Writing Exercises: Word Choice and Voice


ConCarolinas was nearly a month ago — it’s hard to believe how quickly the weeks are flying by.  A week from tomorrow Thieves’ Quarry will be released, (Woot!) and I hope all of you will go out and get yourselves a copy in one format or another.  The book also makes a great gift!

But I digress . . .

ConCarolinas!  Right.  During the convention, Faith, Misty, and I did several panels together:  One on the first five pages (led by Faith), one on word choice (led by Misty), and one on voice (led by yours truly).  During my panel, I mentioned that I had worked up a series of exercises that were designed to help writers develop their voice or voices for projects, and today I’m going to describe those exercises.

As it happens, I also have a couple of exercises to help with word choice and I’m going to start with those.  One of the things that Misty (and Faith and I) stressed during her panel was the idea that word choice is inextricably bound to narrative context.  What does that mean?  Well, to begin with it means that if you’re writing a book with a light-hearted feel, your wording is going to differ markedly from a story your write that is dark, brooding, frightening.  It means that if your story is set in a desert your metaphors and analogies are going to be different from a story you set by the ocean or in the mountains.  And it means that if you’re writing epic fantasy, you might take a different stylistic approach than you would if you were writing urban fantasy, or erotica, or romance.

Narrative context informs (or should inform) nearly all of our stylistic and syntactical choices.  So, with that in mind, here is your first writing exercise:

1) Write a scene of about 250 words, or one manuscript page.  It doesn’t have to be a complete scene — it’s more a vignette really.  Put in some description, some character work, maybe some dialog.  It’s really up to you what direction you take it in.  But when it’s done, I want you to replace a single word in each sentence or clause. (I say clause, because sometimes in a multi-part sentence changing one word won’t be enough.)  The changes should be designed to alter fundamentally the tone of the piece.  So if it started dark, use the changes to make it lighter.  If you started light, go the other way.  One word in each clause.  It might not be entirely enough, but that’s okay.  The idea is to get you to appreciate the power of a single word choice in setting tone, mood, setting, etc.

The other thing we talked about in Misty’s panel was the use of dialog attribution in scenes with lots of talking.  We talked about avoiding “said-bookisms,” which are words we use instead of “asked” and “said” to tell our readers who spoke and how.  “He rasped,” “she hissed,” “he opined,” “she inquired,” etc.  “Said-bookisms” are frowned upon in today’s market.  Writers are supposed to use “said” and “asked” and pretty much nothing else.  But of course over using those two words creates problems, too.  So instead we try to use gesture or mannerism to convey who is speaking. 

Misty brushed a strand of hair from her forehead. “I think you’re nuts, David.”
David smiled. “Yeah, join the club.”

That sort of thing.  So, your second exercise:

2) Write a scene between two people that does not use “said” or “asked” or any other direct attribution of dialog, but instead relies on gesture, mannerism, or just the established order of who is speaking.  Make sure it’s always clear who has said what.

Now, for voice.  During my panel I distinguished between different levels of voice.  Stylistic voice is a combination of authorial style and genre characteristics.  Every author sounds a bit different.  To take a more extreme example, you can tell a book by Hemingway from a book by Fitzgerald simply by style.  They just sound different.  Many of us bring our own reading tastes to bear in our styles.  I know that my style has been influenced by Guy Gavriel Kay and Ursula LeGuin, Stephen Donaldson and Anne McCaffrey.  Others might be influenced by a different set of authors.  And, of course, we all have our stylistic tendencies.  Taken together, our writing sounds like us; it’s unique. That’s authorial voice.

You can also tell the difference between an epic fantasy, with its sweeping tone and high language, and, say, an urban fantasy, which tends to be grittier, sparser, with a noir feel.  That is genre voice.  Authorial voice and genre voice combine to create stylistic voice.

Then we have what I call ambient voice. This relates back to what I said earlier about word choice.  When you write a book in a certain setting, your writing — your descriptions, your analogies and metaphors — begin to take on the characteristics of that setting.  If you’re writing a light story, your narrative voice sounds different from how it would if you were writing dark stuff.  That is what I mean by ambient voice.  Each project sounds a bit different, each books has its own unique tone, and sometimes it can take us some time to find that voice in our work.

We are helped in this regard by the final, and probably most important level of voice:  character voice.  This is the voice of your point of view character or characters.  It is a blend of the character’s particular way of expressing him- or herself — literally the character’s speaking style — and his/her emotions and wit and intellect.  In the Thieftaker books, Ethan Kaille is my sole POV character, and his voice — the darkness of his past; his wit, biting at times; his morality and earnestness — all of these help to shape the way the narrative reads.  In my Winds of the Forelands and Blood of the Southlands books, I had many point of view characters, and I tried (with mixed success) to make each of them sound unique.

