Let’s first define “narrative voice” because people do mean different things when they use this term. And, often, people try to make a distinction between “style” and “voice.” The general acceptance is that voice is about a point of view, attitude, personality, character, tone, diction, dialect, accent, etc., while style is about syntax, grammar, sentence/paragraph structures, cadences, rhythms, genre, etc.
To put it simply, voice is about speech and thought patterns, and style is about how that voice is laid out on the page.
Well-known examples here would be writers like, say, Austen, Dickens, Hemingway, and Carver. who gave rise to entire sub-genres named after them (not to mention the many excellent parodic pieces out there too.) Within their respective bodies of work, their characters’ voices varied depending on the stories being told. But their writing styles remained consistent and distinct so that we can often pick up a work of any such writer and know, within a few paragraphs, that it belongs to him/her. Some of my favorite women writers — Virginia Woolf, Angela Carter, Grace Paley, Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison, Lydia Davis, Rebecca Solnit, Roxane Gay, et al — also had/have very distinctive styles though their narrative voices have depended on the actual stories, fiction or nonfiction, that they have written.
Here’s another popular example from writing workshops of where two people are saying almost the same thing but in their unique voices:
“Don’t play what’s there. Play what’s not there.” — Miles Davis
“The notes I handle no better than many pianists. But the pauses between the notes—ah, that is where the art resides.” — Artur Schnabel
That said, all the aspects of voice and style I mentioned above are interlinked. Whether we are writing fiction or nonfiction, voice and style need to work together and will influence each other to fit the story being told. Also, I find that style can be learned, developed, and edited more easily than voice.
[Interestingly, when some publishing gatekeepers talk about how they have found the next new “voice of their generation” or a “fresh, exciting voice,” they are often not referring to any of the above. If they were, we would not have so many of the very similar “Girl . . . ” books being released one after the other. What they mean, I think, is: “Oh, look. We’ve found another, slightly different version of the current bestselling trope. More on all that some other time.]
Now, if you are a serious writer, you have already got books like these on your shelves: Strunk and White’s Elements of Style or the Chicago Manual of Style. I am not listing these in my top three though I own them too. These kinds of books are not about learning different styles to fit storytelling needs. They are about learning to write in a particular, prescribed style. Of course, this is also necessary as many publishers use some of these as their “house” style requirements.
But, in order to understand how to make narrative voice and style distinct and different, we need to look elsewhere. We start, as with all writing how-to, by reading extensively across genres and writers. We also need to be writing constantly to try on different voices and styles for ourselves. Beyond those basics, here are the top three books I have learned a lot from and continue to dip into as needed.
Yagoda is a writer and academic. In this 2005 book, he interviewed 40-some writers across genres to discuss their voice and style, writers they are/were influenced and inspired by, and what how-to advice they might give from the trenches. The range of writers he spoke with is diverse too — from Jamaica Kincaid and Junot Diaz to Dave Barry and Gish Jen. I wish he would do a sequel with more writers like Ta-Nehisi Coates, Rebecca Solnit, Jia Tolentino, Parul Sehgal, and others who have developed their unique writing in a mostly online environment.
His own style and voice in this book are both witty and erudite, taking us on insightful explorations of many works and approaches. And he does not shy away from turning the spotlight on his own writing to make certain points.
Premise, corollaries, paradox, and finally a proposal. The Strunk and White posse privileges readers (sorry for the neologistic, vogue-verb, E.B.) viewing them as delicate invalids, likely to scurry off to their bed-chambers when faced with any sentence diverting in the slightest from the plain style. At the other extreme, the Goldberg group coddles the writer the way an overindulgent parent would a sensitive child: Are you sure you’ve shared everything that’s on your mind or in your heart? But these didn’t seem to be a book that held two different but hardly contradictory ideas about style in its head: writers express themselves through it and readers draw pleasure and sustenance from it. A book that, although not a how-to manual, gave both aspiring and experienced writers a solid toehold as they negotiated the steep, winding, and somewhat perilous path of identifying and developing their own style. That is the book I decided to write.
Davidson is another writer and academic and another big reader of a long, diverse canon from Jane Austen to Stephen King. This book, released in 2016, is filled with individual sentences and paragraphs from many works and Davidson takes them apart to show us why they are good or not-so-good. She shows how voice+style is about, after all, subjective preferences and moral judgments and, therefore, reflective of the writer’s personal politics and worthy of our close attention.
