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The Voice and Style of a Fiction Writer

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August 2011
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All great writers, such as Faulkner, Chekhov, Hemingway, Cormac McCarthy, Vladimir Nabokov, wrote their fiction with a unique voice and writing style.

Hemingway, for instance, wrote stories using a minimalist style. He used short sentences, nouns and verbs, short paragraphs, and vigorous language to tell his stories.

Cormac McCarthy also wrote “The Road” with a minimalist writing style. He often used short sentences, sentence fragments, and fancy vocabulary. As well, he did not use quotation marks to indicate that characters were speaking.

Vladimir Nabokov wrote the novel,” Lolita”, a tragic comedy using a creative style of long sentences and fancy words, irony and wordplay, such as verbal puns and anagrams.

Each of these writers narrated the story with a distinct voice and unique writing style.

In this article, I’ll discuss voice and style as it relates to  novels or short stories. The following will be covered:

  • Definition of voice in the story
  • Writer’s voice versus narrator’s voice
  • Definition of the writer’s writing style
  • How an aspiring writer can develop his/her voice and style

Voice of the Story

What is voice in fiction? Voice is one of the elements for analyzing fiction and a technique for writing a short story or novel. Voice is what the reader hears when reading the story. Voice is the narrator of the story.

Writers use several types of voices to narrate their stories. The important thing to remember is to keep the voice of the story consistent. Here some of the more common voices that writers use:

  • Conversational voice. As you read the story, you feel like the narrator is engaged in a conversation with the reader. The story is told using the POV of first person. J.D. Salinger uses this voice to tell the story of “Catcher in the Rye.”
  • Informal voice. It’s not as conversational. The narrator of the story uses everyday language. The story is told using first person or third person POV. Raymond told the story of “Cathedral” with an informal voice.
  • Formal voice. The narrator is detached from the main character as the story is told. The narration uses fancy prose and language. Both the stories of “Lolita” and “The Great Gatsby” were told using the formal voice.
  • Other voices. Writers have put into use many other voices to tell short stories or novels. For instance, Virginia Woolf used stream of consciousness. Other writers have used a lyrical voice like as though writing poetry.

 Writer’s Voice versus Narrator’s Voice

The narrator of the story is not the author or writer of the story. Yet, it is easy to confuse because some narrators do speak in a voice that resembles the author of the story. This confusion can also occur when a story has a first-person point of view or narrative. You need to be aware that the narrator or voice of the story is a construction, a technique used by the writer, to tell the story.

To decide whether to refer to the author or narrator of the story, ask yourself the following questions:

Are you quoting the text of the novel or short story? If so, you are referring to the narrator or voice of the story.

Are you asking questions about writing style, choice of diction, literary devices, such as simile, metaphor, symbolism? Then you are referring to the author’s voice.

The writer’s voice consists of the writing style and writer’s view of the world, such as his/her beliefs, opinions, values, personal experiences. Essentially, the writer’s voice is everything he/she embodies and puts into use to write the story.

Remember: The voice of the story is the voice of the narrator.

Writing Style of a Fiction Writer

What is writing style? It refers to the various literary techniques and stylistic choices the writer puts into use to craft the short story or novel. In particular, the writer’s style focuses on the following:

  • Writer’s choice of diction
  • Sentence length, sentence variety, syntax
  • Paragraph length

Writer’s Choice of Diction

Diction refers to the word choices of the writer. It all depends on the voice and point of view of the story. Here are some types of diction that writers use:

  • Profanity and vulgarisms
  • Obscenities
  • Contractions
  • Conversational and colloquial
  • Formal language
  • Fancy language

Writer’s Sentence Style

A good writer writes a story using different types of sentences and different lengths of sentences. Here are the common styles of sentences writers use:

  • Sentence fragment (phrase or dependent clause)
  • Simple sentence ( A single independent clause)
  • Compound sentence ( Two independent clauses joined by coordinating conjunction )
  • Complex sentence (One independent clause joined by one or more dependent clauses. A complex clause always has a subordination such as though, although, since, because…)
  • Periodic sentence ( modifiers + modifier +. Modifier…main clause at end)
  • Cumulative or loose sentence (main clause + modifier + modifier + modifier…)
  • Items in a series ( Main clause that includes series of items. Example: He wrote the first draft, revised it, printed a hard copy, handed it in to the professor.)

Writer’s Paragraph Style

There is no rule about how long or short a paragraph should be. Writers use different lengths, some very short, such as a sentence. Other writer construct long, detailed paragraphs.

Often writer’s craft a new paragraph for any of the following:

  • When a different character speaks
  • Shift in time
  • Shift in place
  • Change of action
  • New scene
  • Writing a summary

Some writers combine shifts in time and place and action, and so on. Other writers construct sparse paragraphs of only a sentence for dramatic effect. A short paragraph of only a single sentence is emphatic. A longer paragraph is has more detail, and so is slower in pace.

In the end, the choice of using short paragraphs or long paragraphs is a stylistic choice that each writer makes on his own, or with the assistance of an editor.

Developing Your Voice and Writing Style

As an aspiring writer of fiction, how can you develop your voice and writing style? In short, it takes time.

Essentially, you must experience life, read lots of short stories and novels, analyze the writing styles of great writer’s such as Hemingway, Chekhov, Atwood, Faulkner, Alice Munro, and many more. Write, write, write. In fact, you must write every day.

Here are a few suggestions for developing your voice and writing style:

  1.  Learn how to write well. Read and learn The Elements of Style by Strunk and White
  2. Read and great fiction, such as Lolita, 1984, The Wars, Portnoy’s Complaint, The Road, Catcher in the Rye.
  3. Analyze great fiction. Understand how the writer used the element of fiction to craft the story. Understand how the writer crafted the opening and ending.
  4. Learn how to tell a story. A short story includes a motive, conflict, climax or turning point, and resolution.
  5. Read Francine Prose’s book “Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for those Who Want to Write them.”
  6. Learn the techniques for writing fiction. For instance, how to construct setting, create memorable characters, develop a plot, open and end your story. A good book to help you learn is Janet Burroway’s “Writing Fiction”, the Gotham Writer’s Workshop’s “Writing Fiction”, and Tom Bailey’s “On Writing Short Stories.”
  7. Read the great short stories in Norton Anthology of Short Stories, and then analyze them, to understand the writer’s style and literary devices used.
  8. Take a workshops or courses in writing short stories or novels.
  9. Write, write, write. If you want to become a writer, you must write. You must write every day. You must experiment with your writing. Start by keeping a journal.

In this article, I discussed the concept of voice and writing style. I also explained the difference between the writer’s voice and the narrator’s voice. I concluded by providing you with some useful suggestions on how to develop your voice and writing style.

If you really want to become a writer of fiction, you must work at it. Great writer’s learned the craft of writing fiction and read widely and deeply. You must do the same.

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