The Use of Voice in Storytelling



In collaboration with Trish Nicholson, the New Zealander author of A Biography of Story, A Brief History of Humanity, we are publishing a three-part coaching series on “the use of voice in storytelling” – which is intended to help writers of fiction navigate and master how voice and dialogue is used to capture the attention of their readers. As a prelude to this coaching series we had published a flash story, Runnin’ the River referenced in this series. We advice our readers to click on the flash story link to read the story or visit our fiction page to access it while studying the series.



Part I


‘Voice’ is a mysterious poltergeist that writers torture themselves trying to transmogrify into the written word – or so it seems. I’ve been there, gazing up from my little piece of earth at the big shots that ‘have a voice’. But I experienced a glow-worm moment: I think I understand it now. Sharing this with you will involve the consumption of more tea and dark chocolate than is good for my health, but I will persevere because appreciating ‘voice’ is as critical to reading as it is to writing; arguably the most challenging aspect to understand in either activity and probably why it is less frequently written about in detail.

The two commonest statements on the topic are: ‘voice is who we are’; and ‘it can take a writer, years to find’. The first part explains little but I accept it as a truism from which to build. What I want to know is: if my ‘voice’ is who I am, why spend years searching for it? – ‘I am’ already here, have been for a considerable time.

But it is not only writers who have a ‘voice.’ So let’s start with readers.

You no doubt have favourite authors: you read all their books; wait eagerly for each new work they spent two or three years writing, and devour it in two or three days; you guzzle their biographies and autobiographies. There is something about what and how they write – you can’t get enough.

Your insatiable appetite for an author is part of who you are; you bring your own voice to the reading. It is an active two-way phenomenon; between you and the author is a ‘reaction’, a chemistry which, to your amazement, is not shared by every other member of your reading group – they each bring a different voice to their reading.

‘voice is who we are’; and ‘it can take a writer, years to find’

But we can ‘go off’ an author; feel deeply attached to different authors at various stages of our lives, and sometimes be in the mood for one rather than another, even though we ‘love’ them both – the chemistry doesn’t always work all of the time. Clearly, as readers, our individual voices vary depending on what is happening in our lives. What about writers?

Suppose you are a Ruth Rendell fan – millions of us are – and I give you a book that I wrote, copying her style, with ‘Ruth Rendell’ printed on the cover. Would you be fooled? Not for long. However carefully I might try to imitate her words, Ruth Rendell as a person is not underneath them, did not generate them – it is not in her voice. Something would be missing.

What if you read a book by Barbara Vine? Whose voice would you recognize? A discerning reader might suspect it is Ruth Rendell’s because she is Barbara Vine – a pseudonym she uses for an entirely different kind of book. She has other passions apart from Chief Inspector Wexford, which she expresses with another part of her voice – but it still comes from ‘who she is’.

So an author can have more than one distinctive inner voice, and a reader’s voice is changeable. It’s getting tricky. I’d better assemble the key elements we need to weave, one by one, into the ‘voice story’: the ‘voice’ every single person has; the ‘writer’s voice’; the ‘character voice’; dialogue, which has a role in all three but is different from each, and language, articulating all four. Have a piece of chocolate to keep you going.

Every person has a voice, expressed not only in spoken and written words, but in thoughts, dress, gestures and actions – the ‘who we are’ aspect, our persona. I know you don’t listen to gossip, but you might hear some, inadvertently, and think: That can’t be true. George would never do (or say) that. It’s contrary to the voice you recognize as George’s. But other people will recognize a different persona because we show ourselves differently to the wide range of people with whom we interact.

The ‘you’ that relates to your mother is likely to be different to the ‘you’ exchanging experiences with your childhood friend, or your boss. The lawyer standing at the bar in the courtroom may be unrecognizable as he stands at the bar of The Dog and Whistle a few hours later. Our situation impacts our voice, too. I know many people who, through changed circumstances, have manifest a stronger, richer self, their voices previously smothered by a dominant ‘other’.

During our lives, we develop new passions, attitudes, experiences, perspectives and memories like a ship accumulates barnacles on its bottom, and the timbre of our voices increases in depth and breadth accordingly. But they are all part of ‘I am’.

“So an author can have more than one distinctive inner voice, and a reader’s voice is changeable”.

When you add transient states of mind and the truly inner life to which even we have limited access – although it influences us – it is not so much a distinctive ‘voice’ we have, but a ‘chorus’. At times, more like an ill-matched madrigal choir, each member lustily singing their own part in clamorous disharmony. Truly, we speak in tongues. When a close friend stepped into the frightening maze towards Alzheimer’s disease, the saddest feature for me was not the impairment of short-term memory, but the loss of some of those voices from her unique madrigal choir: it alters the persona.

