Strong Voice vs. Invisible Writing

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Strong Voice vs. Invisible Writing

Postby ljkuhnley » 14 Mar 2010, 20:27

I've noticed that while agents' and editors' taste vary greatly, many agree that what they look for in a story is strong voice. And yet, many writers are advised to make their writing invisible- in other words, the writing should not draw attention to itself. I wonder if there is a distinction here that I am missing.

It seems to me that a strong voice would naturally draw attention to itself like a charismatic party goer who captures the room's attention with an engaging story. Sometimes how the story is told is as engaging as the story itself.

My question is not so much regarding whether strong voice is better than a simple style that does not draw attention to itself because I suppose that is a matter of personal preference. What I'm interested in is what, as readers, draws you into a story and what pulls you out.

For me, a line that pops up now in then that breaks the fourth wall is "Stuff like that only happens in stories." I suppose it's meant to be funny but a line like that always brings me back to reality as my brain registers, "Hey, this is a story."

What often draws me deeper into a story (besides an engaging plot) is the idiosyncratic observations or ideas of the characters. I'm a little embarrassed to admit that I was hooked by The Princess Diaries, but how could I not love a character who says things like "Die Hard is my favorite Christmas movie."

So what draws you in? What pulls you out? What line or phrase makes you want to throw the book across the room?
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Re: Strong Voice vs. Invisible Writing

Postby polymath » 14 Mar 2010, 20:47

Rapport with a character, milieu, event, and/or idea draws me in. Rapport from resonance and empathy with a viewpoint character's insuperable dilemma.

Unsettled narrative voice throws me out. A narrator that can't decide whether to interact with an audience or interact with a story creases my mind like an unsyncopated mangle would.
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Re: Strong Voice vs. Invisible Writing

Postby bcomet » 14 Mar 2010, 21:12

I Love a storyteller.
IF there is a storyteller, like in The Princess Bride or Fairy Tales, or many modern TV shows and some amazing movies too,
they can be a fine and integral part of the story making.
Storytelling is an art.

If you get in front of the story, maybe you should stand a little more behind the curtain.
(Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.)
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Re: Strong Voice vs. Invisible Writing

Postby Mira » 14 Mar 2010, 23:23

Lj - I think, I'm not sure, but I think you might be confusing voice with the narrator. A good voice will make the author invisible. The voice of the piece is what comes out, not the mechanics of the writer.

For example, the Princess Diaries has a very strong voice to it. It's the voice of the character, who says things like "Die hard is my favorite movie.' And you'll notice that all of Meg Cabot's books have strong voice, but the voice differs depending on the MC. But you never think to yourself, 'Oh, this is Meg Cabot talking to me.'

I think voice can be the voice of the narrator, or it can be the voice of a character, or it can be the voice of the story.

In terms of narration, and breaking down the fourth wall, I think that's a matter of taste. Some people love romanctic comedies, and some love literary fiction, and some love a narrator that talks to them. It all depends upon the reader.

The point is, though, as a writer is to write with the voice that comes naturally to you. When I found my voice, it was like a 'click'. It was the most wonderful exerience, and I'll never lose my voice again. I'm still deepening it, and have alot more to learn about my voice, but it defines me as a writer.

Anyway, hope some of this was helpful - and I hope I didn't sound like I know everything about voice, because I don't. But this is what I understand about it, for what it's worth. :)
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Re: Strong Voice vs. Invisible Writing

Postby ljkuhnley » 15 Mar 2010, 03:22

Mira,

Thank you for your explanation. I see the distinction now.

My question, in a way, is more a response to the myriad "rules" out there that we all stumble upon in an attempt to improve our craft. Some people declare the rules as though they were gospel while others say screw the rules. I'm somewhere in between. I like to analyze things, figure out why the rule (or rather, technique) exists in the first place, when it works and when it doesn't.

I completely understand that everyone's response to the question "What breaks the fourth wall" is going to vary. That's part of what makes writing so great. They are all kinds of audiences for all kinds of stories and I appreciate everyone who shares their personal experiences as a reader as well as a writer.
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Re: Strong Voice vs. Invisible Writing

Postby Matthew MacNish » 15 Mar 2010, 05:24

I think it all depends on what you're writing. I guess I mean genre but not exactly. If you're writing epic fantasy I think having the narrator, or any character speak directly to the audience would ruin dream like quality of being drawn into such a fantastic world. If it's romantic comedy, or anything funny for that matter, I think it works quite well.
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Re: Strong Voice vs. Invisible Writing

Postby maybegenius » 15 Mar 2010, 17:54

Mira's post is along what I was thinking, too. Invisible writing doesn't necessarily have to mean plain/simple. It's more that it doesn't call attention to itself in a way that jars the reader out of their "zone" and makes them remember they're reading a book. Some weird phrasing, or too much over-the-top description that takes the reader out of the story and leaves them thinking, "... what is this author doing here?"

