From time to time, our associate editors will take the blog conch and write what’s on their mind. After Associate Editor Jessie Seigel listed two stories as “maybes” because the plot and voice didn’t align, we encouraged her to explain:
The first time I heard the term “voice,” I had just performed in an open reading at the Bethesda Writers Center. Someone from the audience, complimenting me, said that I had a “strong voice.” I thanked him for the compliment, and thought to myself, so I have a good, strong pair of lungs—but what did he think of the work?
I have long since learned that “voice” is a literary term of art, but to what it refers, even now, I am never entirely sure. Is it merely a fancy synonym for style; that is, the author’s tone? Or does it refer to writing from your character’s point of view; that is, speaking in the voice of your character? I suspect it can refer to either or to a combination of the two. In any event, to me, these two elements, whatever you call them, are the most essential components of an interesting work. Without them, plot is only a series of actions performed by interchangeable types, and the effect is that of watching stick figures move through a barren landscape.
At the same time, even the most engaging style may be wasted if the story has nothing much to say. Nor can the most interesting characters carry a story if the plot takes them nowhere. There needs to be a point to the journey. Of necessity, of course, writing must be in the particular.
But if, in the end, these particulars tell us only about the particular and do not express something broader about the nature of our humanity or the nature of human relationships, the story will lack power and interest.
Furthermore, the story—voice, character, and plot—is more likely to feel complete if the writer has a clear understanding in his or her own mind of some larger thing he or she intends the story to express. Such understanding also makes the story more likely to express a view unique to the author. And that always results in the most interesting work.