Wednesday, September 7, 2011


Last Monday, over on the Wordplay podcast, Nathan, James, and I talked about YA and Middle Grade voice. I think we did a decent job of defining what voice is, but I’d like to take another stab at drilling down a little because voice is one of those things like “high concept” that you hear a lot about, but everyone has a slightly different answer for what it means.

Let’s start with what voice isn’t. Voice is not how your character talks. Or at least it’s not just how your character talks. It’s also not how the narrator talks, although that can be part of it. I almost think that personality would be a better word for it, because voice is a lot like the personality of your book.

Let’s play a game for a minute. I’ll take my turn here and you take your turn there. Think of three very different people you know or have known. When I say different, I don’t necessarily mean strange, but rather different from each other. In fact one of them can be very ordinary.

I’ll start with a boy named John I knew in elementary school, a girl I knew in high school and still know, and a guy I know now. Got your three? Great, let’s continue.

Think of three defining characteristics of each of these people. It could be something about their looks, how they interacted with other people, a driving motivation, someone or something they remind you of. Just think of three things and write them down.

John was the proverbial nerd before the word was even really popular. He couldn’t answer a question without sounding like he’d just run it by the periodical table of elements. He refused to do anything other than read at recess unless forced to, and he was socially awkward. He was extremely smart, but had the whole thick black glasses, weird clothes and slicked back hair thing going on.

The girl was one of my best friends in high school. Physically, she was cute but not drop dead gorgeous. She wasn’t fat, but she was built big. Those things don’t play into how I remember her though. Whenever I picture her, what I think of is the energizer bunny. She was always up. She had this kind of high-pitched voice that didn’t quite fit with how she looked, and she was always giggling, talking, cracking jokes. If you were around her, you couldn’t help but be in a good mood. My one word description for her would be on. Everybody liked her.

The third person reads this blog and will recognize himself right away. He is the kind of person that is usually described as a character. He has slightly longish black going on gray hair, a beard, and in the winter he likes to wear a long leather coat. He is usually driving either a beater car or a motorcycle. He is always telling stories that are very interesting because he has quite a storied background. But even though the stories would be good by themselves, he likes to embellish them. He always has twenty projects going on and another twenty in his head. If he were a TV character, he would be Kramer from Seinfeld.

Now, obviously there is a lot more to each of these people. In fact, you could even say they are stereotypes to one degree or another. I haven’t talked at all about what makes them act they way they do, what their backgrounds are, what they want out of life. But just in those little snapshots, you can probably imagine the people I am talking about. You have a feel for them and understand how they might fit into your life.

Now think of three different books. Let’s take To Kill a Mockingbird, Harry Potter, and Diary of a Wimpy Kid. Just like each of the people I described had a unique personality, each of these books does. The feeling of each book wasn’t random either. Of course, each of them were very different stories. But that doesn’t explain the differences. You could write a story about a goofy kid starting junior high and have it read like Mockingbird or HP. And it’s not that the authors could only write in one way. I firmly believe that JK Rowling could write a book in a Wimpy Kid voice or a Mockingbird voice.

So what does all this mean? Well for one thing it means you not only need to consider your plot and characters, but also the personality of your story. I’ve read some great stories that I believe never got published because they had no personality, no voice. There was nothing about the writing that was bad. But it didn’t grab you by the throat and make you want to read more.

Just like all three of the people I described are people you could drop into a book (and I have on more than one occasion), each of the three books I mentioned make you want to read more, but in very different ways. We are in a great place for writers now, with more opportunity than ever. But we are also in a world where there are more books competing against you for readers’ attention. If you want to stand out you have to understand voice and decide what will make your book’s voice unique.

Three quick examples from books I have written. Read the paragraphs and see how much of the book’s personality you can grasp from just a paragraph or two.


Carter jumped to his feet, pressed one hand to his lower back, and shuffled across the room. “Come give your Granny Goulash a big wet smackerooni and I’ll let you have one of my stale oatmeal toffee bars. Or is this something I scooped out of Fluffy’s litter box? Can’t really seem to remember.”


Welcome to Hell, all ye damned and demented. Please keep moving. Welcome to Hell, all ye damned and demented. Please keep moving . . .

The repeating message begins moments after I reach the top of the red stone platform, hammering the morning air and making me jump even though I knew it was coming. The tips of my fingers tingle where sharp claws try to poke through and I taste blood in my mouth as my fangs momentarily slide over my teeth—the normal Dae’ Ungu reaction to surprise or anger.


“Bobby has been what?” Brooklyn’s voice sounded sleep-fuzzy and far away. I didn’t know if the static in my head was the phone line or the insistent buzzing I’d been hearing since the moment I found my best friend lying on the floor of my apartment in a puddle of his own blood.

In the first example example I am targeting a MG audience. I want lots of emotion: fright, laughter, tension. It’s all about bigger is better. I’d like this book to feel like watching ET.

The second example is from a paranormal YA. The story mostly takes place in Hell through the eyes of a female teenage demon. It needs to feel dark and a little edgy. I want you to feel like your hands are slightly grimy when you finish reading. It has a kind of graphic novel aura to it.

The third example is from an adult mystery written from the first person POV of a reporter in her mid twenties. As you can see, this book begins with her best friend/romantic interest in the hospital with a life threatening injury. That buzzing in her head is how I want the entire book to feel. She is constantly off balance in this story.

Not saying that any of these are great. Or that you need to emulate them. But hopefully this gives you a feel of what voice means in your story and it gives you a tool you can use when trying to make your book stand out from the crowd.

Now, go write!


David John Dickson said...

Hey Jeff,

I've heard some authors say you can't (or at least, shouldn't) try to consciously work on voice. That it either comes naturally, or not at all. Sort of like trying to change your own eye color or something.

What are your thoughts on that? It would seem to me that, given the many different age levels you write for, you must have tried tweaking voice at least one time or another over the years.

Thanks for another great post.


J Scott Savage said...


I've never bought into the philosophy and more than I believe an artist can't paint with different styles. I think you have to be careful about trying to copy a voice or making a commercial voice. But you have to change your voice as you write for different age groups and genres. Do you really think lemony Snicket could only write in the heavy narrator voice he used for A Series of Unfortunate Events?

I think people say that to keep beginning authors from trying to write like a specific author. But a good writer can definitely write in different voices for different projects.

Nina said...

the third story sounds like part of your Shandra Covinton novel A Time To Die...I didn't think it was that far back in time

J Scott Savage said...


Sorry. I worded that badly. It is from the POV of a reporter in her mid-twenties. Not a mid twenties-reporter. Goof catch.

Lauren said...

Last week I decided to go outside my comfort zone and started a YA urban fantasy novel as a test. And surprisingly I found the voice I wanted right away. It was PERFECT, and the story just flowed...until I had to sleep and came back to it.

I couldn't find the voice again!

Still can't, although I've been just poofed.

Sad, but true. My writing is so organic that voice either flows or it doesn't, but I've never had a good voice vanish like that!