During my freshman year of high school, my friend Eruheran and I decided to try our hands at writing a piece for an essay contest. What the essay topic was escapes me, so let’s just say we were both tasked with writing about narwhals.
So once Eruheran and I had completed our narwhal essays, we passed them along to our English teacher at the time, requesting that she read them and provide some feedback to help us out. But our teacher changed the entire dynamic of the situation when she asked, “Whose essay would you like me to read first?”
And there it was. A spark of challenge. Eruheran and I looked at each other with grave expressions. Were we doomed to squabble over the privilege of receiving the first read like Roman gladiators? Were we destined to clash like Maximus Decimus Meridius and Emperor Commodus? Were we bound to fight like Mufasa and Scar? Were we fated to feud like M. Night Shyamalan and all respectable movie-going audiences? No. Eruheran and I decided to unite.
Instead of playing ball, we seized our trusted Sharpies, crossed out our names classified-CIA style, and handed them to the teacher. “It’s your call,” we determined.
And so, days later, our teacher returned our essays to us, and without fail, she put my paper on my desk and Eruheran’s paper on his desk. She knew who wrote which essay because of that little thing called voice. Even though we both wrote about narwhals, my teacher was able to confidently identify the fingerprint pressed upon each paper. My teacher knew her students’ writing well enough to differentiate my essay from my friend’s.
The moment my paper was returned to my desk, I understood the power of voice. Simply put, voice is a writer’s style. Some writers certainly bear similarities to others, but ultimately, one cannot feign a style. If I try to sing like Sinatra, I might sound like him when I hit a certain note (silence), but in the end, I’m just going to sound like me. It’ll still going to be my voice.
And so, fellow writers, I urge you this: Hold on to your voice.
Often times we expose ourselves to so many tips and opinions and insights as to how we should write this or write that. I’ve read people vehemently stress that a writer should use “said” to preface a line of dialogue sparingly. They assert that in most cases, a writer should replace “said” with a more animated verb like “bark” or “growl.”
Upon seeing the narwhal charging with its menacing horn , J.J. barked, “Run!”
I’ve also read people who reject that notion entirely, arguing that one cannot “bark” a line of dialogue, and thus “said” and its more conventional variants should be used in most cases.
Upon seeing the narwhal charging with its menacing horn, J.J. shouted, “Run!”
And then I’ve read opinions from others who insist that prefacing dialogue with anything at all is futile, as the tone of the dialogue should be made clear by the prior action or expression delineated immediately before it.
J.J. saw the charging narwhal and turned on his heel. “Run!”
I’ve learned that those rules of “never” and “always” are utterly useless. If I want to animate a character’s speech by having him bark it, I will. If I want to frame a back-and-the-forth argument using “said,” I will. If I don’t want to preface my dialogue with any word at all, I will.
Of course, a line of dialogue can be presented poorly, and so best judgement is implied in my suggestion of taking liberties, but my point stands. Writers budding and veteran, new and experienced, rusty and polished, do what you’ve been taught to do since kindergarten: Be yourself. Because if you go on trying to write like somebody else for the sake of “doing it right,” readers will be left with nothing new, nothing fresh, nothing original. In an era of Hollywood remakes and rehashes, cookie-cutter novels, and formulaic channel 1-through-ten television shows, that is the last thing the good people of the world need.
Additionally, dismissing your voice is a dishonor to yourself.
If Tarantino cut down his dialogue, we would have never seen Jules Winnfield spend an entire scene delivering gem after gem of dialogue revolving around a burger. Tarantino had that scene in him, and it is all the better that he put it out into the world. And the world loves that he did.
If Robert Jordan didn’t describe the texture and color and material of every floor and wall he ever wrote…well, I suppose I would be done with the Wheel of Time series already. But his attention to detail is one of the key aspects as to what makes Robert Jordan’s writing Robert Jordan’s writing. In order to invest himself in his own world, he had to paint it so vividly.
I don’t want to read or watch anything conventional. Do you?
Now, this isn’t to say that you shouldn’t seek out wisdom from your elders, because you should! Fill your head! Listen to what other authors have to say. Read about writing. Read about reading. Read. Write. Seek feedback. Always try to better yourself. But with that, you must remain true to your essence.
Make the odd decision. Have faith in your reader’s intelligence. Have faith in your ability, in your story. Write boldly. Write as you want to.
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Thank you for your continued support, and as always, stay classy.