VOICE. It’s a word that gets thrown around a lot among writers. With good reason: it’s one of the most important skills you can master, because it’s what brings a narrator and/or a character to life. But it’s also one of the hardest to explain, to grab hold of, to wrap our minds around, because it’s so dependent on the individual writer, the individual character, and the individual project. One of the best ways I know to improve your narrative voice is to study a book where a strong voice is present. Today I’ll be sharing with you not one but two strategies for using a mentor text to understand and strengthen your narrative voice.
I recently attended a webinar with children’s author Leah Henderson, where she said that voice is “word choice plus rhythm.” It was the clearest way of describing voice that I’d ever heard. Words are the building blocks of the story. Rhythm encompasses tone, mood, energy, and all of the other amorphous parts of writing that are so hard to pin down. If we study how it works in other books, we’ll add to our own toolbox of strategies for improving our narrative voice. So let’s take a look!
Exercise 1: Identify the rhythm
The voice of your mentor text doesn’t have to be exactly the same as what you’re going for with your character. It might be snarky where yours is soft, or it might be joyful where yours is anxious. That isn’t the point so much as uncovering the writer’s strategies, and then playing with them on your own.
Start by naming the tone and mood of the character. Not necessarily in an individual scene, but overall. What feeling do you get when you read their thoughts and spoken words? There will probably be more than one adjective you could use, but try to narrow it down to just a couple. What is the crux of their personality?
Once you have that identified, notice the way sentences, paragraphs and white space on the page are used to create that mood. Are sentence short and snappy? Long and heavy? Punctuated with exclamation points or sprinkled with italics?
These are the things that create the rhythm of the story. Once you’ve noticed them in a mentor text, you’ll begin to see it everywhere. And then you can choose strategies that will set the tone and mood of your story.
Exercise 2: Find the right words
For this exercise, notice the vocabulary that the author uses. It’s not just about subject-specific vocabulary, although that is important, too. Notice how key words in every sentence are carefully chosen. If a narrator is older, worldly, or experienced in some way, they will use vocabulary that represents that. If the narrator is younger, innocent, or naïve, then their vocabulary will appear accordingly.
Again, once you have studied this once you’ll begin to notice it everywhere. So when you sit down to write, spend some time thinking about – and even listing – words that your narrator would use. You don’t have to use all of them, of course, but immersing yourself in that kind of thinking before you write will help the voice emerge in an intentional way.
Developing a narrator’s voice is complicated and we often – mistakenly – think it just comes naturally. But studying mentor texts will help you begin to recognize the tools that other writers use, which will set the stage for improving your own narrative voice.
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