This obnoxious sentence makes writers want to poke their own eyes out with an unsharpened pencil. An unassuming, simple sounding criticism, the words frustrate us, and for good reason. The obvious response, “okay, how do I fix that?” is invariably met with a shrug and an ambiguous, useless retort.
“It’s a matter of experience,” they tell us. Or “you just have to write until your voice emerges.” My personal favorite is “I can’t define it, but I know it when I read it.”
Yeah. Super helpful. Thanks so much.
As writers, we’re eager sponges, with a desperate urge to hone our skills. We rarely approve of our best efforts, and when we encounter criticism, we take it seriously. But what hope do we have when the people who point out the problem can’t even define it, let alone tell us how to fix it?
I’ve read plenty of blog posts, articles, and books on voice. Most fill the pages with endless contrasting examples of ‘good voice’ and ‘bad voice’. “See?” they proclaim. “Do it like this. Not like this.”
I’ll take it on faith that I’m dense, but this approach did nothing for me. The burning desire to improve remained, and seeing examples of ‘good voice’ was akin to showing a starving squirrel an oak tree surrounded by an electric fence.
What I needed was for someone to connect the dots, and no one could pull it off.
That’s when I decided to stop looking for other people to solve my problems, and do it myself.
To start, I had to set aside my frustration and admit that the vague advice I’d read on the subject of voice wasn’t without clues. The most important of these was “good voice is confident.” I started with that.
Unfortunately, the solemn wisdom didn’t extend much further than that. When offering advice on how to achieve this magical confidence, the ensuing suggestion was “you have to believe what your character is saying. It’s like method acting.”
Yeah. Writer here. Not an actor.
Nevertheless, I thought about it for a while and decided that maybe there was more there than what I saw at first glance. I turned to my favorite device: identifying a suitable model to compare it against. I asked myself “Who is confident?”
Well, leaders for starters. So why not look into leadership techniques, and see where that goes?
We’ve all read that the primary quality of intuitive leaders is a decisive, unshakeable belief in what they’re saying. Much like the advice offered above, the leader believes what they say.
With that as my starting point, I dove headfirst into the challenge, and happily, it took very little time to discover quite a few pearls of wisdom at the bottom of the uncertain sea called the Internet.
Luckily, there have been quite a few studies regarding the speaking style of leaders. Numerous articles pointed out that if one parses a leader’s words, a number of specific, quantifiable tactics emerge.
Don’t Equivocate. It’s okay to be judgmental
It’s shocking how often writers convince themselves that their protagonist is “only human”, and that it’s perfectly reasonable that they would experience moments of uncertainty. The problem is that readers don’t want this in their heroes. We all know that.
But do we, as writers, remain true to that premise? Look at your narrative. How often do you fill your writing with equivocations like:
must have, sort of, that kind of, a little, probably, he guessed, sometimes, she believed, she thought, perhaps, as far as he was concerned, most, a lot, might, can, could be, she assumed, reminded him of, tends to?
It’s all too easy to thoughtlessly sprinkle phrases like these into the narrative, introducing doubt and uncertainty through the eyes of the POV character. You need to jettison the caveats.
Imagine your character is a scientist researching a cure for cancer. Her peers are hot on the trail of a new form of gene therapy, but our erstwhile heroine is convinced they are chasing a red herring. In the narrative, you might write:
She didn’t think they had it right.
It’s a simple, direct sentence, and it reflects her genuine uncertainty, so what’s wrong with it? Well, everything if our readers want confidence. Heroic protagonists are manifestly sure of themselves, and the sentence above is far from decisive. Stronger would be:
They knew nothing, and people would die while they wasted their time.
The difference is stark. The narrator is confident, maybe even judgmental and arrogant. The bold statement, presented as fact, may prove right or wrong, but the narrator took a stand, and that’s what readers want. They want the hero who surges defiantly into the face of adversity and dissent.
