Writing Advice of the Week: Break a Rule (for Voice’s Sake)

Reading Time: 11 minutes

The future of reading is voice.

You have a unique voice. Everyone hears it when you talk, even if you don’t. Your cadence, syntax, and collection of favorite words are all yours. And the characters in your stories have unique voices, too. They must, coming from different values, backgrounds, principles, traumas, dreams, and experiences. But something interesting happens when you put those unique vocal flavors onto paper as you write your story.

They get distilled, drowned in grammar and language rules as outdated as the stodgy old teachers whence they came. It’s messed up, really, the pedant-trauma that tells writers they’re not good enough because of rules, rules that are made to be broken.

In his novel, The Dead Fathers Club, Matt Haig skillfully evokes the voice of eleven-year-old Philip, the narrator. And he does so in one magnificently interesting, rule-breaking, pedant-shaking way: Haig omits most punctuation. Except for the marks at the ends of sentences, there is no punctuation in the novel.

No commas.
No parentheses.
No apostrophes.
No quotation marks.
No ellipses or em dashes.
No colons or semi-colons.

Yet . . . there is no confusion. The reader always knows who’s talking and follows the logical flow of information because of the careful—nay, artful—way Haig handled the narrative voice.

When you read a story with a powerful perspective voice, you can’t help but sink into the skin of the character through which you’re experiencing the story. And if you’re writing stories you care about for readers you care about, chances are you’d love for them to sink into your characters’ skins, too. And in the digital age where readers are being inundated by AI books and AI tools and AI all-the-things, there is nothing more sacred than a true, sincere, human voice telling a well-crafted story.

And humans are rule-breakers. So, what writing rule will you break?

This week’s writing advice is not for the pedant-heart, who may shake in the boots of rigidity. Instead, this week, I’m talking to the true creatives, the storytellers willing to forget everything they’ve learned about good writing for the sake of a well-crafted voice, a voice that speaks directly to the readers longing to hear it.

(Image by Fallon Clark via Adobe Firefly.)

Voice in literature is the form and format of the narrator telling the story, whether the narrator is a character or an observer to the story events. Voice includes tone, word choice, point of view, syntax, punctuation, and rhythm. It is the way you convey and set the tone and mood of your story through the narrative perspective or through character speech and thought.

Voice shapes the reader’s perception of the story, the characters, and the environments, which makes it an important component of compelling storytelling. Voice is the reason many readers remember the stories of characters like Holden Caulfield (The Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger), Esther Greenwood (The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath), and Nel Wright (Sula by Toni Morrison). Voice may just be the reason a reader remembers the hero or anti-hero of your story, and voice begins with narration. Choosing the right narrator for your story, though, can be a tough decision. Choosing the right narrator for your story is akin to choosing the right perspective voice, and this task is not without its challenges and questions.

Do you want a story that is centrally narrated (where I/we tell my/our story)? Or a story that is peripherally narrated (where I/we tell your/their story)?

Should the narrator be the all-seeing, all-dancing crap of the world (nod to Tyler Durden, another unforgettable character voice)? Or a regular Joe bumbling along the day-to-day with a perspective as limited and biased as yours and mine? Or should the narrator be something else entirely?

When weighing the pros and cons of narrative voices for your story, consider first what the reader actually needs to know and who in or of the story may be powerful and skillful enough to deliver that knowledge. For more on narrative perspective, check out the article, Do You Know Who Your Narrator Is? by Janice Hardy and the article, It All Begins With A Character: From Idea To Icon by Chanda A. Bell. And if you visit my website, you can grab a no-cost booklet on perspective to help you analyze or plan for your narrative voice.

Since narrative perspective is all about drawing in the reader best suited for the story, it’s also important to think about how the reader will connect with the characters in your story. Characters should be as painfully flawed as humans are, as steadfast and hopeless and insincere and skeptical and emotional as the reader cracking open the story. Your hero doesn’t even have to be someone you like. Even Vladimir Nabokov was said to be disgusted by Humbert Humbert, the protagonist of Lolita, (for what I hope are obvious reasons).

When writing your flawed characters, keep in mind that the reader will feel a little of what the character feels, but the reader’s emotional connection to the narrator is largely driven by the reader’s perception of who that narrator is and what that narrator is doing or saying. For more on inviting the reader into your story, check out Nathan Bransford‘s article, The Reader Needs A Good Proxy In A Novel; Linda S. Clare‘s article, Writing: How To Make Readers Care; and Angela Ackerman’s article, How To Draw Readers In Through A Character’s Inner Struggle. 

One part of skillful characterization is in sharing a character’s opinions as determined by their life histories and their philosophical outlooks and values borne of those histories. A person from an abusive home  has a different worldview than one with a healthy parent-child relationship; a farmer’s wife has a different worldview than a philanthropist’s virtual assistant. If all the characters in your story sound mostly the same, though, those individuated histories become irrelevant, buried under sameness and inexactitude of experience, which breaks believability and detaches the reader.

One way to enhance the consequences of a character’s history is in the tone they use to tell the story, which allows you to show your readers how the character is affected by story events, rather than needing to tell the reader outright, thus providing a richer, more immersive and personalized reading experience. We use tone of voice combined with facial expressions or other body language to convey meaning, and your characters should be doing this, too. A “Wow” paired with falling shoulders reads differently than a “Wow” paired with a raised eyebrow. So play with the favorite words and phrases of the narrative voice and the characters whose story is being narrated, if different, but don’t forget to play with delivery of those words and phrases and the companion body language. For more on crafting tone, check out the article, How A Writer Can Manage Tone, by Ryan Lanz.

Now, there are many ways to bring a character to life for a reader but they all come down to understanding a character’s roundness. Flat characters don’t need to be individuated, but round characters absolutely do. Otherwise, they’re just flat characters with panache. To round out your characters, you must understand them intrinsically, even if you disagree with their motives, worldviews, assumptions, biases, and lifestyles. But getting into the head of a character who is wildly different from you isn’t easy. So when you need a burst of individuated inspiration for one character or another, look for creative ways to get that inspiration.

Go outside.

Watch and listen to people. Write down interesting sentences you hear, especially those with poor grammar. Capture intriguing syntax, funny gestures, and unusual body language.

Observe people. Then, put those observations to good use by crafting flawed characters willing to break a rule or two.

Happy writing!

<3 Fal

Want More?

Of course you do, you go-getter, you. Here are all the other pieces of advice Maria collected this week. Peruse, choose, and use at will.

More Productivity Advice
More Craft Advice
More Business Advice

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Fallon Clark is a Vermont-based manuscript development coach and editor serving fiction and creative non-fiction authors. Her writing has been published in Flash Fiction Magazine. Check out her website, FallonEdits.com, or connect with her on LinkedIn or Substack.

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