What about ‘writer’s voice’ – how is that different? In essence, it is the same: the particularity comes from our desire to express it principally in the form of the written word – which has its own limitations – and in our seeking experiences, observing and identifying with others, for that sole purpose. By ‘limitations’ I mean having to work within the linear conventions of written language when at times there seems no word or phrase to do justice to our thoughts. But for some of us, the written word is our most fluent means of expression, allowing thoughts to form more succinctly than through spoken communication. To misquote E. M. Forster’s feisty old lady: “How can I tell what I think till I see what I write?”

As a writer, my voice is as much a compound of elements – a personal chorus of voices and potential tones – as any reader’s. Perhaps this is what confuses.

Pico Iyer suggests we move beyond those daily voices we use for interacting with sundry ‘others’: “At its core, writing is about cutting beneath every social expectation to get to the voice you have when no one is listening…the voice that lies beneath all words.”

From that quiet, or more likely, tumultuous, place we can choose to draw down a particular voice from our inner chorus that will serve a specific passion – as we saw in Ruth Rendell. Whatever we write and whichever tone we use, it will be just as much ‘who we are’. “Wittingly or unwittingly, all stories, honest and dishonest, wise and foolish, faithfully mirror their maker, exposing his humanity…or lack of it.” (McKee).

At first reading, this is a disturbing comment: two stories in this collection include female ‘first person’ accounts of murderers. Surely McKee is not saying I am a closet killer.

On reflection, I think he refers to the wider treatment given to a story as a whole. It may be necessary to show despicable behaviour if only to vanquish it by demonstrating its consequences, or revealing its causes. We can understand an act without having done it ourselves, or condoning it in others, but to write those acts convincingly requires an identification with character which draws on a darker side of our nature – we may not wish to acknowledge it but we all have one: where dreams and nightmares crouch, along with unresolved conflicts and injustices long forgotten.

To be brutally honest, we cannot know what we might do until the ultimate challenge – a scary aspect of our inevitably incomplete self-knowledge. Is not such understanding something we seek in stories?

Everything we write links in some way to something within us. Using the strength of “that voice we have when no one is listening”, we can, for example, write in a different gender because, biologically and psychologically, we have both male and female traits to inform us – if we choose to recognize them – in addition to our powers of observation and imagination.

We can tap into any inner source we choose, construct any kind of story with very disparate characters; if our lives have been deeply immersed in two cultures, we can write from the perspective of either – though not necessarily with equal force. Each voice we elect to use will permeate the page like a watermark; revealed in language, tone, choice of theme, expression of a strong conviction we hold, compassion in the way a story is told, or even in the fact of telling precisely this story in the first place. A strong passion within us, something we care deeply about, will write in the most powerful voice.

And they can only be one of our voices: attempting to adopt the voice of a writer we admire doesn’t work because we don’t have their inner chorus to draw upon. When we are advised to ‘know your audience’, it means to ask ourselves: For whom am I writing this? It is about selecting an appropriate voice as well as style and content, but there are times when we feel driven to “cutting beneath every social expectation” to express an obsession of our own, and hope someone will listen – using every skill we can master to ensure they do. This, I believe, is our most potent voice, although it is not always the most commercial.

“As in real life, a character’s voice is expressed through every aspect of their persona – verbal and non-verbal – and it is this showing of their true nature through thought, word and deed that enables them to speak directly to us”.

As far as I can see, the problem is not so much ‘finding a voice’, as recognizing and distinguishing between the multiplicity of voices in our inner chorus; taking steps to enrich them, and learning how best to select and express the one we wish to use at any particular time. This, of course, requires the painful process of looking inside ourselves as well as writing – lots of writing – if only a scribble on the back of a shopping list while observing an intriguing customer at the checkout; which brings me to ‘character voice.’

We think we are ‘creating’ characters when in fact we are discovering pieces of ourselves. As we saw in the chapter on character, we can sketch the personality of a protagonist from observation, drawing threads from people we have known and using our imagination, but the composite portrait of deep character – the madrigal chorus of our heroine – comes from within. In the story Runnin’ the River, the strength of ‘character voice’ was vital, but ‘I am’ there also, expressing in the various elements of the story my passion and values – its moral premise – and there are faint reflections from my own character (though not his criminality I hasten to add). Like an actor who walks onto the stage ‘all character’, yet he brings something of himself to the role. Another actor’s performance will never be quite the same.

Both of the stories later in this chapter are written from a male, ‘first person’ point of view, each very different from the other, and yet my worldview and my own understanding of each of their situations forms the ‘watermark’ of my writer’s voice. And that is where it should stay – in the background. As a reader, I want to ‘hear’ and believe in the characters; I like the author to step aside and let them get on with their job.

As in real life, a character’s voice is expressed through every aspect of their persona – verbal and non-verbal – and it is this showing of their true nature through thought, word and deed that enables them to speak directly to us. By ‘telling’ the reader information instead of allowing the characters to ‘show’ it, we break the spell of the story’s reality by chiming-in in our own voice – not as a watermark, but like an ink blot on the page.