The list of equivocation phrases above isn’t exhaustive, but if viewed through the lens of under-confidence, a clear pattern emerges, and armed thus, examples take on actual meaning.
Most reasonable people understood that what she was doing – walking outside during a hurricane – was dangerous.
We watched her sauntering up the street into the teeth of the storm, wondering how long it would take for a falling branch to crush her skull.
The little boat bobbed on the waves, reminding him of a child’s toy.
The little boat bobbed on the waves, a bathtub toy in a dangerous ocean.
In these examples, the narrator shifts from making reasonable assumptions to stating bold, judgmental truths. From equivocation to decisiveness. From the caveat-laden language of reasonable people to the unshakeable declarations of a person with convictions. The changes are relatively subtle, but nonetheless important.
Comparing them, the former are the phrasings of uncertain followers, while the latter are the confident judgments of leaders.
Don’t Babble or Justify
Leaders are also succinct. They understand that excess words take longer to process and invite critics to pick at the details, and these things undermine the faith that followers have in them.
If you think about it, long explanations or justifications sound as if the speaker is unsure of themselves, and trying to talk themselves into something. Followers always want to believe that leaders know what they’re doing. That’s why people follow them.
Leaders speak in short, punchy, memorable chunks. They state simple truths and reach quick conclusions.
Writers often embed constant justifications into the narrative. They justify this by claiming that it is necessary in order for the reader to understand the character’s motivations.
Give your readers a little credit.
As an example of both babble and justification in one paragraph, consider:
Harvey’s finger hovered over the ‘buy’ button. There was a lot riding on this. Fifty thousand was only half of the total he’d embezzled from the company’s retirement account, but if Optronics split at the opening bell, he could slide the profits in through operating cash budget. No one needed to know. In less than a day, he could erase his crime. There would be no need to explain that the insurance hadn’t covered Lorraine’s medical bills. No need to explain his responsibilities as a husband and father. The risk had been worth it, and he’d do it again if he had to. But none of that mattered now. The worst was over, and all he had to do was take this one last risk.
I know a lot of writers who’d go much farther than that, endlessly rehashing information that had doubtless been provided in previous scenes, dragging out Harvey’s agonized decision. They wouldn’t be able to resist the temptation to sum it all up, like a lawyer’s closing statement.
But this kind of information dump is nearly always unnecessary. Even as an opening paragraph, when none of this is known to the reader, the pre-action babble serves no other purpose than to drag out the decisive moment. I’d much rather see:
Harvey stabbed the flashing green ‘buy’ button on his laptop’s touch screen, then wiped his hands on his pants and closed the lid. Accounts receivable was fifty thousand dollars lighter now, but if Optronics split tomorrow, he could replace the stolen funds without anyone noticing. And if it didn’t, well, no matter. Either way, Lorraine was out of danger now, recovering in St. Theresa’s Intensive Care Unit. If that cost him a few years in jail, he could live with it.
In the first example (125 words), there’s no action at all, but there’s a lot of navel-gazing babble. Harvey agonizes over the decision that he had no choice but to make, and the narrator pointlessly justifies it with back-story before pulling the trigger.
In the second example (81 words), the trigger is pulled in the first sentence. Harvey takes immediate, decisive action, and then concisely and matter-of-factly, the narration fills in the gaps.
Yes, sometimes a chain of logic is called for, but unless it’s absolutely necessary, kill the justifications. Your character should be certain. They should state plain, uncomplicated truths. The reader will keep up.
And frankly, we often enjoy those epiphany moments, when the hero’s actions strike us with one of those “Oh wow, that’s why she did that” moments. Don’t ruin your reader’s opportunity for discovery. Don’t undermine their faith in your protagonist. Give the readers a clear, decisive, simple image. Simple truths are viewed as self-evident, more believable by default.
Avoid Delayed Decisions
Much like indecision in word choice, there exists a kind of indecisiveness of action. Often, this takes the form of adverbs.
Hovering outside his hotel room, she reached tentatively for the doorknob.