I occasionally find myself hitting that wall when I'm reading an author who is so impressed with their own vocabulary and witty quips that they lose the thread of the story they're telling. Then I'm sitting there going "Okay, yes, you're very clever. Now GET ON WITH IT." It also happens when I'm reading something with too much needless detail. Do I really need to know what everyone in this scene is wearing? Is it relevant? I'm sure that secondary character looks smashing in her red Lycra bodysuit and pseudo-snakeskin miniskirt with black tassels and thigh-high boots and large hoop earrings, but why do I need to know this?

That sort of thing.
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Re: Strong Voice vs. Invisible Writing

Postby PaulWoodlin » 15 Mar 2010, 21:10

While much of what everyone has said makes sense, my sensibility goes the other way. If the invisible writer was truely a good idea, then how come it only takes a paragraph to tell if I'm reading Jane Austen vs. Ernest Hemingway, Lovecraft vs. Twain, Prost vs. anybody? I like a good, strong voice in my books, especially if that voice reflects the characters. When I think of voiceless writers, I think of Dan Brown, Stephanie Meyer, or other best sellers who are very focused on the story. Obviously you can make a living as a writer either way. And yes, I like "Princess Dairies," "Princess Bride," and "Don Quixote", all of which as books would run into trouble without a good comic voice.
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Re: Strong Voice vs. Invisible Writing

Postby dios4vida » 16 Mar 2010, 09:30

I think one of authors who has mastered voice is Jim Butcher in the Dresden Files. It's written in first person, so Harry Dresden is telling you his story. He's mixed dry humor with beautiful vision and fast-paced action so well that one minute your heart is pounding and the next you're laughing.

"I liked my odds on the starwell a lot better than I did in the cramped confines of the elevator. Paranoid? Probably. But just because you're paranoid doesn't mean that there isn't an invisible demon about to eat your face." (Storm Front, book 1 of the Dresden Files, end of chapter 1)

He melds the humor and observation so well into the story that it is invisible, but it's the strongest voice I've ever read. Even if you aren't into the paranormal sci-fi it would be worth your while to read a little bit of his work, just to get a taste of what a strong voice can do for a story.

What's the moral of the story? I'm not sure. We all agree that strong voice is important, and that it takes a master of the craft to make it invisible. I think the best way we can do that is to write naturally. Don't force humor if you aren't funny. Don't try to make it dry if you're cracking up inside. Write what feels right for the scene/character...and mix it up. I have an MC who is lighthearted and makes jokes at inappropriate times, a priestess who doesn't know how to laugh at anything, and a surly warrior who hates everything with a perpetual scowl on his face. They make an unlikely trio but it adds a lot of tension into every scene. And I get to play around with each character's voice and make my book something unique to me.
Brenda :)

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Re: Strong Voice vs. Invisible Writing

Postby maybegenius » 16 Mar 2010, 13:25

PaulWoodlin wrote:While much of what everyone has said makes sense, my sensibility goes the other way. If the invisible writer was truely a good idea, then how come it only takes a paragraph to tell if I'm reading Jane Austen vs. Ernest Hemingway, Lovecraft vs. Twain, Prost vs. anybody? I like a good, strong voice in my books, especially if that voice reflects the characters. When I think of voiceless writers, I think of Dan Brown, Stephanie Meyer, or other best sellers who are very focused on the story. Obviously you can make a living as a writer either way. And yes, I like "Princess Dairies," "Princess Bride," and "Don Quixote", all of which as books would run into trouble without a good comic voice.


I don't think a prominent authorial voice and invisible writing have to be mutually exclusive. If the voice is keeping you absorbed in the flow of the novel, then it's doing its job. If you have to stop every other page because you're getting caught up on something about the writing itself, that's visible writing. Invisible writing isn't about a lack of voice, it's about a lack of stops and hiccups along the way.