I need to digress slightly here, to recall the earlier article on ‘point of view’, and to clarify how this fits in because it is a common phrase with a more limited meaning in writing craft. When we read a story from a ‘first person’ perspective – the Texan facing execution, for example – the character narrates his own tale because the author has chosen to write in his voice. The Texan’s ‘point of view’ determines what he can see, hear and know from his unique position in the story and his physical situation in a prison cell – he can’t see and know everything.

To put it another way: his point of view is where he is sitting; his voice is the expression of his whole person, past and present, while he sits there. As readers, we hear his voice in this story mainly through his inner and spoken dialogue.

Dialogue is an important means of showing both ‘character voice’ and what is happening, while giving a shove to the plot to maintain pace, so this seems a good moment to weave it into our ‘voice story’.

Writers use artifice to make the spoken word appear real because actual conversations contain dreary trivia and are about other people’s plots. But dialogue is richly multi-functional; craftsmanship enables us to use it in many ways: to reveal character (through thoughts as well as spoken words); to create and sustain tension (within a relationship for example, by hinting at threats or promises), and to establish facts that turn a corner in the plot. We can also release our own ‘voice’ by expressing a strongly held conviction through the mouth of our hero (as long as it is within character, brief, and progresses the storyline: not a soap-box tirade). All of this is easier to show than tell, so the first article in this chapter demonstrates what dialogue can do by ‘unpicking’ verbal exchanges from a couple of stories.

Although language is obviously significant in dialogue – vocabulary and phrasing have to suit a protagonist – choice of images and metaphors throughout a story also establishes mood and atmosphere appropriate to the theme. And it is perhaps through language that our ‘watermark’ is most clearly revealed, whichever of our voices we are using. We tend to make habitual choices in word usage, and in the symbolism underlying similes, metaphors and objects that appear in our writing – all reflections of our ‘inner chorus’.

Not just word choices but syntax – their arrangement into sentences – which determines how ideas flow and hover. And some writers use more adverbs and adjectives than others. I don’t let fear of Mark Twain’s ghost stop me from using any words available – or inventing some that aren’t – if they are right for the story. Adjectives and adverbs may be idle layabouts, but they can be given useful work when the required precision or emphasis cannot be achieved in any other way.

Use of language is our ‘style’, especially revealing of our voices because how we write is a reflection of how we think and we each have our own patterns of thinking. This applies to everyone, even if all we write is emails and Christmas cards.

You know those plants with sticky burrs that get everywhere, the ones that inspired the invention of Velcro? My brain cultivates these. No sooner do I have an idea than lots of other thoughts get stuck to it. I see them ‘all at once’, a composite picture in my mind, but words have to go on the page one at a time in a straight line: it’s very frustrating. And the written word is one-dimensional – you can’t see me waving my arms about and making faces to emphasise a point. Attempting to share my mental image with all those burrs hanging on, my sentences grow dependant clauses, sub-clauses, conditioners like ‘although’, ‘but’, ‘or’, and en-dashes abound – you might have noticed. Punctuation is my lifeline.

But this is how I think; it is my most natural voice, the one I use for writing non-fiction, when I am not acting anyone else but myself. I still have to make adjustments according to purpose and audience: the articles here are in a slightly different tone to these discussions, some were written originally as blog posts; for an academic journal or a popular magazine, I would have to adhere to their ‘house style’ – some editors are allergic to semi-colons.

This way of thinking and ‘talking’ is not the way many of my story characters think and talk. I have to get to know them well, understand their minds, and use language craft to let them speak with their own voices. Fiction is harder for me to write than non-fiction, but I find it easier when writing from the first person point of view. I think this is because, if I can reach the stage where I identify with the character, I can write with the freedom as if it were me talking. With a third person perspective I am a narrator looking out and I seem to find that inhibiting. We are all different – fortunately. But whatever our style or genre, written words are how we express it and we have to use language with care.

A key activity in editing short stories (the subject of the next chapter), is to examine each word for its necessity, clarity and precision, assessing its purpose and relevance to what we wish to convey. In this way we sharpen our voice, strengthening it by removing interference – the noise and chatter that doesn’t need to be there.

Language flows through everything we have considered here. It is our base of operations, the foundation of our collective humanity and of our individuality. We gain articulacy in written language only through using it: by reading and writing.

This has been a long discussion. Are you still with me? I hope you didn’t linger back there and eat all the chocolate – we haven’t finished yet. I mentioned the role of non-verbal expression – body language – in the earlier chapter on character as well as in this one. The second article here links these to suggest how one part of the body, the hands, can show not only ‘character voice’ but aspects of plot. . . .


Keep a date with us next week for the second part of the series. To ask questions or comment on any of the points raised in this write-up drop a comment below.

Trish Nicholson is a social anthropologist and writer. She is the author of A Biography of Story, A Brief History of Humanity. Her essay, Powerful Women: From Fiction to Fact was published in The Village Square Journal in February 2018. Visit her website at and follow her on Twitter @TrishaNicholson

©Featured image courtesy of Trish Nicholson