Thursday, August 23, 2012

The Quest for Story: #3 -- Whisper, Growl, or Bark?

(Photo by Chris J. Fries - 2012: Seal Bark)

(This is post #3 in a quest to define what creates "a good story."  The kickoff of this quest was HERE.)

In our last stop of the quest, we added character and plot together to make the foundation of a good story. To me, these are the two interlocked aorta of the heart that beats at the core of a story, or to use my analogy from last time, they're the two lobes of the lungs that give the story breath.

Either way, with character and plot, a story begins to live.  It may lack all the details required to elevate it to 'a good story,' but if there is a compelling character and an interesting plot, then the story should succeed with readers at least on some level.

But for story to be 'good', more is needed.  The story may have lungs and a beating heart, but it still lacks a soul.

The third element of our quest must be added:


Like a soul, voice is elusive and ethereal. Ask ten authors what it is, and you'll likely get ten different answers. 

To use the picture at the top of this post, I think voice is how the writer puts his own seal on the story; how he entices it to whisper, growl or bark; how he encourages the reader to become a page-flipper; how he whisk-ers them along through the plot; how he...

Alright, I'll quit.  ;^)


To me, voice is style, both in terms of an author's conscious story structure decisions, and in that author's innate writing style.  It comes down to what the writer wants to do with the story, and how the writer carries out those decisions.

Story structure choices are things like:  
  • Should a story be written in first-person to intimately bond a reader to a character?  Or should it be written in third-person to provide some distance?  
  • Does the writer want to stay close to a single character through the entire story, or should different characters be used for sections, chapters, or scenes?  Which character?  Voice is heavily influenced by the character -- the voice used to tell the story of a hardened street thug will be different than that used for a cookie-baking grandmother.
  • Who is the writer's target audience? A story written for children will be structured differently than one written for adults, and the voice will be different too.  
  • Is there a particular genre the story falls into? For example, mystery and romance have some established conventions, so a story might be structured differently depending on which genre the writer wants to target, if any, or how closely he wants to follow those conventions, and again -- the voice will be different also.
Each decision the author consciously makes about story structure gives rise to its voice.

And yet there's more -- give Stephen King and Neil Gaiman the exact same characters, the exact same plot, and the exact same story structure down to every detail, and you will still get two distinct stories.  

Their voices will still be unique.

They will not choose the same things to describe or emphasize in a scene, even if they are describing the same scene. They will make different word choices.  They will have unique rhythms in their sentences. The way the story flows will not be the same.

Just because that's the way they write.  Their innate, inner voices are distinct and unique, and their stories will be too.

And they should be.  

In the hands of a confident author who is fully in the moment of the creative act of writing, voice will naturally come through.  It does take a while to develop, and that's why I say a 'confident' author.  Like confidence, voice only comes from practice and experimentation, but it does strengthen with every word a writer creates.

Voice develops as a deeply personal part of a writer. Because it comes from their soul.

And that's the only place that the soul of a good story can be created.

* * * 

Compelling character, intriguing plot, and a beguiling voice.  Put those three together, and you will surely get a good story, right?

Yes.  I think these are the three magical components -- the body, mind, and soul of a truly 'good' story.

But yet I feel our quest is not complete.  I think we need to delve deeper into these elements.  Just how do I know my character is compelling?  How can I make my plot intriguing? Is my voice really beguiling?

So for the next seven stops on this quest, we will peel back the layers of this holy triumvirate of good story.  Check back on Monday for the next stop, and in the meantime, your thoughts and comments are always welcome!


Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Voice is the hardest thing to figure out. Or describe. Think style fits it better. And it's taken me three books, but I think I've finally figured out my style.

Carol Kilgore said...

Great post. Nice to meet you yesterday on Alex's blog.

Suze said...

I like. Voice is the cadence unique to each writer.

Good schtuff, Sir Fries. Keep 'em comin'.

Mina Lobo said...

I see voice as style too. And I dig your analogy, of character, plot, and voice being the body, mind, and soul of a good story. Very well said!
Some Dark Romantic

Chris Fries said...

@Alex: Excellent! I'm positive the Cassa series wouldn't be nearly as compelling in the hands of a different writer -- your voice is big part of why the books work.

@Carol: Thanks! And great to meet you too!

@Suze: Thank you very much, Lady suze!

@Mina: I really appreciate your kind words, Mina. Thank you!

Amy Saia said...

Very well said. It would be interesting to give two different writers, like you said, the same story idea and see how the voice and writing differ.

Susan Flett Swiderski said...

Beautifully written post. (And I liked the puns, too!)

The idea of different writers putting their own personal stamp of style or voice to the same story, characters, setting, etc. is an intriguing one. When you're finished with this series, maybe "someone" should provide a list of characters, story line, and setting, and see how your followers run in different directions with it. Sheesh, what's wrong with me? That sounds like HOMEWORK, Teach!

Elise Fallson said...

I think I suffer from writer's laryngitis.

L. Diane Wolfe said...

I've written both fiction and non-fiction, and I think my non-fiction writer's voice is now the most distinct.

Chris Fries said...

@Amy: Thank you. And you're right -- that would be an interesting experiment to try...

@Susan: Thank you very much! Hmmmm... It might an interesting blog event or something... ;^)

@Elise: LOL! Nonsense -- you just showed a clever, witty example of voice, my dear.

@L. Diane: Interesting... Maybe with non-fiction, it clearly comes from the writer, but in non-fiction sometimes we try to hide our 'writing' and just let the story come through. Thanks fr the comment!

Milo James Fowler said...

I teach my students about VOICE as part of our writing traits, and it's never easy to explain -- but you did a great job in this post! We focus in class on it being the student's attitude or personality that brings an essay or story to life. Your seal analogy is PERFECT.

Nicole said...

I love your comparison of voice with the soul of writing. That's definitely true. It's elusive and many times instinctual, but it's also the most important part of a story more often than not.

Chris Fries said...

@Milo: Thank you very much, Sir! I really appreciate it.

@Nicole: Thanks, Nicole. I'm very happy you enjoyed it.