Find your Voice through Oral Storytelling

What is voice?

All writers need to find their voice before they even think about pitching to an agent. Voice is that special something that makes your writing stand out from the competition. Though it can be tricky to pin down, what we’re essentially talking about is the writer’s unique style. Some authors have such a strong voice that you can almost hear them in your head as you’re reading. The best seem to be addressing the reader in an intimate chatty way that immediately draws you in. Take this quote, for instance:

This was a summer night about a thousand years ago and myself and my cousin Matteen Judge were driving round and round and round the deserted oval green of Grove Park estate, waiting to see what we would see.

Colin Barrett “Bait” (from the short story collection “Young Skins“)

Barrett’s language is so effective because it embraces the particular rhythms of spoken language. Notice how the wild exaggeration of “about a thousand years ago” brings a smile to our lips, while the “round and round and round” evokes the intense boredom of adolescence. As I mentioned before, we can almost hear him speaking in our heads. However, even though this is a great example of a fully developed voice, we can’t simply copy Barrett’s prose. So how do you find your voice? How do you find the language that feels unique to you?

Lessons in finding your voice from my grandfather

My grandfather was able to find his voice before he ever set pen to paper. A born raconteur, during the war he worked the variety halls as a comedian under the stage name Johnny Branson. He didn’t lack for material. Because he’d grown up poor in Birmingham, hard life lessons had been learned from the start. Constant evictions, poor housing, volatile alcoholic parents and an exploitative apprenticeship all led to a physical collapse at the tender age of 19 from rheumatic fever. Oddly this last incident was a gift, not only saving him from having to fight in World War II, but also giving him one of his best stories.

War stories

When the United Kingdom declared war on Germany in September 1939, John Branson lay between life and death in an eerily empty hospital. Expecting an influx of wounded soldiers from the frontlines, the authorities had ordered hospital beds to be freed up. As it turned out, the casualties were to come much later and so John was the only patient on the ward. Despite the fact that this ward was brand new, the treatment John’s doctor prescribed was horrifyingly primitive. After pronouncing that this was the only cure, the head doctor swanned off leaving the nurses to apply leeches to my poor grandad’s chest.

Not wanting to stick around, the nurses then scurried off leaving the young patient completely at the mercy of these black, slimy beasts. Lying there with his pajama top open to allow the foul creatures unrestricted access to his flesh, John tried to be brave. After all, his contemporaries were being sent to war, while here he was lying in a comfortable bed. Unfortunately, however, when one of them suddenly detached itself and rolled forward, the stiff upper lip cracked. “Nurse nurse they’re going for me throat!” he screamed out in his thick Brummie accent.

A young nurse promptly appeared, opening the curtains just as another leech, now extremely fat on human blood detached itself and started to move. She leapt in the air and screamed even louder than her patient, causing him to also bellow out at the top of his lungs. Pandemonium ensued when it became clear that the nurses had zero experience administering this medieval form of medicine. With the doctor nowhere to be found, it fell to the head nurse to grab a pair of tongs and with an extremely unsteady hand, remove them from the hysterical patient.

Lessons learned late

Reading this on the page more than a decade after my grandfather had passed away, I found myself chuckling again at this story. When I’d picked up the manuscript, I’d been worried that his memoirs might be impossible to read. Grandad clearly had no idea about the difference between its and it’s, and yet, nonetheless, the whole thing flowed. He wrote as he spoke and, because he had told these stories countless times, he knew exactly how to work his material. I couldn’t help but conclude that having a live audience in front of you is a huge gift to a budding storyteller.

How to find your voice

When I ran a workshop on “Finding Your Voice Through Oral Storytelling”, I provided the group with a set of storytelling tips from The Moth (a spoke word storytelling podcast). Interestingly, many of the people there disagreed with the wisdom of some of these rules. For instance, one rule said “don’t rant”. While I initially thought this was reasonable, one attendee pointed out that some storytellers are able to make a rant hilarious. If the rant can be entertaining, why not? Another rule was not to ramble and again this feisty lot took issue. According to them, a well-done digression can inject suspense into a story. The third rule they took umbrage at was not to attempt accents. Again, they pointed out that this depended on whether or not you could do accents. If you could, why on earth not?

The conclusion we all arrived at was that it all depended on your personality, that is whether or not you were good at doing those things. And wasn’t this the essence of finding your voice? That is, identifying your talents and exploiting them to the full.

Hard and fast rules

We didn’t completely write off The Moth’s list of tips and tricks. Despite differing opinions, we could all agree on three of the rules:

  • Have some stakes
  • Have a great first line that sets up the stakes and grabs attention
  • Have a great closing line that neatly wraps things up

Stakes are what the protagonist of the story stands to gain or lose. These stakes might be something intangible like pride or dignity, so perhaps a better way of describing this is to make sure that our stories are transformative tales. That is, that the protagonist is changed by the action. This, they said, is the all important “why” of the story.

Cut back on the descriptive detail but keep your sense of humour

The best place to practice live storytelling is at open mics. However, most open mics keep to a strict five minute rule. This leaves you with very little time to get a story across. So you have to be prepared to cut your prose back to the bone without ever sacrificing your dramatic arc. The very first thing you can do away with is description. However, you don’t have to dispense with it entirely, a short snappy descriptor can still really make a story come alive. For instance, a friend was telling an anecdote the other day about a woman’s hair catching fire during a fireworks display. When she described the victim’s hairstyle as being “aubergine shaped” (eggplant to you Yanks) her audience cracked up.

Which brings me to my last point: humour always goes down well. If you can, do include some little comic asides when performing a piece aloud. If something occurs to you on-stage never be afraid to improvise and always look up at the audience when you deliver your zingers. Nothing guarantees a joke will fall flat like staring down red faced at the page. Of course, if your story has serious themes, cut out the comedy entirely.

You’ve found your voice, what now?

It will take time to find your voice. However, once you’ve tried your material out on a crowd, you’ll be closer to understanding your own strengths and weaknesses. Even though you’re now including all that rich descriptive detail you pruned away earlier, you should never lose sight of your audience. Imagining them sitting there listening to your yarn is a great way to remind yourself how best to engage and entertain. Many literary agents will ask you who your ideal audience is. If you’ve honed your art well, they’re the people who will listen to your voice, laugh, gasp and tear up.

Have you written a novel, but need help with maintaining narrative voice? Or perhaps you need help with other technical aspects. As an experienced developmental editor I can help you identify the strengths and weaknesses of your manuscript giving you actionable advice on how to improve it. Get in touch to receive a free sample edit.

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