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Voice Driven I
The most important aspect of writing you might ever learn
First, an example of a plot-driven story…
Just after I’d graduated from college, my father called to offer me a million dollars. He was a blue-collar guy working on the Burlington Northern Railroad, but he was seeing an older woman who claimed to be very wealthy, and if he married her she’d hand over five million dollars. She promised. In turn, he planned to give each of his kids a million, and keep a million himself, and with the interest rate on savings accounts at 5%, well, we could each get by on a cool $50,000 guaranteed annual income. This wealthy woman had also given Dad several men’s rings set with large rubies and emeralds. They’d announced a wedding date.
For one whole day I was rich. Young and rich, and in 1984 an income of $50,000 seemed glorious, and all the tiresome dreary problems of the time evaporated in an instant. Everywhere I went, I was happy. Worry rolled off my back.
Then my brother visited Dad and saw the rings and reported to me, “They look like something out of a gumball machine.” The fiancee was demented. She had no vast fortune. The rubies and emeralds were glass, and I was still poor.
That’s a plot-driven story: Life plods along until some sudden change disrupts it. As Stephen King has written about horror, horror is the most conservative of genres. Ordinary folks with ordinary lives are suddenly set upon by a rabid dog. Or a killer clown. And the story is about returning everyone to normalcy.
Now a word about character-driven stories…
In my books Fight Club and Choke the narrator tells sizable lies in order to make people love him. My theory is that most of us do. Thus the character’s character creates the big deception that drives the story.
Yes, lots of events happen, and it irks me to no end when people say my fiction is plot-driven, but hey. My plots arise from the character’s flaws and needs and cleverness, and that seems worlds away from the characters in Anne Rivers Siddons’s novel The House Next Door, who just happen to have a killer house built next to their own bucolic Atlanta home. In the end they must kill the architect and burn the house. Problem solved.
Most critics consider character-driven fiction to be a notch above plot-driven fiction, but it’s a matter of personal taste if you ask me.
But voice-driven fiction kicks the ass of all others
If your fiction sounded flat or ludicrous, I’d talk to you about voice-driven fiction. For examples, think of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, or The Giant’s House by Elizabeth McCracken. Among short stories, look at Mark Richard’s Strays or This is Us, Excellent. Or Season’s Greetings by David Sedaris.
In voice-driven fiction the author assumes a glib, or broken, or cynical first-person voice that can be in direct opposition to the story being told. Sedaris blithely uses cliches to depict the murder of a baby. McCracken has a jaded, bitter librarian fall in love with a boy. Events become believable because the voice is so beguiling. A high-language voice discussing a low-culture topic. Or a low yokel voice depicting something high culture. The contrast, the disconnect cuts the tension and allows the reader to be with a story that he/she would never willingly read.
To be frank, I didn’t know about voice-driven fiction until I’d written Invisible Monsters. Every Tuesday I did my laundry at a place called City Laundry, where the only magazines were old copies of Vogue. The articles drove me around the bend, always six or eight adjectives in search of the world “sweater.” But the more I read that bizarre copy, the more I began to hear it in my head. It occurred for me as a kind of camp, drag-queen language, and it wasn’t hard to write a story in that shrill, artificial Vogue-speak. It was to regular English what the dance craze of Vogueing was to square dancing.
The voice of the narrator was so unique, that when I submitted early drafts of the book to editors, they said, “This is so voice driven.” That’s a good thing. Since then, I look at the flashback scenes in Geek Love, in particular the opening chapter, and see how they have a voice-y, mythopoetic sound that differs from the present-day scenes.
To date, my students never seem to break out until they’ve produced their first voice-driven story. They might plug along for years writing third-person faux-Hemingway, but once they create a fresh voice, specific to a story, they shine. It might be faux-Vogue, or neo-noir, or post-Hillbilly, or homage-Lovecraft, but it burns and reinvents language to hook the audience.
More recently, last night. Krissy and Andrew killed it at Hindsight Story Night, and both with voice-driven stories. Krissy’s was a malicious teen. Andrew’s was an Indiana rube. They both sounded so fresh that people stayed glued to every word. More important, they accepted every word. A unique voice creates its own authority.
That’s the take-away: A unique voice creates its own authority.
And as Tom Spanbauer always taught, once you create your authority you can take a story anywhere.