Storytelling: What Is “Voice”?

Cyber Monday e-book sale update: Why do I even pretend I’m going to get my TBR under control? I need to accept that whether it’s tomorrow or in 50 years, I’m going to die with a bunch of unread books. And really, would I want it any other way? Also, to my bookish Tweeps, I love-hate you and your seductive book conversations.

Now, on to the post . . .

Like a lot of readers I know, I sometimes comment on an author’s “voice,” usually to say I like it. But to be honest, I’m not quite sure what I mean when I say that. (I’d be curious to hear what the rest of you mean). I guess I mean “narrative voice,” which includes but I think is also more than “the narrator’s voice.” In a first-person narrative, that should be believable as the voice of the narrating character. In third person, it’s more complicated to decide who’s speaking, whom that voice belongs to. And where does the sense of “voice” come from?

Voice is partly sentence-level style: the choice of words, the rhythm and complexity of sentences. It’s also the tone or attitude to the story being told. Some writers stick to comedy or to a more emotional, dramatic tone; some vary tone a lot from book to book. I think the pacing of the storytelling comes into play, as well: is this a slow, meditative book or an action-packed one?

When you’re talking about a text, “voice” is metaphorical. But when you listen to audiobooks, as I love to do, it’s also literal. Not all voices, whether metaphorical narrative or literal narrating, work for me in audio. In the best audiobooks the two voices are somehow a perfect fit: for me, that includes Amanda Ronconi narrating Molly Harper, Renée Raudman narrating Ilona Andrews, Holter Graham narrating Patricia Briggs’ Alpha and Omega books, and Susan Ericksen narrating J.D. Robb or Jennifer Crusie’s Anyone But You. Much as I love Ericksen’s narration, my mind boggles at the thought of her doing a Regency historical like Cecilia Grant’s A Lady Awakened (I listened to a sample and her accent was good, but still, her voice to me is “modern”).

The link to audiobook narration leads me to define an author’s voice as not just a narrative but a storytelling voice. I’ve been thinking about this a lot because the New York Times Book Review had a couple of articles on audiobooks this week. If you ignore William Grimes’ classing books that translate well to audio as often “second rate” (sigh), I think he’s pretty accurate about which kinds of storytelling are easy to listen to, and which fail as oral/aural literature. I really enjoyed John Schwartz’s “Sound Check,” in which he reflects on what he learned from watching an audiobook recording session in preparation for narrating his own book:

Paul Ruben, the recording’s director and producer, said I was witnessing an art form that could not be defined simply as reading, acting or narrating. This was, instead, storytelling, one of humanity’s most ancient arts, brought to life in a studio for the sake of an audiobook.

“Storytelling is a unique performance medium that has its own performance demands, that is unique to its own experience,” said Ruben, who also trains actors for such work.

The other reason I’ve been thinking about storytelling, voice and point of view is that I had an audiobook voice shock this week. I’m still glomming Michael Connelly mysteries on audio. In the last couple of months, I’ve read the four Lincoln Lawyer books and the first six Harry Bosch books. The glom is counterproductive in some ways, because the plots start to fall into a pattern and some things began to bother me when they kept popping up. But they were perfect for my mood, engrossing and plot-driven, keeping me engaged and entertained as I rushed around managing life.

I listened to Angel’s Flight, the sixth Bosch book, and then I found my library didn’t have seven or eight in audio. No big deal; I downloaded nine, Lost Light. I knew going in that the narrator was different (Dick Hill did the earlier books, this one was Len Cariou) but imagine my surprise when the narrative also shifted from third to first person. Bosch sounded different in every way. Who was this guy? I felt like I didn’t recognize him or the other recurring characters. Eventually, I adjusted, and I’m not sure the narrative voice was really dramatically different–in fact, there were some lines that would have sounded more convincing from a third-person narrator than they did as Bosch’s own internal thoughts.

But why the change? (Using Amazon’s Look Inside feature, I determined that books seven and eight kept the third person). The more I thought about it, the more sense it made. Bosch has retired from the LAPD and he pursues the case here as a private detective, though one without a client. The first-person voice is traditional for the hardboiled PI. And somehow, it made him seem more vulnerable, more human, which fit with the fact that he is now without the protection of his badge and his identity as a cop, something he talks about adjusting to in the course of the novel. The point of view shift added layers of meaning to the book. I think it would have worked even better if the voice had changed more from the earlier books and seemed more distinctively Bosch’s rather than a third-person narrator’s. The Lincoln Lawyer books are also first-person narration, and I do feel Mickey Haller’s voice is distinct from that of the Bosch series, so I know Connelly can pull it off.

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2 Responses to Storytelling: What Is “Voice”?

  1. jmcbks says:

    On audiobook voices, I’m really enjoying the narrator of the Aaronovitch series. He does a good job with a variety of British accents.

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