Jason Half is a screenwriter, playwright, and novelist. His short story "The Widow Cleans House" will appear in the July/August 2016 issue of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. Jason joins us today to share his thoughts on that difficult to define topic, voice.
Writers might not spend a lot of time considering and defining their individual creative voices, and that’s probably a good thing. As often with the writing process, overthinking and overanalyzing can become a liability. But taking a few minutes to identify your own artistic voice may strengthen your future writing and offer a new perspective on previous work.
On the surface, a creative voice seems like an easy feature to spot. Stephen King’s voice is markedly different from Raymond Chandler’s, and Agatha Christie’s voice would likely not be mistaken by faithful readers with those of P.D. James or Ruth Rendell. Some of the elements defining voice are obvious signifiers, like narrative style or tone or type of story. Algorithms could be built, using word choices and genre structures and character types, which could reliably identify the data-driven aspects of voice. This one must be Charles Dickens. Hello there, Shakespeare.
But voice goes beyond a mere collection of writerly tics, traits, and behaviors, and that is cause for celebration. Voice contributes greatly to make a text personal, relatable, and engaging to the reader.
1. Voice can enhance and inspire characters.
Sometimes I get the feeling that writers actually ignore their personal voice in an attempt to deliver a story in a recognizable, straightforward way. The trade-off often sacrifices original voice for a safe and marketable product. Instead of relating a story that overlaps genre styles or highlights intriguing contradictions within a character, the author adheres to conventions. The result may be a competently plotted piece with no real sense of life or discovery.
Recognizing your own creative interests and obsessions – and inviting those interests into your stories – can be a powerful artistic choice. Humbert Humbert’s manic intellectualism, Mattie Ross’s dogmatic tenacity, and Holden Caulfield’s angry vulnerability each benefit from their creators’ willingness to trust their own artistic voices and reject safe character archetypes. (Those creators are Nabokov, Portis, and Salinger, respectively.) As a graduate playwright, the most memorable characters offered by my colleagues were the ones that went beyond placeholders or plot forwarding mechanisms and connected with the writer’s voice: through emotion or perspective or passionately held beliefs. Such characters were never timid, never nondescript, and always engaging.
2. Voice can provide meaning.
It took me quite a long time to recognize an essential tenet of successful writing: always know WHY you are telling the story. This, of course, is connected with the story’s thematic idea, and with identifying (at least for yourself) what you are trying to say. When you recognize the thematic interests that drive you, your reason for telling a story can become clear. From there, you then have the freedom to approach the writing on both a plot level and a theme level, and can shape the paths to move in the same direction.
Previously, I would start a story by shaping its plot and working out the details. If I wasn’t listening to my creative voice – if I wasn’t actively thinking about how I could find a way to make the plot my own and keep myself engaged as a writer – then the plot would stay merely a sequence of events. It would feel disposable. In contrast, a recent short story of mine uses its revenge plot to deliver a greater realization to the wronged protagonist about his life, and this is the element that is much truer to my voice and my ideology than with answering the basic question of “Will he have his revenge?”
3. Voice can connect a body of work.
Here is another great advantage to recognizing your artistic voice. Suddenly, all of your previous works begin to speak to each other in new and interesting ways. Stylistic and tonal elements that repeat in your writing might be obvious, but voice also looks at your artistic intent, whether that is conscious at the time of writing or not.
I am always amazed that my own writing, which was purposefully diverse in plot and setting, is nevertheless thematically connected. Whether the story concerns a cynical tulip seller in 17th century Holland, a headstrong female producer in the man’s world of 1950s live television, a big-city gangster exiled to small-town America, or a mother emerging as an activist against the company poisoning her land, they all display a central, universal idea that I return to time and again. In nearly every story I write, there is a tension between an individual’s views and the expectations (and often damaging actions) of society. Some characters conform and suffer, others retain their individualism but at great cost. The stories may be different, but it is my voice – my view of the world, my sense of humor, my questing spirit – that runs like a thread of creative DNA through each and every one of them.
Jason Half runs a tribute website for prolific Golden Age mystery author Gladys Mitchell at www.gladysmitchell.com . His short story “The Widow Cleans House” will appear in the July/August 2016 issue of Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. His personal website, which contains writing and mystery reviews, can be found at www.jasonhalf.com
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