Though her own voice+style here veer toward the analytical, Davidson’s passion for the art and craft of literature shines through. And because she comes at these works from a different angle than we might have done on our own, she broadens our perspectives and appreciation of the sentence-level beauty of writing. Her thesis here, in fact, is that while it is important to read for enrichment and education, we should also read for aesthetic pleasure. And the latter can only come from close reading at the sentence level. For me, this rings very true as I cannot bring myself to read anything where the voice+style is either bland or over-cliched — a total turn-off and, really, akin to self-torture. There are far too many good books in the world for me to have to subject myself to the agony of getting through a bad one.
These pages treat the inner workings of sentences and paragraphs as they function in novels. To read for the sentence risks becoming trivial or pedantic: what about character, plot, imagery, the host of other pleasures prose fiction lavishes upon its readers? But the shape of any given sentence — its arc, to use the visual metaphor; its cadence, to rank ear before eye — produces part of its meaning, sometimes its most important part. The aspects of meaning contributed by word choice, by diction, by syntax, are sometimes neglected by people who write about novels, and this book is designed partly to redress that balance, offering a modest manifesto in aid of reading for the sentence. Sentences can be verbal artifacts of untold complexity, and I am especially interested in ones that are hidden, like Edgar Allan Poe’s purloined letter, in plain view: in novels that tend to be thought of as being made up of larger units (scenes, chapters, episodes) rather than as the accumulation of a number of sentences large enough that one would not want to have to count them by hand.
Queneau is a globally-renowned writer and co-founder of the Oulipo movement in literature. In this slim classic (first published in 1981 in English translation), he takes a simple story plot — a man getting into an argument with another man on a bus — and writes it in 99 different voice+style combinations. Quite a feat and absolutely wonderful to read.
The idea came to him sometime in the 1930s when he was at a concert listening to Bach’s The Art of the Fugue. Given the infinite variations based on a simple, slight musical theme, he wondered if the same would be possible with literature. And, though this English version has his original 99 exercises, there is a larger volume in French with an additional 124 exercises suggested by Queneau to the reader.
The 99 voice+style exercises here vary between different forms of prose and poetry, formal versus casual tones, polite versus abusive language, literary versus pulp, and so on, along with many varying permutations of all of these too. Not only does Queneau show us the infinite possibilities of language, but he also shows us how much fun it can be to play with language.
In the S bus, in the rush hour. A chap of about 26, felt hat with a cord instead of a ribbon, neck too long as if someone’s been having a tug of war with it. People getting off. The chap in question gets annoyed with one of the men standing next to him. He accuses him of jostling him every time anyone goes past. A sniveling tone, which is meant to be aggressive. When he sees a vacant seat, he throws himself onto it.
Two hours later, I meet him in the Cour du Rome, in the Gare Saint-Lazare. He’s with a friend who’s saying: You ought to get an extra button put on your overcoat. He shows him where (at the lapels) and why.
I should add that the translator, Barbara Wright, is a hero for taking this on because it cannot have been easy to translate all of this from French to English while still maintaining the styles, voice, wordplay, and more. Her introduction is worth a read too.
Concluding Thoughts On Voice+Style
I recently read a memoir where the writer’s narrative voice veered from a casual style — with words like ass, fuck, piddling, crap, etc. — to a more formal one — words like “jocularly” (vs jokingly), and “curtailed” (vs cut off), and “on the morrow” (instead of tomorrow.) Sometimes within the span of a single paragraph. Not only is this jarringly inconsistent but it reduces the writer’s authority and credibility to readers.
A relevant, consistent, and distinct voice+style is the second most important thing any writer of any genre needs. The first is, of course, having something worthwhile to say. And voice+style is deeply influenced by socio-cultural norms, what we like to read, and the writing habits we develop over time. There is no substitute for exercising this cognitive muscle like any other through regular reading and writing across genres.
One of the reasons I maintain a regular public blog while keeping a daily private journal is that I want to keep developing the different voice+style necessary for both. These two writing practices also support my creative writing for publication elsewhere — more on the whys and wherefores of that another time.