iLesson: Storytelling voice

Think about when your mom or dad told you a bedtime story. Or your camp counsellor told a ghost story at the campfire. Or when your dad told you about meeting Elvis while he was in the Army.  Or your grandmother told you about the Nazi occupation of The Hague. 

The storytellers probably didn’t use perfect grammar. They weren’t following any rules. If it was a good story, well told, it held your attention. If they lived the story, then the emotion in their recollection, the rate of their speech, or the way they drew out the story in some places and skipped over the boring stuff in others… or even where they skipped over the bad stuff, giving you only a hint of how bad it really was… that’s the story teller’s voice. 

When you write a story, you have a voice, too. Instead of inflection and rate of speech, you have long sentences and short ones. Your descriptions are lingering and detailed or stark and bare. You have delicate, sparkling dialogue or raw, gritty action. 

Or any combination in the world. 

Voice is one of the hardest things to teach. You can’t read in a book how to have a good voice. You can have a natural ‘ear’ for it, like a musician has an ear for pitch, or a ballerina may have natural grace or dexterity, but you still have to train and practice.  In a way, you’re developing your ear for language, and your grace and dexterity with words. 

The only way to do that is hands on. A singer with a good ear may recognize good music when she hears it, but but she still has to train her instrument. 

How do you do that? 
  1. Write and write and write.
  2. Read all different types of writing.
  3. Reread a book that you love and pay attention to how the writer draws you in to the story, how she choses to handle emotional moments, action scenes, or description. 
  4. Experiment with different styles. 
  5. Mimic other writer’s voices, and see what ‘feels’ good to you. 

And finally…

6) Combine what you like most from what you’ve read and written into a voice that’s uniquely yours. 

5 thoughts on “iLesson: Storytelling voice”

  1. I seem to have "multiple voices" (does that make me a split personality?) depending on the story…I'm assuming that's okay? You don't write a cozy mystery in the same "voice" you'd use for a young adult book.


  2. Great post, Rosemary!I read down a bit and really felt your pain on the social networking conundrum.Twitter for me is FB for you. I just don't get it and it seems like so much time to participate.I have a blog under my real name that I post to fairly regularly and a brand new one under a pen name and I have a hard time really getting excited about that–double the work? Ugh.I'm thinking of deleting the Twitter and the other blog. I have a Web site (such as it is, atm) and a blog. Isn't that enough?Or I'll 'hire' my daughter who's the FB maven of the family! 🙂


  3. Peg– Absolutely! Just like a campfire story about the escaped convict axe murderer voice differs from a bedtime fairy tale voice, your narrative voice can change some from book to book. What usually happens, though, is you develop things that carry over. Look at Elizabeth Peters w/a Barbara Michaels. The voice is different, but not that different. These things–which are almost impossible to put a finger on, a certain way you play with words or turn a phrase–are things that become unique to you, even if other things vary. Another example is Marjorie Liu's paranormal romance vs. her urban fantasy. There's a richness of detail and an emotional depth in both that I associate with Marjorie's work, though on the surface, the voice is quite different. Jen– I maintain multiple blogs (livejournal, here, and facebook) with twitter posting to all of them. But mostly it's the same content (all under my name). Someday I will streamline to one blog, but there are people who follow me in one place that don't want to move. Some day they will have to suck it up, though. :-DAnd never forget to use your resources!


  4. One of the biggest compliments I have ever received about my writing was from a lifelong friend who said, "I forget it was YOU who wrote it." That is my goal. I have been a "storyteller" my whole life. My boss likes to bring me as a buffer for awkward luncheons because, in his words, my stories offer great comic relief. But, when I am writing, I don't want the reader to think "Wow, Dawn has great stories." I want him/her to think "Wow, this is a great story."


  5. My pal @greggvm is a storyteller where he speaks about his work at http://greggmorris.com. We've been chatting about voice of late, and so have many other bloggers. Today's post http://soulati.com/blog is "That Blogging Voice" and I never even touch upon what you do. You bring the next level of voice to light for me, Rosemary. Thank you. As a <1 year blogger, voice is illusive, but first comes confidence, absolute.@Soulati, Jayme Soulati


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