17: Finding Your Writing Style and Voice

writing style

“All I need is a sheet of paper and something to write with, and then I can turn the world upside down.” —Friedrich Nietzsche

Writing style and voice are something I’m often asked about—either how I developed mine, or how someone should/could/can/will develop theirs. My answer is this: I developed mine by writing, writing some more—and then writing some more. You will develop yours by writing, writing some more—and then writing some more.

(I’m meaning, in this post, the style of how you write, not the rituals or way you do your writing—as in location, sitting down or standing up.)

You may find that your narration/narrative changes with each story you write.

Personally, I make it a point to do this. For one, my narrators aren’t the same people. I purposely set out to make Lana, the narrator of Coming Home isn’t Margot, the protagonist, and essentially the narrator of Backbeat  (I say “essentially” as Coming Home is a first person narrative; Backbeat, third person limited). Even if these two women lived in the same universe, were even friends—instead of living a generation a part and in different eras and worlds—they’d still have different voices.

I made it a point to work hard at having Lana sound completely different than Margot; I even made it it a point to create action and dialogue differently than I did in Backbeat. To me, this was especially important as Lana is the outright narrator, as the book is written as if she’s telling us the story; Margot is, yes, also the (outright) narrator, but the story is told more from her observations—of actions in the present (her own and those with whom she interacts), and in the past; most of the story is told in the form of flashbacks to her life a decade earlier.

Style of writing is something that many people have varying opinions about, and some of those people will insist their opinion of writing style is correct. Meaning, how they write is how everyone else should write. That a particular genre has a specific format. That you “can’t” do this or that in a romance book, you “can’t” do this or that in a mystery novel, and you can “only” do this and that.

But, as I talk about in the second post of this series, there is no wrong way to write.

Your writing style and voice is your writing style and voice, just as your creative process is your creative process.

I’m not sure I could personally define my own style, but my father, who read both books (and was enormously helpful for major edits) said it was clear that both books were written by me.

When I asked him what he meant, his reply was how I combined words for description, the way I structured sentences and paragraphs. In other words, so to speak, my “writing voice” came through as clearly as Margot’s and Lana’s.

A Stephen King novel always comes through as a Stephen King novel, even though the narrator of each book (or how he chooses to narrate the story) is different.

He has a very clear way he crafts his stories—the way he molds words and creates the setting and atmosphere, the characters he creates and how he presents them—but the narrative varies, depending on whose point of view the story is seen from. The Shining is mainly from Danny’s point of view, a little boy, and his father’s (occasionally you see the story from the mother’s perspective.) Each narrative changes; Danny’s filtering and observation of the same hotel in which he lives with his parents is very different from how his parents see it and experience it.

Anne Lamott is the same way. May Angelou. William Gibson. Ursula Le Guin and Arthur C. Clarke. Ray Bradbury. Tolkien.

Basically, you’ll learn how you personally have your characters narrate the story. Essentially, you’re creating a narration within narration in your own way. George R.R. Martin makes certain that each chapter that’s from the point of view of a character sounds like that particular character; his own voice, however, his own narrative/writing style is still clearly there as well, too.

In the film theory world, there is something called the “auteur theory” it’s the philosophy that a director’s authorship is always clear in a movie.

Many film theorists believe that, even though the film passes through the hands of cinematographers, producers, editors and other sundry film industry folk. (Actually—I recommend that you pick up some books about the auteur theory, as it’s very much in line with novel authorship.)

Unlike books, which always (seem to) have a clear author voice coming through, not all movies do, I think. But there also directors where their touch remains very obvious from the first moment of filming to the last moment of editing. Stephen Spielberg is a great example of this in the film world; in the book world, Stephen King is the master.

While film is a different medium than books, it’s still a story.

And, like Stephen King, Spielberg’s personal style is evident in each movie he directs. But, like Stephen King, each story/film has a very different narrative that stems from whose story it is. He achieves this by pacing, camera angle, lighting and so on. Sure, he has input from his cinematographers and assistants, is working from a script he likely didn’t write…but ultimately, he makes those ideas filter through in his style.

Once, I saw an interview with Spielberg, and the interviewer made the comment/observation that all his films, no matter which one, was filmed from a child’s point of view or was from a childlike one. Not as in immature, but from the wonder that children have about the world, even if the story is about an adult. Poltergeist is a terrific example (that movie still scares the pants off of me!) Jurassic Park, Indiana Jones, E.T., Close Encounters of the Third Kind…all of those movies center around adults having adventures children often create in their own imaginations.

(Think of how differently any of those movies would feel if, say, Quentin Tarantino filmed them. Or John Carpenter. James Cameron Nora Ephron. All of these directors each have a very different style.)

The interviewer next mentioned to Spielberg that he furthered this childlike view of the world through low camera angles—having us look up at the events happening in the film from a height a child would.

Spielberg stared at the interviewer a moment, thinking, while also surprised. And then he said, “You know—you’re right!” Even he hadn’t realized, until that moment, what his auteur  style was.

And you may not, either.

That’s okay.

But, again, just as there’s no wrong way to write, there’s no wrong writing style either. Imagine James Cameron telling Spielberg how he filmed movies was wrong. Or Tarantino telling Carpenter this. They wouldn’t, because they understand that their style is their style, and it’s just right for them.

How did they develop it?

By making film after film, just as I’ve learned mine by writing story after story. That’s the only way you can develop yours—just keep writing (or, as Dory, in Finding Nemo, would say: Just keep swimming!)

Trite? Perhaps so.

But that’s how you develop any skill, by practicing and practicing and practicing a little more. That’s why you often hear the phrase writing practice. Even established authors like Anne Lamott or Stephen King or Danielle Steel will tell you they’re still learning how to write with each book they produce. I do, too.

