and depressed… but he maintains his cool, casual attitude, and the disparity is what makes his voice ring.” In the imitation, Caulfield is a self-satisfied asshat. Though bringing up Caulfield’s “loneliness,” “confusion,” and “longing” may seem to digress from the question of voice, delving instead into “content issues, such as characterization, point of view, even theme,” it actually speaks to the heart of the matter, since these underlying forces are what in fact give his words their urgency and power.
To frame Bushnell’s idea in the larger context of this essay, voice – like most everything else in a novel – needs to reflect the central goal/obstacle relationships that drive the story. It needs to matter, to connect, in order to succeed in holding the reader’s attention.
Moreover, once deep-rooted connections to the central goal/obstacle relationships are in place, voice becomes easier to master. It’s no longer something that you as the author have to generate in a panic, out of thin air. Since the character (or close third-person narrator) has reasons for seeing the world a certain way, keeping the voice consistent is a fairly straightforward task, a question of examining those reasons, of asking, “Would the character say, think, or feel this? Why or why not?” As Bushnell puts it: “Understanding my characters’ secrets, illusions, and pretenses lets me see clearly how they’ll act, what they’ll say, how the action of the story challenges them. And once I have this clarity of vision, the words and sentence structures come naturally, without thought.”