I chuckled a little at your citing Dan Brown, because he's actually one of those writers that stops me up. I have a hard time getting involved in the plot because I stop and go, "Oh come on, Dan, no one talks like this."
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Re: Strong Voice vs. Invisible Writing

Postby marilyn peake » 16 Mar 2010, 16:43

I think voice is made up of the beliefs and writing style of the writer. In invisible writing, the reader can distill the voice from the writing if they really think about it, but voice itself is hidden from immediate view like the man behind the curtain (WIZARD OF OZ). Think about the difference in voice between Cormac McCarthy in THE ROAD and Stephenie Myer in TWILIGHT – two very different voices!
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Re: Strong Voice vs. Invisible Writing

Postby polymath » 16 Mar 2010, 18:13

I'm sensing several different takes on voice in this topic thread. In some senses author voice, other senses story voice, others narrator voice, others character voice. Seymour Chatman in Story and Discourse references voice for whomever as the method of delivery of a story--discourse--and the story as the message. He's close in accord with the earliest rhetorician's take on delivery and message, Aristotle in Poetics, the earliest known treatise on narrative rhetoric, or literary theory or poetics as it's also known.

Chatman organizes delivery into effects from narrative choices, overt and covert narrators, narrative and nonnarrative stories, and story-audience interaction interfaces and other topics. I found the levels of interaction especially illuminating, in particular as pertains to voice.

Chatman's interaction diagram;
Real author > Implied author > narrator > < narratee < implied reader < real reader.

There's other levels he overlooks: Author subconscious >< reader subconscious, and reader-viewpoint character rapport;
Author subconscious > real author > Implied author > narrator > viewpoint character rapport < narratee < implied reader < real reader < reader subconscious.

For real author interacting with real reader, I have Vonnegut's Breakfast of Champions' opening preface in mind. The novel soon transitions to implied author >< implied reader, and on to narrator >< narratee, ending in close viewpoint character rapport. Vonnegut accomplishes seamless transitions from one interaction level to another by shifting voices from direct address to free direct address to indirect address to free indirect address. In those senses, from author voice to narrator voice to character voice.

Most every story has some level of subconscious author-reader interaction. In my opinion, that's why different readers can have different interpretations from one another's creative visions and different from an author's creative vision. The subconscious mind just sneaks in on its own terms.

Anyway, voice is a complex topic. The above is just one discrete area I've found for fathoming the strong voice versus invisible writing dilemma.
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Re: Strong Voice vs. Invisible Writing

Postby Susan Quinn » 19 Mar 2010, 16:01

This is a fascinating discussion. Voice is one of those slippery things that everyone seems to search after, some claim to find, and many of us are wondering what the heck it means! :)

I once heard voice described as that essence in your writing that comes when you a free drafting - writing from the heart while shutting down that internal editor. Of course, the words on the page are general garbage. But buried in there is the nugget of your natural voice. Then the crafting comes, the slow unearthing and refining and polishing of that voice (not to mention the story), until it finally is presentable to the general public.

I've found that as my craft evolves, I'm better able to detect my voice. This occurred quite by happenstance. I wasn't looking for Voice, per se, but found it along the way, somewhere between the 100th blog post and my examination of the shapeliness of sentences (see Williams' Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace).

Susan Quinn

p.s. Polymath - I've ordered Seymour Chatman's Story and Discourse - thanks for the tip!
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Re: Strong Voice vs. Invisible Writing

Postby polymath » 19 Mar 2010, 17:48

You're welcome, Susan Quinn.

If you're looking for similar topical subjects to tide you over until Chatman arrives, consider Percy Lubbock's The Craft of Fiction, 1921, freely available at Project Gutenberg. Lubbock's about as dense as molybdenum, but he covers another parallel area of voice, particularly narrative point of view's influences on narrative voice.

I didn't fully understand Chatman until I fully understood Lubbock and vice versa. Lubbock's didactic voice is way old fashioned too, compared with Chatman's. Chatman at least comes out and straightforwardly says what his topics are. Lubbock never does. I guess that's the way poetics is.

For example, Maass' Writing the Breakout Novel, 2001, doesn't seem from a casual glance to have a central poetics topic. Months after I read and studied Maass, it finally came to me. Maass' central topic is a discussion of methods for building and maintaining audience rapport. Something Lubbock apparently has no clue about, although Lubbock does have some insights into narrative point of view's influence on narrative voice.

Criminy, if it were all in one place instead of following a trail of breadcrumbs, every writer wouldn't have to reinvent the wheel. What might happen if we all started our poets' journeys with convenient access to all knowable poetics?

Lubbock's The Craft of Fiction;
http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/18961
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Re: Strong Voice vs. Invisible Writing

Postby Susan Quinn » 19 Mar 2010, 18:33

It's jarring and rather cool to download a 1921 book on writing to my nook. :)
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