I also make it a point to challenge myself with each story I want to write.

I purposely made Coming Home longer than Backbeat, while also making it a more complex story with more characters who had frequent appearances.

This forced me to create more voices and personalities that needed to appear through my own style. In Backbeat, there were really only two characters I used, with a few exceptions, of course. The science fiction story I’m working on is a bit intimidating to me because I realized it’s a story with an arc that’s even more complex and longer than Coming Home.

Another story I’d like to tackle is one that I see taking place in the Coming Home universe; it’s from the point of view of an American infantry soldier in Vietnam.

I’ve also made myself learn different styles; I tend to lean towards longer, flowing sentences. This does not, however, lead towards depicting a high-octane action sequence; the opening chapter of my science fiction book drops you right into action and builds. I had to learn how to create shorter sentences. This may sound easy, but when you have a penchant for long sentences to describe action, it’s challenging.

But, of course, this is how I’ve developed my own writing style. How you develop yours is also your own style, just as how you present a story is.

If you’re not sure if you have a writing style or voice, let me assure you—you do. Maybe it’s because you’re new to this whole Writing Thingamajig, or you’ve been doing it so long you’re like me—oblivious to what your style is.

There is a funny scene in an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. I don’t remember which episode it is, but it’s one that has a plot line of Data’s latest endeavor is to play the violin. There is a scene in which he has a conversation with Captain Picard; Data states that because he isn’t human, he has relied on combining the styles two disparate violinists, so he therefore has no personal style.

With more than a little amusement, Picard points out that’s exactly how someone develops their own style: by studying artists they admire, emulating them, and then adding their own “interpretations”. Meaning—Data has fully emulated what a human would do.

Data is quite surprised—but also pleased.

Take authors you adore, emulate them, and put your own spin on their styles.

Over time, you’ll sound less like other authors, and more and more like you.

Sometimes, however, authors who have influenced you greatly, will be apparent.

There is a chapter in Coming Home that takes place during Lana’s childhood. She and her friends are enjoying a languid summer afternoon, that takes a turn towards the sinister for Lana when they discover an old well out by a crumbling, abandoned homestead house out on the prairie. For whatever reason, the well scares her.

I chose that chapter to read out loud at a writing group one evening because I wanted to know if the flow was correct and how the “plot” of that particular chapter (chapters are, in many ways, short stories combined into a longer one) worked.

One fellow at the group asked, “You really like To Kill a Mockingbird and Stephen King, don’t you?”

My reaction was much like the one of Stephen Spielberg’s above. I stared at the man a moment, and said, “Yes. I do.”

“I thought so,” he said. “Because this chapter is like To Kill a Mockingbird meets The Shining or just about any other King book.”

As I wrote the chapter it never occurred to me that I was perhaps channeling those two authors.

But when he pointed it out, it became clear to me I most certainly had. That gave me pause, and I asked the fellow if the section sounded too much like Harper Lee and Stephen King. He replied no—the passage was clearly mine. And no, he replied to my next question, I didn’t need to change anything about it because the chapter was my own style; it was just obvious I’d been influenced by To Kill a Mockingbird.

(If you’d like, you can read it here.)

Influences can’t be avoided sometimes.

The Dementors in the Harry Potter books are clearly an influence of Tolkien’s Nazgûl. There’s a battle sequence in Game of Thrones (well, two actually; one is in the books, the other is not) that’s clearly greatly influenced by Gandalf’s arrival a the Battle of the Hornburg with the Rohirrim Riders.

I remember thinking, “Okay…this is just like the Helm’s Deep part and all we need are riders coming to the rescue right about…now!” And they appeared right then.)

This is all right as they’re homages, not copies. And sometimes you simply can’t avoid having this happen because of how greatly certain authors have influenced you.

So be like Data. Take authors you love and admire, even film directors, and emulate them. Then put your own spin on it.

As you write, you’ll figure out more and more what that spin is. Influence may come through, as happened with me, but if you’re filtering it through you, then it will come out as you.

Next Post: Structural Integrity: Sentences and Paragraphs

EXERCISES

1) Find two different books that come from very different genres. Select a passage from each, then rewrite it in an opposite style.  Make sure the authors are disparate in style. Two that come to mind are Jane Austin and Tom Clancy.  Take passage from a Jane Austin book, one that’s full of flowing scenes, and turn a passage into one that’s centered around very quick action; then take a scene from a Clancy book and rewrite it as Austin might.

2) Take a passage from a book you like and rewrite it in your own personal style. Then take a passage from one of your stories and write it in the style of a favorite author. Note how your own voice still comes through.

3) Watch three movies by a specific director (eg Spielberg) and three by another (Tarantino) that have very different “storytelling” ways. What do you notice? Do you agree or disagree that there’s a clear style relating to both directors—both authors? Feel free to choose any two directors you want—just ensure they have at least three movies.

WRITING PROMPT: Write a short scene using these five words or phrases: Brillo pad, jealousy, pot sticker, curlers, sour mash. DIFFICULTY: Use the words in a dialogue between a dog trainer and a very difficult customer (the conversation can be between the human or the dog.) 

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Questions? Comments? How do you develop your own style? Leave a comment below, or email me using the “Contact” link, or at heather (at) heathercurryselfbooks (dot) com. You can also follow me on my Facebook page and on Twitter (@HCSBooks). I’m also on Instagram (heathercurryself). Also, do leave me feedback about this post!

16: Who Said What? Yes. What? Yes. Who Did? Yes. I Mean No. I Mean Yes...I Think: Dialogue.
18: Structural Integrity: Sentences and Paragraphs

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