Thursday, December 4, 2014

Loud and Clear: Part 3: The Technical Elements of Voice: Tense, Grammar and Punctuation, and Sentence Structure

This month, I continue our discussion on the technical elements—the writing mechanics—that play a direct role in voice by focusing on tense, grammar and punctuation, and sentence structure. (Click here for the first part in this series and here for the second part, which introduces the first element of voice: POV.)

Another decision that affects voice at a basic level is tense. Present tense is often thought to be faster paced and more urgent. But the key thing to remember about present tense in terms of voice is this: Everything is happening to your character in the now. Right now. The reader is experiencing everything right along with the main character. Your character doesn’t know what happens after this very moment. This means the voice does not allow for a lot of perspective.
Unlike in past tense when the narrator is telling us what has already happened. Past tense allows the character to have more perspective and reflection. A key component of using past tense is figuring out when your character is narrating this story. Is your character narrating something that happened yesterday or ten years ago? This is a difference that will affect the voice.
The Hunger Games is present tense while The Fault in Our Stars is past tense.
Grammar and Punctuation
Now, this might sound strange because there are rules of grammar and punctuation, right? Why, yes, there are, but we all know the saying that rules are made to be broken. And that’s never more true than in writing.
If not overdone, playing with punctuation and grammar can have a beneficial impact on creating your writer’s voice.
For example, say you have a character who speaks without a single contraction and with many big-ticket words. And then say you have a character who speaks with a lot of slang, abbreviations, or poor grammar.
What does this tell us about these characters? A lot. The first might be a scholarly professor from Oxford and the second might be a street rat. We can get hints of who your characters are—education, economic level, even attitude—all through their voice and the words you choose.
Also keep in mind that playing with the rules of grammar and punctuation lend believability to your writing, especially in dialogue. People don’t speak in complete sentences with perfect grammar. And neither should your characters.
Going back to what I said at the start of this series in terms of content and audience, you may want to play with elements of grammar and punctuation (ellipses, exclamation marks, slang) in a gossip column but not if you are writing for a bank.
Syntax, Sentence Structure, and Rhythm
Like with punctuation and grammar, sentence structure can also tell us about character. For example, lots of run-on sentences may show an overexcited character. Lots of short sentences may show a character who is reserved and efficient, not wasting a breath on anything extra. We get hints about who these people are just from the length and construction of their sentences.
But that’s not the only way sentence structure is important. It’s a key element in creating a rhythm that engages the reader.
I’m going to now include a passage from author Gary Provost. It’s one of the best illustrations I’ve seen of how important something as seemingly mundane and simple as sentence structure creates voice.

From 100 Ways to Improve Your Writing: Proven Professional Techniques for Writing with Style and Power 
by Gary Provost

Pretty powerful, right?
I’d like to include another example, which is actually the first page of my novel, Becoming Jinn. It’s the very start of the book.
A chisel, a hammer, a wrench. A sander, a drill, a power saw. A laser, a heat gun, a flaming torch. Nothing cuts through the bangle. Nothing I conjure even makes a scratch.

I had to try, just to be sure. But the silver bangle encircling my wrist can’t be removed. It was smart of my mother to secure it in the middle of the night while I was asleep, unable to protest.

Though my Jinn ancestry means magic has always been inside me, the rules don’t allow me to begin drawing upon it until the day I turn sixteen. The day I receive my silver bangle. The day I officially become a genie.


What do you see in that example in terms of sentence structure and rhythm? There’s an immediate mood set with the repetition in the lists of the tools; it’s bolstered by the word echoes of “nothing” and “the day I.”
What I’ve tried to do in this section is lull you into a mood with the rhythm of the writing so that when you get to that single-word sentence of “Today” you are hit with its power. It hopefully wakes you up and makes you take notice.

That’s all done with the sentence structure. It’s one of the strongest weapons in your writing arsenal. I love wielding this particular one!

Next month, I'll tackle the final technical element of voice: word choice.

Which of these voice techniques do you use? What else do you use to create voice?

Lori Goldstein is the author of Becoming Jinn (now available for preorder; Feiwel and Friends/Macmillan, May 12, 2015, sequel, Spring 2016). With a degree in journalism and more than 10 years of experience, Lori is a freelance copyeditor and manuscript consultant for all genres. She focuses on the nitty-gritty, letting writers focus on the writing.

1 comment:

  1. Past tense works best, methinks.

    It couples well with telling a story in third person. I think that telling things through a first-person perspective robs a story (especially one that is supposed to be filled with danger) of it's teeth.

    With present tense/first-person the reader can lose a lot of suspense. You already know that the character isn't going to die... they're really not in any danger because the story is told through their eyes.

    Great advice on this post!