Language, Voice, and Style

by Debbie Lee Wesselmann

Many inexperienced fiction writers just want to tell the story, but a novel or short story is more than plot. You may find a story interesting, but if you don’t focus on making it memorable, you will lose your readers. Language, voice, and style can make the difference between a boring story and a compelling one, even with the same plot.

Narrative Voice

Voice is a confusing concept for most writers; its definition eludes even many professionals, though we all know what it is.  Voice is the melding of style, word choice, tone, atmosphere, and subject matter.  It is what distinguishes one story from another, one writer from the next. 

Voice should not be confused with first-person narration since it also defines third-person stories. It’s how the reader “hears” the story is his or her head.

Sometimes voice can conflict with the subject matter, thus ringing false.  A light and cheery voice won’t be right for a tragedy any more than a scholarly voice would be for a children’s story. In general, voice is specific to a certain work. 


Style is as almost as elusive a concept as voice.  Unlike voice, style travels with the writer, from project to project.  Style is the way a writer writes.  It makes an author recognizable from book to book, story to story, despite varying subject matter and storytelling methods. The love of sentence fragments, or ellipses, or punchy prose identifies the writer.  While we begin writing with our style, it must evolve as we get better and more mature.  Learn to identify your quirks and determine which work.  A distinctive style can define you as a writer.

Vary sentence length and type.

Variety will the reader interested not only in the story, but in what you have to say.  If every sentence has the same feel to it, the same length and way of unfolding, you’ll lull your reader to sleep.  Fiction writers don’t need to adhere to some grammatical “rules.” For example, when used judiciously, sentence fragments can be invaluable.  They create emphasis by breaking up the flow, much like inserting a stop sign at an intersection. Short sentences amid longer ones accomplish the same feat.  You’ll know you have a good sense of variety when the editing of a single sentence forces changes upon all the sentences in the paragraph. 

Fall in love with language.

This does not mean you should change to a flowery style or use large words, but that you should choose the best words for your story.  Love the way your sentences sound when read aloud.  Hemingway was a great writer, not because he had a (deceptively) simple style, but because he was able to relate complex ideas and situations using a few, precise words. 

Work on your descriptive skills.

You should be able to pare down a description to its most basic, and most memorable, elements.  As an exercise, write 250 words about an inanimate object.  Edit it until you have only 150 words.  Edit it again down to 100 words.  Eventually, you will want to condense your observations to one or two punchy sentences.  Why begin with 250 words?  Because the abundance of words will force you to fully describe the item.  By expanding your notion of that object, you will go beyond your (and your readers’) preconceived notion of what it is, thus giving you, after all the editing, a fresh, concisely portrayed image. 

Concentrate on using precise verbs and nouns, but don’t overwrite.

Verbs are often at the heart of compelling writing and are perhaps the most difficult words for a writer to find.  You may see an action in your mind, but to describe that action, to give it the right word, can be tricky.  Beware the big, empty verb!  Just because a verb is more unusual than its common counterpart, it doesn’t mean it is more descriptive.  Here is an exercise:  take a favorite novel and open to a random page.  Circle all the verbs.  Study how they work (or don’t work.)  Begin keeping a list of verbs that resonate. 

Likewise, the correct nouns can be critical. Using “labrador” instead of “dog” and “white birch” instead of “tree” will make your writing more visual for the reader.

The most important words of any piece of fiction are the first ones.

Make your first paragraph dynamic and intriguing, your first chapter riveting.  Any lag in pace or conflict might make an agent or editor put it aside.  You want your readers to pick up your writing and become so involved that they can’t bear to leave it. 

Establish a rhythm to your words.

See how shortening one sentence requires changing a whole paragraph to maintain the fluidity.  Sometimes even a changed word necessitates a dramatic change in the structure of the sentences.  Don’t shy from this.  A writer who is willing to tinker with her language is one who will eventually succeed. 

Learn to take your time with description.

Beginning writers are often too eager to write dialogue and plot, thus skimming over the descriptive and transitional needs of a story.  Just as a play needs a set, fiction needs description to anchor it.  This does not mean you need long descriptive passages – the length depends highly on your style and subject matter – but you need to find, at the very least, a few descriptive elements of a scene to lend believability.  Use fresh language, not easy words that betray your impatience with description. 

Use metaphors and similes sparingly.

Novice writers tend to bury their writing in an overabundance of metaphors and similes. Those wonderful tools of language can enliven writing but can also bog it down, especially if administered two or three to a paragraph.  Because these comparisons, when expertly used, can make a scene or character instantly memorable, use them as emphasis, not as decoration.  If you can’t come up with the perfect match between description and object, go without.  An omitted metaphor is much better than a throwaway one. 

Eliminate unnecessary adverbs and adjectives.

Too often, in an effort to be descriptive, beginning writers weigh down their prose with too many qualifying words.  While adverbs and adjectives are word types needed to convey true meaning, they should be used sparingly and only when no perfect verb or noun exists.

An Exercise

As an exercise, write the same basic scene three times, each with a different tone.  For example, take the idea of a man breaking down on a country road and a woman coming to his assistance.  Write this scene the first time using comic overtones, the second using ominous ones, and finally with a romantic take.  This exercise will quickly show you how word choice, dialogue, description, and the direction of the plot affects the whole of your work.  It will also serve to stretch your imagination, an excellent way to overcome writer’s block.  Have fun with this!  Don’t worry about producing something you can use later. 

Plot and Storytelling