by Working Writer’s Club member Mayra Calvani
What is the difference between style and voice?
Style is the particular manner of writing individual to an author, the unique way an author puts his words together.
Different authors have different writing styles and sometimes their styles are directly related to the type of book they write. For example, historical writers may write in an old-fashioned, archaic style; romance writers may write in a rich, florid style; an experimental writer, on the other hand, may write in a clipped or minimalist style. Each style has its own flavor and none is better than the other, though some styles may become more popular or ‘accepted’ than others depending on the times. For example, until Hemingway arrived to the scene, the accepted style was more embellished and convoluted, with an overuse of description and adjectives and adverbs. But Hemingway made his simple, straight-forward, plain style so popular, a lot of writers started to imitate him and began to shun the earlier, more elaborate Victorian approach.
Sometimes an author’s style depends on his main character. For instance, if a protagonist is a crazy person and the novel is written in first person POV, then the narrative and style would have to reflect the deranged thoughts and speech patterns of that character.
Though the terms ‘author’s style’ and ‘author’s voice’ are sometimes used interchangeably, the truth is they are two separate concepts. The term ‘voice’ is evasive, even more evasive that ‘style,’ especially for beginners.
While an author’s style relates to words and the way he puts them together, an author’s voice is the way the author looks at the world, a unique sensibility that pertains to that particular author. An author’s voice comes deep within the soul and heart of that author.
Besides an author’s style and voice, there’s also the voice of your main character. You must have heard it from agents and editors: “We want a strong character voice.”
While style applies to the whole book and the way it is written, a character’s voice is the way the author narrates the story through the eyes of that character, or the way the character’s behavior, thoughts, mannerisms and dialogue are expressed in the story. You can have different voices for your hero and heroine. Through their particular voices, their personalities come alive. You can have different voices in different books depending on your characters. Many times, though not always, the character’s voice matches the author’s voice.
An author can have different character voices in different books, yet his writing style may be the same. Take Hemingway, for example. His writing style was always the same—minimalist, straight forward, unadorned—but each of his characters had different voices in his different books.
Let’s take another example: Anne Rice. Her style is rich and embellished. As you heard her say in the previous lesson, she will use 50 adjectives if she has to to get her point across. She loves going to excess. However, the voice of her characters is different in each of her books. In Interview with the Vampire, her main character Louis is gloomy and depressing. His voice permeates the manuscript throughout, affecting the tone of the story. In The Vampire Lestat, however, Lestat’s voice is defiant and willful, and the tone of the book is affected accordingly. Lestat’s voice infuses the text with his own particular energy. In both books, the voice is strong, but in a different way because both characters have different ways of looking at themselves and at the world around them.
But what about her author’s voice?
Rice has an author’s voice that is independent of her writing style and of her characters’ voices. She has a unique way of looking at the world. She is an utter romantic, and by this I don’t mean romantic in the sense of a ‘love story’ or sentimentalism but romantic in the way Beethoven was a romantic, by believing and expressing deep emotion. She goes deep where the pain is, where the pleasure is. She has an immense regard for art, history, music, philosophy and theology. She has an almost obsessive love of beauty and learning, a almost morbid obsession with death, and all of this comes across in her books in one way or the other.
“Style can be the downfall of many otherwise talented writers,” states Noah Lukeman, author of The First Five Pages, but he goes on to say that “When handled well, style can add a new dimension to the text that nothing else can, give it an unnamable charm; when handled expertly, it can go so far as to advance the overall message of the text.”
The truth is, most beginning writers feel intimidated with style and voice. They don’t trust their own vision and in trying to develop a strong style and voice, they try to force it to make their manuscripts appear more original. This almost always doesn’t work and the result is that the writing comes out unnatural and exaggerated.
Whether you style is embellished or minimalist, a strong, compelling style is usually about contrast—the combination of long sentences with medium-length sentences with short, clipped sentences.
We all have our own styles and we all have our voices because we’re all different people with different backgrounds and experiences. But what happens is, we often lack the confidence necessary to trust and follow our own vision. If you still feel frustrated because you don’t think you have a distinct, definite style or voice yet, experiment with different ones and see what happens. But do your best to have trust in your self and talent and avoid imitating other writers, though this is also fine when you’re starting. Sometimes the learning process starts by imitating until you find your own unique way.
“To set your voice free,” advises Donald Mass, author of Writing the Breakout Novel, “set your words free. Set your characters free. Most important, set your heart free. It is from the unknowable shadows of your subconscious that your stories will find their drive and from which they will draw their meaning. No one can loan you that or teach you that. Your voice is your self in the story.”