Chances are you’ve got a favorite author. There’s something about their words on paper that work in a spellbound way to reach up from their place in line to grab your hand and pull you into the imagined world before you. The connection you feel to the characters, the subject, the era – all of it feels as though it’s being spoken directly to you and for you. Whether you laugh or cry at the right moments as you read, if you nod your head in agreement, or dogear a page so you can return to it because the feeling is so moving you’ve got to experience it more than once in a lifetime. All of this comes down to one tiny word with a very big meaning: Voice.
What Are the Elements of Voice in Writing?
Voice is personality on a page. How a writer uses it determines their own unique sound.
Just as you cannot force a personality onto someone, you cannot force voice in writing. Every voice is unique.
If you polled hundreds of writers asking them to identify the elements of voice, you’d receive varied feedback. That’s because of how individual and personal voice is to each writer. Some might say voice comes down to sentence structure and length. Another would argue that voice is an ambiguous word to describe the magic that happens when words travel from our imaginations on the page. But that’s not what you’re here for, right? Sometimes we need to improve our skill with a concrete guide. We hear you. We’re going to give you a list of elements to consider when writing that will help develop your voice. You have to promise, though, that you will take these steps as tools rather than rules. Use them in conjunction with artistry – write what feels appropriate for your topic and the audience you’re trying to reach.
Voices at Work
All this talk about voice can feel a bit abstract since it’s each voice is unique to the writer and the story they are telling, so let’s take a look at the difference between passages from some authors with distinctly different voices:
When spring came, even the false spring, there were no problems except where to be happiest. The only thing that could spoil a day was people and if you could keep from making engagements, each day had no limits. People were always the limiters of happiness except for the very few that were as good as spring itself.
(A Moveable Feast, Ernest Hemingway)
“Because,” explained Mary Rommely simply, “the child must have a valuable thing which is called imagination. The child must have a secret world in which live things that never were. It is necessary that she believe. She must start out by believing in things not of this world. Then when the world becomes too ugly for living in, the child can reach back and live in her imagination. I, myself, even in this day and at my age, have great need of recalling the miraculous lives of the Saints and the great miracles that have come to pass on earth. Only by having these things in my mind can I live beyond what I have to live for.”
(A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Betty Smith)
Oh, it’s delightful to have ambitions. I’m so glad I have such a lot. And there never seems to be any end to them– that’s the best of it. Just as soon as you attain to one ambition you see another one glittering higher up still. It does make life so interesting.
(Anne of Green Gables, L.M. Montgomery)
Everyone must leave something behind when he dies, my grandfather said. A child or a book or a painting or a house or a wall built or a pair of shoes made. Or a garden planted. Something your hand touched some way so your soul has somewhere to go when you die, and when people look at that tree or that flower you planted, you’re there.
(Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury)
She is a friend of my mind. She gather me, man. The pieces I am, she gather them and give them back to me in all the right order.
(Beloved, Toni Morrison)
Among other things, you’ll find that you’re not the first person who was ever confused and frightened and even sickened by human behavior. You’re by no means alone on that score, you’ll be excited and stimulated to know. Many, many men have been just as troubled morally and spiritually as you are right now. Happily, some of them kept records of their troubles. You’ll learn from them—if you want to. Just as someday, if you have something to offer, someone will learn something from you. It’s a beautiful reciprocal arrangement. And it isn’t education. It’s history. It’s poetry.
(Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger)
But just because you bury something, that doesn’t mean it stops existing. Those feelings, they’d been there all along. All that time. I had to face it. He was part of my DNA. I had brown hair and I had freckles and I would always have Conrad in my heart.
(To All The Boys I Loved Before, Jenny Han)
Without further ado, we give you elements of voice:
How you arrange words to develop sentences. Not everyone does it the same way, nor should they. Creative writing is art because there are countless ways to say one thing.
The attitude of your piece and the words you choose to express it.
Word choice can make or break the believability of your piece. If a story is not believable, your reader could very likely roll their eyes and put your story down in favor of one written by a different author.
This is one of those things that is exactly as it sounds. Imagery = images created based on what the words describe. If you’ve ever pictured a story in your mind while reading it’s because the author used imagery. Figurative language (simile, metaphor, personification) is sometimes used to create this imagery, and sometimes it comes down to some darn good description of a scene. Lean into the five senses to make the image undeniably accurate to the piece you’re writing.
This connects back to sentence length in syntax. Varied sentence types have the power to define a voice, whether it’s yours as the writer of an argumentative essay or the first person voice of a fictional character in a novel. You know how some people sound like every sentence they speak sounds like a question? To get that sound into your readers’ minds you will need to write the sentences exactly as they sound. This is the stuff that puts creative in creative writing.
The words you choose and the order in which you set them up can manipulate a reader’s heart, change their mind, plant an idea. There truly is no limit to the power words can have on a reader when they are voiced well.