On Story Music, Voice, and Redefining Writing Well

Feb 15, 2021

By Christine Carron

When I started as a writer, I set two intentions:

  • Write well.
  • Write to delight.

It took a couple of years for me to realize that the way I was defining writing well was messing with my ability to write to delight.

Writing to delight was all about creating a rollicking good yarn; a story that moves readers; socks it to ‘em emotionally. Joy! Despair! Terror! Triumph! Delight! The full symphony of human experience was (and is) my goal. I wanted to make story music with words.

Did I know exactly how to do that when I started? No. But I had some inklings. As does any novice writer.

Every person, writer or not, has story sense in their blood. Humans tell each other stories in conversation, in school, on TV, in cinemas, in books, on the radio, on TikTok for goodness sake. We’re steeped in story starting from when we’re nothing more than a bun in the proverbial oven. All that steeping doesn’t guarantee novice writers will be able to craft a compelling story from the get-go, but it does guarantee that they will get some shimmering flashes of story music brilliance from the moment they start putting words to page.

I had some of those flashes in my very first first draft. An eighth note of inspired story here, a dotted half note there, even a few full measures of story music delight. Then I started to revise. Which is when the write well intention really kicked in. Imagine the Jaws theme music starting to play right about now, because in my gusto to write well—which for me meant complete sentences, lots of subordinate clauses, rabid attention to grammar rules in general—I deflated many of those raw, pulsating notes of story music. I flattened out most of the bits of real Voice that I’d somehow managed to create in the first place. A huge, huge problem since Voice is the melody of any story.

Was the story bad? No. It got me my first agent. But that book never sold. Part of the reason was because instead of nurturing and building upon the wild Voice notes I had, I pruned them into something tamer, something less bright. I took away the story’s personality. Basically, my attachment to a high school sophomore’s conception of writing well dampened the story’s music. Muted its Voice. 

Often Voice is shrouded in mystery. Writers supposedly have it or don’t, and supposedly Voice can’t be taught. Hogwash-orama. Voice can be taught. And you can learn it. I did.

Newbery award-winning children’s book writer Linda Sue Park developed a pithy and potent definition of Voice:

voice = word choice + rhythm

Where word choice = vocabulary, and

rhythm = sentence length + punctuation

Park’s formula helped me understand that I needed a whole new definition of writing well. One that I got posthaste. Writing well no longer requires me to march in lockstep with good grammar. Instead, it demands that I let the manuscript’s Voice sing, which sometimes means breaking grammar rules. May you give yourself that same freedom. To land a punch with a fragment; amp up the momentum with a run-on; split the dang infinitive; leave out a comma; start sentences with Buts and Ands; and close ‘em with pesky prepositions. Feel the giddy power of your full authorial choices and then sit back and listen as the story music soars. 

The Goodjelly Prompt of the Week

  1. Take two of your favorite characters. How are their voices different? Using Park’s definition of Voice, analyze how the author crafted their voices.
  2. Take a sentence from your writing. Change up the voice of the sentence by playing with word choice and rhythm.
  3. Read through a scene of your work in progress. Is the voice consistent throughout? If not, experiment with word choice and rhythm to keep the voice at a consistent pitch.

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