One of the most elusive terms when discussing fiction is the concept of Voice (especially when it is capitalized). You will hear the word get thrown around in so many different directions and meaning so many different things to so many different people that it often becomes useless when trying to critique a work-in-progress in a workshop setting or within the editor/writer give-and-take. As both a teacher and editor, one of the first things that I try to do with my writers is to settle on a critical vocabulary that we can both understand and agree upon, so that when we get to the nitty-gritty of evaluating and critiquing manuscripts, there are no misunderstandings.
Voice, because of its expansive definition, is one of the most important terms to define and agree upon. Often we hear the term in its more sweeping usage—when, for instance, we speak of a young writer “finding her voice”; or of the “voice of a Dickens, or a García Márquez,” so distinctive on the page that a reader can choose a passage from among many and recognize it as the specific writer’s. On the opposite end of the spectrum, in a much narrower definition, we often hear readers speak of the voice of an individual character—one of the many particulars that differentiate him from other characters. As an editor, I use the term in its more direct relationship to the text or narration, often qualifying it as the narrative voice.
Voice is one of the craft elements that the reader experiences most directly and immediately. There is no story without the narrative voice, whether it is a very familiar first-person narrator or a distant omniscient one. It is the lens, the vehicle, through which the reader experiences all the other elements that make up the story. As an editor, therefore, it is important to define this term as precisely as possible, without any of the mythical baggage that comes when speaking about Voice in its capitalized and more mythical form.
I break the narrative voice into three distinctive categories, which guide the reader through the external world of the story, and through two levels of the internal world of characters. Contemporary fiction depends on these three modes almost exclusively. And as a writer, especially when engaged in the process of middle of late or revision, it is important to know the modes the story relies on and the dramatic rationale for such reliance.
The first mode is the descriptive voice. This is the part of the narrative responsible for relating to the reader most of the external world of the story, including the concrete world, the action, the spoken dialogue, the smells, textures, tastes and so on—essentially anything that can be perceived with the five senses. Very few stories can survive without the descriptive voice, since the world of the senses is the stage where most of our stories take place.
The second mode is the reflective voice. This is when the narrative begins to delve into the inner landscape of specific characters. The reflective voice is one of interpretation, processing, and judgment on what the descriptive voice has laid out for the reader, whether on an action, a place, or another character’s physical quality. Unlike the descriptive voice, which can often belong only to an impersonal third-person narrator, the reflective voice often occurs as a sort of duet, being at once the voice of the narrator and of the specific character whose ruminations we inhabit. Very few examples in contemporary fiction exist without a healthy dose of the reflective voice. In fact, the best of contemporary fiction seems to strike a powerful balance between these first two modes, often weaving them together in the same sentence.
The third major mode is the direct internal voice, otherwise known in literature courses as stream-of-consciousness. It is an internal mode like the reflective voice, but it often attempts something much more radical: to directly transcribe the thoughts of an individual character as they occur. Some writers, like Proust, argue that such a task is impossible—that, since thoughts occur in the evanescent present, they are therefore not verbal or subject to the linear laws of language. Other writers, like Joyce, spend their whole lives proving that indeed the pattern of thoughts could be replicated on the page. In contemporary fiction, however, this remains the least deployed of the three modes, but it is nevertheless a very powerful way to approach certain characterizations.
It is through establishing these clear definitions of some of the most difficult terms in the jargon of workshops and editing that I can more confidently approach each manuscript as a coach and editor.
This article is archived from the original Edits Made Easy website and is re-posted here to our new blog under a new date.