5 fantastic examples of voice

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Photo by Anna Gutermuth

Photo by Anna Gutermuth

Following last week’s post on how to find your voice, here are the first 100-ish words from five books with unique and strong voices; a mix of first and third person, and of new and classic authors.

Marley was dead, to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. Scrooge Signed it. And Scrooge’s name was good upon ‘Change, for anything he chose to put his hand to. Old Marley was as dead as a doornail.

Mind! I don’t mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a doornail. I might have been inclined, myself, to regard a coffin nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade. But the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile; and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or the Country’s done for. You will therefore permit me to repeat, emphatically, that Marley was as dead as a doornail.

Unnecessary words like “of my own knowledge,” “myself,” and “emphatically.” Beginning sentences with articles and ending them with prepositions! And of course his completely pointless rabbit trail about the door nail. Yet none of it is truly pointless. By breaking these rules in the way he did, Mr. Dickens makes the story conversational. We’re not simply reading a story; we’re hearing it told by a charming, if slightly wordy, English gentleman.

First the colors.

Then the humans.

That’s usually how I see things.

Or at least, how I try.

***Here is a small fact***

You are going to die.

I am in all truthfulness attempting to be cheerful about this whole topic, though most people find themselves hindered in believing me, no matter my protestations. Please, trust me. I most definitely can be cheerful. I can be amiable. Agreeable. Affable. And that’s only the A’s. Just don’t ask me to be nice. Nice has nothing to do with me.

***Reaction to the aforementioned fact***

Does this worry you? I urge you—don’t be afraid. I’m nothing if not fair.

You can tell at a glance that Mr. Zusak is different. His bold interruptions to his own prose are a fascinating quirk all by themselves. Add the narrator’s somewhat depressed sense of humor and subtle conveyance of authority, and you become hooked. Notice the things he says and doesn’t say. He doesn’t say who or what he is, but we can infer from what he does say (“Then the humans.”) that he is not human and (“I’m nothing if not fair.”) that he has some control over whether we live or die.

 

Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun.

Orbiting this at a distance of roughly ninety-eight million miles is an utterly insignificant little blue-green planet whose ape-descended life forms are so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea.

This planet has—or rather had—a problem. Which was this: most of the people living on it were unhappy for pretty much of the time. Many solutions were suggested for this problem, but most of these were largely concerned with the movements of small green pieces of paper, which is odd because on the whole it wasn’t the small green pieces of paper that were unhappy.

Note the intentional wordiness, the amusing use of adverbs, how quickly he zeroes in from the hugeness of the universe to the ordinariness of digital watches. Mr. Adams has a unique way of looking at life, the universe, and everything—it is all absurd to him, and he enjoys the simple pleasure of sharing that absurdity with the rest of us.

You don’t know about me, without you have read a book by the name of “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” but that ain’t no matter. That book was made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly. There was things which he stretched, but mainly he told the truth. That is nothing. I never seen anybody but lied, one time or another, without it was Aunty Polly—Tom’s Aunt Polly, she is—and Mary, and the Widow Douglas, is all told about in that book—which is mostly a true book, with some stretchers, as I said before.

Breaking rules left and right here. Note the atrocious grammar and the way he interrupts and repeats himself. Mr. Twain puts us right in the room with Huck Finn. Simply the way it is worded helps us to both hear the accent and see the boy—before ever being told what he sounds or looks like.

 

All my life I’ve wanted to go to Earth. Not to live, of course—just to see it. As everybody knows, Terra is a wonderful place to visit but not to live. Not truly suited to human habitation.

Personally, I’m not convinced that the human race originated on Earth. I mean to say, how much reliance should you place on the evidence of a few pounds of old bones plus the opinions of anthropologists who usually contradict each other anyhow when what you are being asked to swallow so obviously flies in the face of all common sense?

Look at how long that last sentence is, with only one comma, and how it makes you read straight through it without breathing—and how subtly it conveys the talkative teenage girl. Mr. Heinlein achieves the ultimate victory in turning himself into an underage female.

 

Which of your favorite books have unique voices? Post an excerpt in the comments, or on your blog and link it back here!

WANT HELP FINDING YOUR VOICE? Join us for Voice Week 2014, September 22-26

 

About Stephanie Orges

Stephanie is an award-winning copywriter, aspiring novelist, and barely passable ukulele player. Here, she offers writing prompts, tips, and moderate-to-deep philosophical discussions. You can also find her on and Pinterest.
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24 Comments

  1. Such a good post! Honestly I try to avoid thinking about my voice in writing. I usually end up with a serious case of writer’s block because I over think it when I do. Partially because I’m a teenage girl and I get insecure about it when people criticize my voice. Anything else they could go on all day and I honestly don’t care.

    • Ah, yes, and it’s such an intangible so much of the time, its so hard to put your finger on exactly WHY the voice is perfect or slightly off. And over thinking is a trap most of us fall into. It might help to find a book with a voice similar to the one you are shooting for, and read a chapter right before you sit down to write. That’ll help you get a feel for the rhythm, and it will naturally influence the way you write.

  2. This is going to sound cliche. But I really enjoyed Holden in Catcher in the Rye. I like how he has so many traits that he attrivutes to “phony”. The voice of the hypocrite.

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  5. Markus Zusak does employ an incredible voice in his writing. I was lucky enough to meet him in 2009 and he signed my copy of The Book Thief with a wonderful inscription.

    What a great post! I look forward to perusing your blog further :)

  6. Thanks for the “voice” lesson, Stephanie.

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  9. I just want to thank you for pointing out how the character’s personality comes through in the voice. So many people and agencies promote minimization these days, wanting writers to cull out “unnecessary words,” without any seeming recognition that those words (or even lack thereof in other cases) provide the depth to the being that gets disclosed to the reader not only in an introduction, but throughout the building of the relationship.

    • Oh, goodness yes. I myself have been a big proponent of cutting unnecessary words, but I have to remind myself not to go too far. You can end up cutting all of the soul out of the story! Imagine taking the red pen to Bradbury! Or Zusak!

      • One writer told me, ‘Spill your guts, THEN clean it up.’ Get your story out of your system. For me, the best way to do that is the old fashioned pen and paper notebook. That way, you can look back and what you wrote, months later and say, “That’s an idea” or “What was I drinking when I wrote this …. ?” At the same time, you have a basic idea of what you do and do not want to do. I have a whole notebook full of ideas! Maybe I should start taking some of my own advice. :D

        • Haha, great saying. There’s a lot of creative power in just letting go and not being analytical until the editing stages. I think it was Hemingway who said “Write drunk, edit sober.”

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