You Gotta Grow a Pair (of Vocal Chords): Voice in Fiction Writing

Regardless of point of view, the voice of a storyteller is just that: one voice. It isn’t the voice of no one, nor is it the voice of everyone. A story is told by one voice, allowing a reader to co-experience through the eyes of one particular person.

A voice that tells a subjective story is arguably the one powerhouse writers have over film, and the more I learn about fiction, the more strongly I believe that the quality of fiction all goes back to the strength of the narrative voice.

As Emily Dickinson said, Tell all the truth, but tell it slant.

I want a narrative voice that grabs me by the throat, submerges me, and holds me tighter, tighter, tighter. It should make me see more than I wanted to see and to see myself in a way I never thought I would. Even though that voice may be unreliable at times, even hateful at times, I want to trust that voice to always be true to itself.

Some of my colleagues and I discuss our most hated thesis statement in ENG 101 essays: “There are many similarities and differences between Subject A and Subject B.”

What? In what way is this an interesting statement? It’s so vague it can be applied to everything. There are many similarities and differences between a pen and a pencil. There are similarities and differences between a wooden table and a wooden pencil. There are many similarities and differences between an artichoke and an aardvark.

Right. This is stunning information. I’ll need a while to ponder this.


Not seeing the connection between a compare/contrast essay and a piece of fiction? Well, come closer and let me tell you a secret. Yes, closer. This one is a doozy. Here it is:

There are many similarities and differences between a compare/contrast essay and a piece of fiction.

Or, let me say it this way: Both essays and stories must feel urgent. They are not reports. While we can break them into parts (an essay is comprised of an introduction, thesis, body paragraphs, and conclusion while a story is comprised of exposition, rising action, climax, resolution) they are more vital than the sum of their parts. They must matter, not to everyone, but certainly to someone.


Here’s what happens in a lot of beginning fiction:

Story A is a story that follows an arc of rising action until the climax, and then the resolution both resolves the conflict while opening the topic for further thought. The writing is competent and clean and the reader is supposed to come away from the story believing that life is imperfect but precious. The narrator is, for the most part, likable. The narrator’s faults are equivalent to an interviewee answering the question “What’s your biggest fault?” with the statement: “My biggest fault? Yes, regrettably, I tend to work too hard.” The interviewer sighs and shakes his head in a fake acknowledgement of the courage it took the interviewee to come clean like this. Yet another over-achiever in the interviewee chair. The horror.

Come on now.

Be an individual. Glimmertrain accepts under 20 stories a year. They receive 15,000. You have to distinguish yourself from everyone else.

A story written for everyone in a voice unwilling to cause any discomfort or disagreement is a story that, ironically, will do very little to interest anyone. Or, as Nietzsche says, “Books for the general reader are always ill-smelling books.”

Voice is all about distinction. Voice is one specific mouth urgently whispering into one specific ear.

And sometimes, even once you’ve found your voice, it takes a while to find the right ear. Keep searching. Don’t try to compensate for a broken link in communication by mumbling.