Voice and Style

For discussion: Is it a good thing to use the language of music to talk about ‘voice’ in fiction? How is a spoken ‘voice’ different to a written voice? We typically understand ‘style’ to happen by the author’s hand, and ‘voice’ to happen by the narrator’s hand – or at least, with the narrator’s awareness. So is ‘style’ the more appropriate way to talk about third-person narrative choices, and ‘voice’ the more appropriate way to talk about first-person narrative choices? Are there exceptions? What does it mean to ‘find your voice’? Can you ‘find your style’?

First, take this sentence: ‘My first day of school was a disaster.’ Ask your students to write ten sentences that are all a variant on this one. What are they changing each time? (Vocabulary, context, emphasis, syntax . . .) Read out and discuss.

Next, print out the prompts below onto separate slips of paper, and hand one out to each student.

1 Using only three-word sentences
2 Using as many slang terms as possible
3 Using the longest sentences possible
4 Using unnecessarily long words wherever possible
5 Using only passively constructed verbs
6 Using only monosyllabic words
7 Using the second-person address
8 Using rhetorical questions whenever possible
9 Using the future tense throughout
10 As if the work has been translated badly from a foreign language
11 Using as many proper nouns as possible
12 Using a strict iambic rhythm (easier than it seems at first)
13 Using only the subject-verb-object sentence construction
14 Appending a subordinate clause of some kind to every sentence
15 Breaking grammar rules wherever possible (i.e. ending a sentence with a preposition; splitting infinitives)

The students must not show their prompts to one another. They all then write a short scene on the same subject (I usually use ‘adultery’, as it can be both funny and serious).

Each student then reads out their story to the rest of the class. The other students listen closely and jot down adjectives that, for them, describe that story’s style. If they hear a story written in three-word sentences, for example, they might consider the story abrasive, jerky, melodramatic, etc. Discuss these effects before the prompt is revealed.

The purpose of this class is to show how radically syntax informs the style of a work. Syntax is not just an ordering scheme or a kind of impartial scaffolding, but a crucial part of the complex mechanism that guides the reader’s emotional response to a story. ‘Style’ is often overlooked as the stuffy counterpart to ‘voice’; ‘voice’, in turn, is often taught as a kind of shapeless free association rather than a constructed thing. Both attitudes reject the importance of syntax.

Eleanor Catton

Extract from The Exercise Book, available in all good book stores or online from VUP.

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