Good morning and welcome to Chaos Theory of Writing! It’s my great pleasure to welcome RITA and Nora Roberts Lifetime Achievement award winner Jennifer Greene. I first heard Jennifer’s workshop on voice and style a few years ago at my local RWA chapter. The way Jennifer defines these elusive qualities really resonated with me and I couldn’t wait to have her as a guest on RU.
When writers talk about ‘effective storytelling’, they often use the ‘style’ and ‘voice’ words, because both are so critical to memorable stories. Unfortunately we all seem to disagree about what they are, so I want to work with you on clear definitions. Naturally these are MY definitions and you don’t have to listen to me. But let’s see if these make sense for you….
STYLE is the writing technique that we CHANGE, depending on the nature of project we’re writing. A cozy mystery reads differently than erotica. A short contemporary reads differently than a Y.A. or a paranormal story.
Naturally, each genre is defined by a lot more than just style—but style gives us INFORMATION about the required language for each one. Style is about adjectives and adverbs, the length of sentences, the choice of words. Every book or story you write has a style—and YOU’RE in charge of it.
From the first line in a book, you start making PROMISES to the reader—it’s how you build trust and a relationship with a reader—and those promises are all delivered through style. If you start out with a short, snappy opener, then your reader will expect short, snappy language throughout. If you started out with eloquent description, you essentially promised your reader that she’ll experience that nature of eloquence through the story.
Style also has a direct effect on content. You might think of style as the DOORKNOB that opens the door to the story’s content. For instance, if you start a cozy mystery with an erotic, spit-swapping kiss that involves nudity and four letter words, I strongly suspect the reader will quickly put down the book. That reader might love erotica, but at that moment, if she’s in the mood for a cozy mystery, she’s expecting the tone and language (the STYLE) of a cozy mystery.
Ever have an editor say “where’s the tension’ or ‘you lost the conflict here’ or ‘moving too slow in this section’ ? If you’ve ever had such criticism, consider this. Pacing isn’t about speed. It’s about the IMPRESSION of speed. The words you use in different scenes create that impression. The delivery system is STYLE. It’s ALWAYS style.
Now onto VOICE….Voice is the opposite. It takes no work, no craft, nothing you have to fight for. Voice is what you bring to every single thing you write. It’s your gut. Your truth. It’s your vision of the world that no one else has…and no one else can duplicate.
When you hear that saw about ‘it’s easy to write; all you have to do is open a vein’—that blood pouring out, that’s VOICE. When you hear writers talking about hanging out there naked—the naked part, that’s VOICE.
I can explain this easiest through example. We only have space for a couple. From FLAWLESS, by Joshua Spanogle: “The heat woke me. I became aware of perspiration through my scalp, of a rusty orange glow behind my closed lids. I opened my eyes and saw crisp light dance through a palm tree outside.”
Hear it? The ‘rusty orange glow’ and ‘crisp light’ are images you recognize as describing fire—but those aren’t images that you and I would likely think up. They’re unique to that author. It’s what the author sees that we don’t. It’s what an author offers us that we can’t offer ourselves.
Another example, from Toni Causey’s BOBBIE FAYE’S VERY VERY VERY BAD DAY. “You know how some people are born to Greatness. Well, Bobbie Faye Sumrall woke up one morning, kicked Greatness in the teeth, kneed it in the balls, took it hostage, and it’s been begging for mercy every since.”
I don’t know what YOUR takeaway from that voice might be, but this is what I heard—a Southern voice, a voice that was a church goer (probably Baptist), a voice that was raised in a home where the mom didn’t work but could make biscuits from scratch. If your takeaway is different than this…it’s fine. That’s one of the unique aspects of voice. The reader offers us something of herself…and we readers each takeaway something personal that makes sense to us.
Now…to sum up. STYLE is the flavor of the story. VOICE is the food itself, the nutrition, the take-away.
Is one more important than the other? Of course not. They’re a package. You need both to have a great book, a memorable book. But one of the keys to creating a great book is understanding what those two elements are, and how they work together.
Hope this has made those two elements a little clearer…and I’d be glad to discuss them with you, or answer questions!
* * *
RU Readers, do you have a better understanding about the difference between voice and style? Be sure to ask Jennifer any clarifying questions you may have!
Join us again on Monday when author Heather Weber discusses cross-genre books.
- Ask an Editor: Passive and Literary Writing
- Your Voice Is Your Passport: Deconstructing the Mysterious Thing Called Voice with Kat Cantrell
- It’s All in the Voice by Heather Webb
- Should You Make Your Romance Novel Erotic? by Jennifer Probst
- Weekly Lecture Schedule for August 9-13, 2010: Katharine Ashe, RWA Nationals, Jennifer Greene, Build-a-Blog