Can Voice Be Without Style?

Keith Richards

Keith Richards (Sorry Keith.  However, you’re a great pirate and still rock!)

Can voice exist without the exercise of style?

Can style exist without expressing voice?

As I searched around the Internet, trying to get a better fix on voice and style, I found that I wasn’t the only one that had trouble defining one term without using the other. Voice and style seemed to exist only in some kind of sick and twisted symbiotic relationship (similar to, but stronger than the relationship of “sick and twisted” or say Donna Summer and the Supremes).

“But aren’t they two different things?” I wondered.

Quite frequently expert literary types talk about “voice and style”, so obviously the two are separate (somehow).  Otherwise we wouldn’t need two words with a big “and” in the middle.  However, because this coupling of “voice and style” was so prevalent, I was convinced that the two must also work together for some dark and sinister and inseparable purpose.  As Mr. Spok said, “Parted from me and never parted. Never and always touching and touched.”  So there I was…alone…two words touching each other yet not touching each other (awkward).  I had do know what it all meant!

So I used my considerable search engine skills (givin’ her all she’s got), and I read and read and read until ghost-like lines of code began running down the screen (blonde, brunette, red head).  And now that my mind has melded with the net I will attempt to relay what the collective universe has taught me.

First, let’s look at the terms (voice and style) separately.

What Voice is and isn’t:

  • The voice is individual.  It’s unique to you, the author, and is what separates you from others, even the greats you attempt to emulate.  If you were to write the same story as someone else (all the same research), your voice is what brands it as yours.  Voice has been compared to musical instruments.  The different instrument sounds (i.e. trumpet vs. violin) are like different authors’ voices, no two are the same.
  • Voice conveys something of the writer’s personality, point of view, outlook, beliefs, and attitudes.  Voice is associated with the basic vision of a writer, his general attitude toward the world.  Voice conveys the author’s character.  It contains the feelings and emotions (passions) of the author in a way that the reader can detect and empathise with (whether they know it or not).  Voice should come from the heart.
  • Voice establishes a relationship between you and your audience.  It can show intent – like sincerity and honesty.  It is the author’s sensibility.  Voice is adjusted or “tuned” for appropriateness to your topic (possibly your niche), the purpose of the piece, and your audience! Voice is present when you are communicating about yourself, your purpose, and your audience.
  • Voice is affected by and, when fully developed and exercised, affects an author’s word choice, tempered by appropriateness to topic, purpose, and audience.
  • Voice is not the narrator’s personality- that voice is the voice of a character.  While POV does affect voice, the writer’s voice can still be distinguished from story to story.
  • Voice is not “tone” or mood.
  • Voice is present when the writer is not just reporting.
  • Voice can be “found” or “released” by finding, accepting, and expressing your own independent and unique thoughts.  With your censors turned off, your voice can escape onto the page.
  • Voice is what brings readers back!
  • Voice emerges gradually as the writer develops.  This may be the most interesting point of all.  It implies that each writer has his own voice already within them.  It just needs to be released.

What Style is and isn’t:

  • Style is about the precision and execution of writing.  It concerns correctness, syntax, grammar, diction, punctuation, being clear, being long winded or efficient, writing mechanics, sentence structure, and sentence lengths.
  • Style has a great deal to do with organization.  It engineers story structure, organizing the framework of the tale, organizing thoughts, character development, dialog, organizing the story elements, flow and pace, rhythm, cadence, appearance on the page, and general vocabulary.
  • Style can be (for example) conversational, but voice is the slant.
  • Style is not voice! 😉
  • Style can be learned, taught, and emulated.  This is perhaps the best news about style (and voice).  Like voice, style takes time and practice, but there are rules and patterns which are well documented and widely publicized.  There is still hope for me!

Now together.

Voice and Style are:

Together, voice and style do work together in (perfect) harmony.  I found the following exceptional explanation in the introduction of Voice & Style by Johnny Pane (from the Elements of Fiction Writing series, published by Writer’s Digest Books – 1995):

“Voice is the key element in fiction, the one which, in effect, contains and shapes all the other elements of the story.  Style is the voice’s means of expression.  Plot, characterization, setting, theme, dialogue–all of these pieces exist in isolation unless voice makes them into active principles and brings them together.”

Happily, in my search, I also ran into Nathan Bransford, author of Jacob Wonderbar and the Cosmic Space Kapow, who helped me sort out a few things.  According to Nathan’s blog about voice (and I happen to agree with him), among the essential elements (of voice) are: style, personality, consistency, moderation, transportation, authority, originality, and authenticity.  I encourage you to read Nathan’s post.  Its’s a thoughtful, instructive read.  As you can see, Nathan names style as an element of voice.

So, style is an element of voice.  Though they are separable concepts, they are inseparable in practice.  Having a voice doesn’t equal good writing, but good writing will expose or reveal your voice.  The lion’s share of that good writing is style, which, done well, will elevate your voice (bringing it into focus).

Please leave me a comment, expressed in your own voice using your own style below.  And no cheating! 🙂

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