A Thought About Voice – The Start

I had a piece of writing recently that I was editing, and it started with;

“Finally,” the young woman said-

What voice do you read that spoken word in? What tone?

Is it “FINALLY we have gotten round to THIS THING!” or “So, um, finally I get to say something?” or “Fiiiiiiinally in my very long list of shit…” or something else entirely?

It turned out, half a sentence later, to be a tremulous tone.

And so I did what editors do, and I crossed it out.

It’s too uncertain an opening. It’s a single word with too many different tones and meanings and phrases, and it brought in too much of an about-face in the reader if they read it the wrong way (“well FINALLY we’ve got to this point! HUMPH!”) and then suddenly had to switch to tremulous.

One of my core principles is that the reader shouldn’t have to re-read unless it’s a deliberate choice. If you’re pulling an abrupt switch or a big reveal, then a re-read is great! (One of my favourite parts of Skin Games by Jim Butcher comes after the reveal three-quarters of the way through, and you end up gleefully skipping back through entire conversations to get a hidden meaning.) But if you’re using dialogue and you’ve got a long conversation, I shouldn’t have to track back four lines to check who is saying what. I don’t want to have to return to the start of a paragraph to check when they actually moved location/opened the window/did the action. And I shouldn’t have to realise halfway through a sentence that my tone is completely (and I mean completely) wrong.

As an addendum to that; slightly wrong, I think, goes with the territory. No reader will read the characters in the same way that the writer hears them, and that’s fine. But you should be able to at least convey the general tone of the conversation: and that’s why “Finally” got a red line through it. There were other ways of conveying the hesitation and tremulous tone; in fact, all I actually ended up doing was suggesting the second half of the sentence went first, which conveyed the tone far better.

That said… you know this isn’t a hard-and-fast rule, right? Maybe just a general suggestion to have a read of your openings, and check if there might be another way they could be read.

Author: kate

Kate Coe is an editor, book reviewer and writer of fiction & fantasy. She writes the sparkpunk GreenSky series and blogs at writingandcoe.co.uk. When she's not working, she fills her spare time in between writing with web design, gaming, geeky cross-stitch and DIY (which may or may not involve destroying things). She also reads far fewer books that she would like to, but possibly more than she really has time for.