Tuesday, July 6, 2010

I think I finally get it...

I watched a movie yesterday.

It wasn't that good.

But while I was watching it, I came up with a simple answer to a long-standing writing question: what is Voice, and why is it so important? So I guess the $6 matinee ticket was worth it.

Here's the wisdom I came up with:

1. There are two parts to any good book: a) the story and b) the writing.

2. The story = setting, plot, characters.

3. The writing = how you present the setting, plot, characters.

In other words, the writing, the way in which you present the story, is the Voice.

In the movie I was watching, the story had everything. A detailed, beautifully done setting that was realistic and interesting. A strong plot that hinged on character development. Characters with clear, obvious motivations and universal appeal.

...but I was bored out of my mind.

It wasn't, to my surprise, the story. I liked the story.

It was how the story was being told. We knew two characters were in love, for example, because the narrator said they were. We didn't see the passion, or fall in love with the girl as the boy did. Nope--the narrator just said they were in love and then boom! The audience is supposed to believe it's Romeo and Juliet all over again.

It also existed in the dialog. I often felt that the characters were reading the script, not reacting to the events of the story. There was a lot of "As you know, Bob," going on in the movie, a lot of voice-over narration telling us how to feel about the situation, and dialog that felt like writer's intrusion, not a natural response.

I liked the setting. I liked the plot. I liked the characters. But put them all together, and I didn't like the movie. I didn't like the writing. I didn't like the way the characters spoke, talked, or acted.

I didn't like the Voice.

This was perhaps easier for me to discover in watching a movie than in reading a novel, albeit I think this is more often a problem with books than movies. Think of a book that you should like--one that is right up your alley. When you bought it, you were excited to find such a jewel. You couldn't wait to read this book. It was like the author peered into your brain and wrote something just for you. Maybe it's a dark fairy tale or a vampire love story or old-fashioned murder mystery, but whatever it is, it is just the kind of book you like.

And you hate it.

It's because the story is there...but the writing isn't.

Let's make up a fictional book--a romance set in the Wild West between a saloon owner and a cowgirl.
  • The Story:
    • Setting: Wild West. (We can go on to add specific details--what the ranch is like, what the saloon is like, etc.)
    • Characters: saloon owner and cowgirl (Again, adding more details)
    • Plot: Saloon owner needs cowgirl to invest in his saloon or he loses the bar; along the way they fall in love.
  • The Writing:
    • Setting: Do the characters love or hate their setting? Why? How does the setting effect them--does the cowgirl long for city life and hate to see the horses? Does the saloon owner almost die in the desert?
    • Characters: Go past their physical appearance and their immediate past. What deep-set longings do they have? What do they want with all their heart? Now: never ever tell me what it is they want more than anything. Just show it to me in their reactions. Make the cowgirl grumpy or the saloon owner flirty--but don't tell me they are--show me.
    • Plot: This all comes down to reactions. The plot of the story is like a timeline: this happens, then this happens, then this happens. Who cares? The real plot of your writing is showing me the reactions the characters have based on what has happened.
I think a lot of people just think about the story when they write. They think about what everything looks like, and what happens next. But that's just the story. The writing is where the voice is, and that lies in making each part of the story interact in a realistic, responsive way.

11294 ★ 85000


Izzy G. said...

And I wonder what happens when the Voice is great and the story is horrible.

Karen Lange said...

This is a very good point! Great food for thought, thanks so much.
Have a great day,
Karen :)

lotusgirl said...

Ding Ding Ding! I think you captured it. Nice. It's great to think of it in those terms.

Liza said...

I still struggle with voice. Thanks for a helpful lesson.

Angela Ackerman said...

I always find it interesting when a movie (or book) like this is made, produced, sold. I shake my head and think of all the other books I've read, published writers or no, that would come out ahead of what I just wasted my time on.

But yes, that is totally worth your 6 bucks! :)

Angela @ The Bookshelf Muse

Theresa Milstein said...

Izzy G, I think it happens both ways. I read a manuscript with a good voice that was missing a lot of other elements. The writer got several requests for partials and fulls, but keeps getting rejections because other critical components are missing.

I really struggled with voice. Now I finally get it (I think.)

Tere Kirkland said...

So true, Beth! This is something I've been thinking of a lot lately since I just started a new WiP and I want the romantic element to be convincing.

Izzy, I think if a novel has great voice, we'll overlook the fact that the story's not that great, which just goes to show that readers often care more about characters than what happens to them.

I strive for both. ;)

Lisa and Laura said...

Izzy - I've read books where the voice is fantastic but the story doesn't work for whatever reason. And honestly, I think I prefer that to a great story with a voice that I don't enjoy. For me a great voice can kind of make up for a broken story, but a fabulous story can't compensate for an awkward or annoying voice.

Great post, Beth!

Corey Schwartz said...

Oh, dying to know what movie you are talking about. Sometimes when I see a movie with a good story that falls flat for me I have trouble distinguishing how much is the fault of the writer and how much the fault of the director?

Eric W. Trant said...

VOICE! One of my favorite topics.

I'm reading Neil Gaiman right now. I put down all my other books -- I'm reading four or six right now, I forget -- and am sticking with this one book.

The plot's all right. Heck, I'm not sure where he's going with it, but I love his voice.

The other books have good plots -- maybe better -- and characters and whatsuch, but the voice is droning, lagging, moot and uninteresting.

You might be too young to know Tom Waits. Here's a link: Click and Merry Christmas. Youtube him.

You want voice? There's a voice. It never mattered what the heck he said, or in what order, or even if you understood what he was talking about.

All you knew was voice.

It's voice in writing as in singing that elevates it from the mundane into the realm of ART.

- Eric

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

Voice is such a hard thing to define, but I think you did a fine job in this post. I remember that an agent once said plot was something that he/she could help fix but voice was not. I think understanding the character and trying to get inside their skin is the only way we can get the voice right. We can't be outside looking in but must be inside looking out.

Laura Pauling said...

The great stories, the ones that last have both - story and voice. I see voice as authorial confidence too. Because I've read opening where the writer was trying too hard to have voice - and it fell flat. It has to be the perfect of just about everything!

Alexa said...

You put that really well. If the voice is there I can forgive a book so much, but if it's missing even the most amazing story becomes dull and boring.

Carolyn V. said...

Beth, this is excellent! Voice really does make all the difference. In writing and in movies. =)

Kelly H-Y said...

Fantastic advice!

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