Welcome, writers! In today’s edition of Writers Read, Patrick S. Lafferty writes about novels with strong voices. Speaking of strong voices—check out Lafferty’s novel Anno Domina. In the book, the newly elected governor of Arizona must decide whether or not to stay the execution of a heretical cult leader. His ultra-conservative constituency wants her dead but a small group of followers, including her prison chaplain, beg the governor to stay the execution so their prophesized second Messiah can continue her ministry. Learn how you can receive a complimentary copy of Lafferty’s short story Miller Time in his bio. You can also enter to win a copy of Anno Domina at the end of the blog. Enjoy! —Rochelle, the Write Now! Coach
Since you’re reading this blog post its assumed you’ve written something (flash fiction, a short story, a novel, a ten-volume series) or have at least contemplated writing something. When you go to find an agent or publisher to see what they’re looking for, be forewarned: you will inevitably discover that your work must have “a unique voice” or “a strong literary voice” or “a narrative voice found nowhere else.”
What’s that mean, exactly? At its most basic level, voice means nothing more than who’s telling your story. There are plenty of helpful, informative blog posts and web pages that define the different points of view, or POV, of storytelling (one excellent source I discovered can be found here). However, these definitions do not provide answers to “What’s a unique voice?” or “What’s a strong voice?” These are subjective questions that require more than what can be provided in a blog post or a web page. They require experiencing.
Below are a handful of (relatively) recently published books that effectively utilize a strong or unique narrative voice to not only tell a story but also to add depth and affect to the overall reading experience.
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. This is a kid-friendly murder mystery told by a mathematically gifted autistic boy: a writing assignment given to him by his social worker. The chapters are listed in progressively increasing prime numbers. The language is simple and succinct yet sophisticated. The interweaving whodunnit plot is told in short bursts suggestive of a 1950’s hardboiled detective novel but filtered through the gentle naïvety of a trusting child’s eyes. Each element of the storytelling provides the reader with an unabridged and unapologetic insight into the narrator’s troubled mind. If you’re looking for a truly unique narrative voice, look no further.
The Book Thief. Set in rural Germany during the run up to World War II, this is the tale of a poor tomboy who steals a few books during her lifetime. Perhaps not the most exciting plotline, but the author uses the third-person omniscient POV to tell the story…with Death as his narrator. How much more omniscient can you get? He sees her steal her first book, The Gravedigger’s Handbook, when no one else does. He knows she’s lying when no one else can. It’s through this timeless, infallible, hard-edged narrator that readers place their trust to believe every word and come out the other side the better for it.
The Imperfectionists. The uniqueness or strength of the narrative voice in this novel comes from the fact that it’s actually voices; plural. The novel is a dozen or so interwoven stories about an English-language newspaper in Rome with each story being told from the point of view of one of the newspaper’s employees. There’s an accountant who frets, a recent graduate who’s utterly manipulated, a loner who’s in over his head. And in each story, the author makes you empathize with the POV character: you feel the anxiety of the fretter; you pity the young journalist; you urge the loner to break out of his shell. Even though you start fresh with each chapter, the chorus of literary voices provides an entertainingly harmonious reading experience.
World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War. In the first few pages of the book the reader learns the Zombie War has ended and the narrator has just delivered a 1,000+ page report to what’s left of the U.S. government. However, since it’s the government, they want the narrator to cut all the fluff and just provide the facts. This novel, then, is all the fluff that he left out of the report. And from there, the reader is treated to the transcripts to scores of interviews the narrator conducted with Zombie War survivors. It’s here, in these interviews with such idiosyncratic personalities, that, much like The Imperfectionists, the plurality of voices shines through. The author provides the reader with a multitude of POVs, each nuanced and distinct, with the narrator sprinkling in personal observations of his interviewees to tie it all together. (Full disclosure: I never – never ever – thought I’d read a book about zombies…but I really liked it.)
Life of Pi. The voice of this novel is similar to the Harper Lee classic To Kill A Mockingbird. The story is told by an adult version of the main character, in this case a zookeeper’s omnireligious son from Pondicherry, India, looking back on a series of events that changed his life. The author’s beautiful, lyrical prose mirrors and accentuates the narrator’s appreciation for the beauty in all things while riding the ebb and flow of the story’s overarching plot: surviving being stranded on a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger. The voice in this novel is imperative to the believability of such an implausible story and, as such, provides the perfect backdrop for the final plot twist.
As mentioned earlier, voice, at its most elemental level, revolves around who tells the story. But voice is so much more. It’s the look and feel of the storytelling and, ultimately, the overall reading experience. It’s the basis of the story’s believability. It’s that intangible thing that demands the reader dwell on the story long after it’s been finished and set down. Narrative voice is what sets your story apart from all the others: if it’s not strong, it’s weak; and, if it’s not unique, it’s ordinary.
Your turn: What are your favorite books with strong examples of voice? How do you think voice contributes to the success of a novel?
About the Author. Patrick S. Lafferty has had dozens of short stories published in print and online and is the author of Anno Domina, a religious thriller. A Kindle version of his latest short story, Miller Time, can be downloaded now for 99¢, but readers of this blog are invited to download the story absolutely free on September 17th or 18th. For more information about the author and his unique narrative voice, please visit www.patrickslafferty.com.