Voice, Or Lack of Same

My kid is a drama nut. He wants to be an actor when he grows up. (He has also expressed interest in baseball, politics and rocketry, but theater appears to endure.)

One of the games we play is called Five Ways.  I give him a sentence, and he has to say it back to me in five different ways.  For example, I say, “OK. Tell me, ‘the dog ran away.’ ” He comes back with:
(Wildly gesticulating) The dog! Ran away!
(Eyes wide, head craned forward a little, hands out, fingers spread wide) The DOG ran away?
(Sniffling) The doggie ran away…
(Staring at the floor, hands behind his back) Um. The dog ran away.
(Shaking his head, wagging his finger) The dog ran away!

When you watch him, it’s easy to tell what emotion he’s trying to convey. (In case I failed, the above five are: Frantic, Incredulous, Sad, Guilty, and whatever the word is for “I told you so!”)

I love this exercise for a number of reasons. It teaches him to use his body to convey emotion. It lets me coach him on other possibilities. (“Try rubbing your hands together and smiling wickedly while you say it in an evil voice.”) And … it reminds me that voice is totally subjective based on who’s reading.

It seems to me that good scripts are generally written with that in mind. Scriptwriters go into it with the intention of giving the actor a fair amount of latitude to tell the story.  I mean, no, you’re not going to play Laura Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie as sardonic and defiant.  (Though that might be kind of interesting and fun to try…) But you can portray her as more depressed than anxious, or more anxious than timid, or some other variation on the theme.

Good books have a narrower passage.  They need to hold a reader’s interest longer than the average play. There is no set design, the words have to be stronger to convey compelling images.

And the characters have to be relatable and consistent within the story’s framework, and the reader needs to be able to understand their motivations without tone of voice or a lot of body language description. But … they can’t be TOO well-described. They need to be amorphous enough for the reader to apply their own mental images. “Oh, that guy is a jerk, just like Jimmy at the bus stop.”

I tend to write my characters as people I know, or knew once upon a time.  The jerk in high school who flipped people’s lunch trays shows up as the alcoholic boyfriend. The nice girl who helps the old lady get groceries into her car is based on my best friend from college. The driver’s ed teacher becomes … well, the driver’s ed teacher. He was too good to change much.

But I realize that MY driver’s ed teacher isn’t going to show up the same in everyone else’s mental image. I can tell them “Once upon a time and 100 pounds ago, he might have looked like Robert DeNiro. Now all that remained was the Midnight Run hair and the Taxi Driver stare.”  Assuming the reader has seen those movies (or has access to Google,) that conveys a clear image, but there’s still some room for imagination. How fat? What kind of clothes? Is he fat all over or just paunchy? And so on.

Same with actions. Same with voice. It’s my reading experience that once a writer has established the parameters, it’s better to leave a few blanks for the reader to fill in.

But maybe I’m wrong. What do you think?


About arwenbicknell

Editor by day, author by night.
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