Examples like this are tricky. Writers can come up with countless reasons why the POV character hesitates before opening any metaphorical door. And to be clear, many of these reasons are valid.
But as is often the case, too much of anything is a bad thing. You don’t want your characters constantly hesitating. Constantly agonizing over every tiny decision. When it’s necessary for dramatic tension, let them pause. But be vigilant. If you find your character doing this more than once every few chapters, you’re creating the same kind of uncertainty that poisons the narrative.
Heroes throw caution to the wind. They casually surge forward, ever ready to meet challenges head on. Don’t casually allow them to hesitate. Ever. When a character pauses before leaping into conflict, it should be a defining moment, nothing less.
Ignoring the flutter in her stomach, she willed a smirk onto her lips and swept into the room.
The woman in the first example is a timid school girl, afraid to commit to a decision. That’s a victim waiting to happen. Fine if it’s a secondary character, but only compelling in a protagonist in unusual circumstances.
The second example shows a decisive woman who won’t let nervousness get between her and whatever she’s after. That’s a heroine, and she forces readers to turn the page.
Understand that there’s a difference between the character and how the writer frames them. In both cases, the woman is nervous before entering the room. But the first example renders a character in uncertain, ambiguous language. The second shows much more clearly her state of mind. Voice isn’t the strength of character. It’s the strength of the description.
Root Out Verbs of Being
This is standard advice for writing and it’s also a component of voice. Verbs of being (is, are, was, were, be, been, being) are verbs that perform little function except to state the existence of a thing.
There’s nothing remotely interesting about simple existence. It conveys no nuance, no texture.
Consider a sentence like:
She was in the middle of the street, ignoring the rush hour traffic
A simple verb change and accompanying affect introduces much more interesting texture, and with it, a stronger voice.
She danced in the middle of the street, oblivious to the angry shouts and honking horns.
She planted herself in the middle of the street, shaking a fist at the rush hour traffic.
I won’t belabor this one, as there are countless good books and articles on passive voice, but I point it out because it’s clearly an impediment to strong voice.
Use Imagery, Metaphors, and Similes
Again, this is standard advice, but again I include it because it is also a component of voice.
Readers like to imagine. Everyone does. And nothing assists imagination more than a good metaphor. Metaphors and similes are a kind of shorthand. They not only provide a visualization for action, making it easier to understand, they also perform a more important function. They bring associations with them.
The point of a metaphor or simile is to use a small number of words to add a large amount of information.
Let’s say we compare an inquisitive person to a ferret.
Twitching his nose like an oversized ferret, he pounced into the room, rooting through the pile of clothes on the floor.
If you’ve ever owned a ferret, you know all about their insatiable, relentless curiosity. When a ferret sets its mind to locating and stealing a shiny object, almost nothing can stand in its way. By providing this association to the reader, we need only four extra words to add all of the instinctive, relentless attitude of nature’s most tenacious rodent into the character’s personality.
This type of imagery makes characters more recognizable. More memorable. And it is ineffably tied to voice.
Writers inevitably get much too wrapped up around the notion of plausibility and reality. In their zeal to represent realism, they forget that readers don’t actually want realism. They don’t. Readers want things that are larger than life. They want to live vicariously through characters that are driven and decisive. Readers want to know what it feels like to confidently stride into conflict, self-assured and prepared to brave the unknown.
As a writer, your language can either add to that goal or undermine it. When you undermine it, that’s what critics mean by a weak voice. Your writing doesn’t match the heroism of your character.
When you render a confident character with weak words, (or even when you render an under confident character with weak words), the result simply feels wrong. There are no grammatical errors. The language may be lyrical and poetic, but voice is more than that. It is the confident, almost heroic way that the writer decisively paints the character.
So in the end, the writer does need to be confident, just as the advice said. Paint your characters with a decisive brush, boldly stating what they are. Don’t hedge. Don’t equivocate. Don’t apologize.
Shamelessly tell us who they are.
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