I should note here that it is not always easy to separate these various levels of voice.  Each influences the others, and they all combine to make a book what it is.  But I find it helpful to think of those different levels:  Stylistic Voice (authorial and genre), Ambient Voice, and Character Voice.

And so with those in mind, here are a few voice exercises.

3)  Using a character from your WIP — not a POV character please — write a scene in which this character encounters you.  Write it from his or her POV in first person.  Make sure he/she doesn’t sound like you.  No dialogue necessary, better without.  Wordless interaction, eyes meeting.  Be in his/her head, observing you.  What does s/he see?

4)  Now, go back and write the same scene from your point of view, but in third person.

5)  Finally, write a new scene between you and this character — POV is your choice.  But try to make it sound like a different subgenre.  So, if you’re WIP is high fantasy, write this scene as if it was an urban fantasy.  If you’re writing urban fantasy, try doing this scene as high fantasy.

So there you go.  Five writing exercises to keep you busy for a while.  Questions?  Comments?

David B. Coe

14 comments to Writing Exercises: Word Choice and Voice

  • sagablessed

    Busy is an understatement. But good exercises. Writing the three different scenes where your own character meet you will be the hardest for me.

    Good exercises. 😀

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  • Thanks, Donald. I think you’ll find the “meet yourself” exercises easier than you think. Best of luck with them.

  • Yowsers! Good post David. I love meeting yourself exercises. They can actually hurt, but they help so much with understanding character. I use them sometimes when I blog as PR, and I always learn something about myself and/or the character that I didn’t know.

  • Thank you for posting this. I think I did okay with parts 1-4. Part 5 is a fail. Not a epic fail, but a fail. Will need to attempt this again another time. I have posted all my attempts on my blog – below is the first paragraph of #4 (my POV – third person). Again, very helpful. Now I know I need to work on voice and I understand what voice means a little better.

    Someone knocked lightly at the front door. Erin pushed herself away from the computer grateful for the break. Two hours and the writing exercises she was attempting still struggled to find their way from her head to her fingers. David B. Coe was a sadist. Five, did he really have to assign five exercises?

  • Thanks, Faith! I enjoy them, too, and see them as a great opportunity to learn something about descriptive writing, and to poke fun at myself.

    Erin, I LOVE that! And there really is no failing with this. It’s all trial and error; chances to practice and play with different ideas, secure in the knowledge that no one will ever have to see what you wrote if you don’t want them to. Glad you found some of the exercises helpful. And yes, I do have a bit of a sadistic streak; all writers do . . .

  • In a long-ago shared universe project, we had a side project where we threw together a bunch of characters from that and our various other works, and let them interact… in an environment that consisted entirely of a plain white box and very little space. Brought out the best and worst in ’em. 😀

    We had another where our characters (and sometimes ourselves) would interact “backstage”.

    Kinda the same concept as yours (which are also good ideas!) — throw yourself and your character(s) into “wrong” roles and make it work.

  • ::grin:: These are some great challenges for “limbering up” the writing muscles… Now, off to do some heavy lifting…

  • Reziac, that sounds like a very cool project. As you point out, sometimes putting your characters someplace they don’t belong brings out traits of which we were but dimly aware, which makes these exercises so much fun. Thanks for the comment.

    Thanks, Mindy!

  • These exercises look great, and your timing is perfect for me. I’ve been on vacation and am heading home tomorrow, so my plan is to work on this on the plane and in airports to get me ready to get back to BIC!

  • Razziecat

    Pre-ordered Thieves’ Quarry 🙂

    Going to try these exercises. #1 sounds interesting; #2, well, I already do that as much as possible. It’s amazing how much better a story flows when you use “said” very sparingly. #3-5, hmmm…Not sure which feels weirder – writing about myself from my character’s POV, or the thought of actually meeting one of my own characters 😛

  • Some years back, just for the fun of it, I wrote a story in which the characters of our WIPs showed up at a writing group meeting to fuss at us, the writers, about how they, the characters, were being treated. That story’s long gone now, but as I recall, we had an absolute gigglefest the night I brought it to the group to read. 😀

  • Cindy

    Great exercises that are very helpful. Thanks for everything David. Got the package today!
    Thank so much!!!!

  • Thanks, SiSi! Hope you find the exercises helpful.

    Razz, thank you so much! I find writing about myself, particularly from the POV of one of my characters, to be lots of fun. Hope you get a kick out of it, too.

    Misty, that sounds like it would have been hilarious. I have never had a fun writing group and I remain envious of the experiences you and Faith had in yours.

    Cindy, thank you. Glad the ARC arrived safely!