by Andrea Lundgren
Readers frequently talk about the style or narrative flavor of authors they enjoy. They’ll say, “That sounds like something __ wrote,” or “This reminded me of ___” or “The tone of that was flat.” But sometimes, we authors we sometimes don’t know what gives us our writing voice. What makes writing sound different or interesting and engaging?
Our voice is really the flavor that is distinctly ours. It’s like the spices that make Italian different than French or German cooking. They may have similar topography or features; in certain portions of those countries, there may just be an imaginary line between one part and another, to where the climate, soil types, and weather are identical. Similarly, our writing might be similar to that of another in genre, plot elements, and character types but yet be unique because of the “spices” we employ.
So here are four different areas where writing spice should always show up:
- Dialogue. Dialogue should always reveal the characters who are speaking. They shouldn’t sound identical, because people rarely talk the same. Some use contractions; some use long words. Others have unfinished sentences or talk to themselves. Some talk with a great deal of humor where others are straightforward, and some characters are known best by their lack of talking. However your character behave, it should come out in the dialogue.
- Details. Not every writer has to put the same kind of details in their narrative. You have to pick the details your storyteller would convey, and not a laundry list of “taste-touch-smell-hearing-sight.” This is much clearer when dealing with first person narration, as then, your narrator is obvious.
A teenage boy will notice different things than a woman who has served in the military for years. A mother will see things differently than her child, and even different sorts of mothers or children will see things differently. Who your character is determines what they’ll see, and that should color their story. Someone who hates plants will tell an outdoor adventure story far differently than a botanist, or a person who could never see or smelled anything before.
With third person close, you have the same sort of character-oriented narration as first person, but you are likely dealing with more characters and perspectives that will equally be different dependent on who is telling the story in that scene. And if you have third person omniscient, you have an omniscient narrator who you have to get to know, just as much as any other character, because they too will have preferences and will notice certain things and ignore others. Tolkien’s narrator speaks very differently than Jane Austen’s narrator, and they notice and focus on differently things.
- Content. Just as your details differ depending on your narrator, so the content will vary based on your narrator. Some characters or narrators aren’t philosophical or theological or environmentally-minded or open-minded, and putting such thoughts in their mouth will be intrusive (which is one of the biggest complaints against Christian fiction, as characters suddenly preach and pray when they don’t seem like those sorts of people, but I’ve also run into cases where characters are all very positive about diversity, caring for the environment, and devoted to other causes where it didn’t fit). Some character would look at and dwell on fights and battles and others would look away, trying not to notice the details. Some will dwell deeply on how they feel about what is going on in the story, while others will put their emotions on the back burner and push forward, and your narration has to follow the character’s preferences and not your own (unless you or someone like you is the narrator, of course).
- Syntax. This is how your sentences are structured, and not a lot of writing advice discusses sentence structure. Aside from the obvious of Yoda-speak and other, character specific dialogue styles, writers don’t always think of arranging sentences, but how you write will affect the flavor of your writing. For example, consider the differences of these two sentences.
“The sun had only just arisen, casting a faint pink glow over the landscape and frosting the land with light.”
“The sun arose. It cast a faint pink glow over the landscape. It frosted the land with light.”
“Casting a faint pink glow over the landscape and frosting the land with light, the sun arose.”
Both of the first examples use almost the exact same terms, but they will read very differently because the first has two participial phrases while the second chops things up into three separate sentences. Finally, the last emphasizes the sun and leave the focus there, while the first one moves from the sun to the landscape, setting us up to look somewhere other than the bright orb in the sky. Your syntax will affect the tone of your writing and determine whether your readers are ready for whatever comes next.
So the next time you feel like your writing is flat, take a look at these three areas and see if you’re missing some opportunities to spice things up.
Guest post contributed by Andrea Lundgren. Andrea enjoys books and all things writing–from how we write to why we write–and her blog explores things from a writer’s point of view.