Story Openings–Part 3: Voice
The last installment left off with the opening from Charles Dickens’ “Bleak House.” This is arguably one of the best openings in literature because it includes all of the elements of a great opening: character, setting, conflict, and hook. Further, it introduces us to a fifth element: voice.
Before we discuss voice, let’s examine this opening. Note that Dickens makes the setting a character of the novel, and indeed this sets the tone for the entire novel. The conflict, though not readily apparent in this excerpt is nevertheless present because the setting itself is rife with it. Indeed, if we read more of the opening, we will soon come to see the story unfolding.
Let’s talk a little about voice. What exactly is voice? I looked for a good definition and found this one on the Grammar Girl site. Check out the whole article for more detail.
“Voice is the distinct personality, style, or point of view of a piece of writing or any other creative work…. Many musicians have played “The Star-Spangled Banner,” for instance, but there’s a world of difference between the Boston Pops’ performance and Jimi Hendrix’s, even though the basic melody is the same.”
I also want to make the distinction between character voice and authorial voice. In this case, we’re looking at the latter.
Voice is why my writing doesn’t sound the same as yours. We saw a clear voice in the opening of Christopher Moore’s “Lamb.” But we’ve also seen voice in every opening presented so far, although it’s more prominent in some than in others. Here’s another good opening that shows a clear, unusual–and strong–voice of the author.
 You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning. But here you are, and you cannot say that the terrain is entirely unfamiliar, although the details are fuzzy. You are at a nightclub talking to a girl with a shaved head. The club is either Heartbreak or the Lizard Lounge. All might come clear if you could just slip into the bathroom and do a little more Bolivian Marching Powder. Then again, it might not. A small voice inside you insists that this epidemic lack of clarity is a result of too much of that already. The night has already turned on that imperceptible pivot where two A.M. changes to six A.M. You know this moment has come and gone, but you are not yet willing to concede that you have crossed the line beyond which all is gratuitous damage and the palsy of unraveled nerve endings. [“Bright Lights, Big City” by Jay McInerney]
Every piece of writing has a voice. Look back at each of the examples presented so far and pay attention to the voice. Here are a couple more. In the first, the voice is subtle and the character distant; in the second, the voice is strong, and the character is in your face.
 The boy’s name was Santiago. Dusk was falling as the boy arrived with his herd at an abandoned church. The roof had fallen in long ago, and an enormous sycamore had grown on the spot where the sacristy had once stood.
He decided to spend the night there. He saw to it that all the sheep entered through the ruined gate, and then laid some planks across it to prevent the flock from wandering away during the night. There were no wolves in the region, but once an animal had strayed during the night, and the boy had had to spend the entire next day searching for it.
He swept the floor with his jacket and lay down, using the book he had just finished reading as a pillow. He told himself that he would have to start reading thicker books: they lasted longer, and made more comfortable pillows. [“The Alchemist” by Paolo Coehlo]
 You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain’t no matter. That book was made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly. There was things which he stretched, but mainly he told the truth. That is nothing. I never seen anybody but lied one time or another, without it was Aunt Polly, or the widow, or maybe Mary. Aunt Polly–Tom’s Aunt Polly, she is–and May, and the Widow Douglas is all told about in that book, which is mostly a true book, with some stretchers, as I said before. [“Huckleberry Finn” by Mark Twain]
Admittedly, in this excerpt from “Huck Finn” we don’t see a conflict yet, and we don’t have a clear sense of setting, but these are revealed a few paragraphs later when we see poor Huck in the civilizing hands of the Widow Douglas who is attempting to redeem this “poor lost lamb.”
At this point, I’ve provided with all of the tools you need to create great openings of your own. Let’s look at how to use them. Bear in mind that you will likely rewrite your opening dozens of times, probably many more than the rest of the story. Don’t worry about your opening initially. Get your ideas down, write a great novel, then go back and polish the opening. You might also want to check out Bob Vardeman’s guest post on this blog about openings (dated 1/16/12).
All right, let’s assume you’ve finished that novel, that you’ve polished it, and that you’re ready to make the opening superb. You’ve been working on this novel for months, maybe years. You know every detail in it. With that in mind, print out the first two pages. Sit down, clear your mind, and pretend that this is somebody else’s work, not yours. (If you have a friend who has not seen this novel, perhaps invite him or her over for the reading.) Take a deep breath and begin to read it aloud. Stop after the end of the first paragraph. Ask yourself (or your friend) if it’s compelling enough that you would want to hear more. Be honest. What do you see in that paragraph that makes you want to read on? How many of the key elements are present in that first paragraph? Is there a sense of setting and place? It doesn’t have to be an actual physical description, but something that clues you, style of speech of the characters, for example. In “Huck Finn” the language itself offers some suggestions.
Is the setting interesting or does it promise to be so? Even if it’s a pitch black place and vision is useless, the other senses can provide clues: sounds, smells, touch.
Do we see or have a sense of character? Is he or she interesting? This is what “Huck Finn” gives us. Despite the missing setting and conflict, we’re interested in knowing who this character is. He interests us (hopefully).
Has a story question been posed? Is there conflict yet or some reason to pull the reader forward? Is there a hook to pull the reader forward, something that says the story itself will be interesting?
Look at the following example, which gives us character, conflict, hook, and voice, but no setting. It poses a story question.
 For reasons that will become obvious, I find it difficult to write about Stewart. Well, I find it difficult to write about anything, God knows. But Stewart presents special problems. Do I speak of him as I later came to know him, or as he appeared to me before I learned the truth, before I stripped away the mask of normalcy he hid behind? For so long he seemed nothing but a footnote to my life, a passing reference in what I had imagined would be the story of my swift rise to literary stardom. Today he not only haunts every line of this statement, but is, in a sense, its animating spirit, its reason for being. [“About the Author” by John Colapinto]
Going back to your own opening, read the next paragraph. Does it add any of the missing elements that might be missing in the first one? Or is it merely more of the same? Does it expand on the first paragraph in a way that it shows story development? It’s crucial in any opening that a clear forward momentum be established, something to pull the reader on, making him want to learn more.
Look at the following example and notes how the narrative begins with a distant point of view, giving us only setting, then it slowly brings the reader in, adds the character, and finally foreshadows the conflict. Note the voice as well.
 On the heights above the river Xzan, at the site of certain ancient ruins, Iucounu the Laughing Magician had built a manse to his private taste: an eccentric structure of steep gables, balconies, sky-walks, cupolas, together with three spiral green glass towers through which the red sunlight shone in twisted glints and peculiar colors.
Behind the manse and across the valley, low hills rolled away like dunes to the limit of vision. The sun projected shifting crescents of black shadow; otherwise the hills were unmarked, empty, solitary. The Xzan, rising in the Old Forest to the east of Almery, passed below, then three leagues to the west made junction with the Scaum. Here was Azenomei, a town old beyond memory, notable now only for its fair, which attracted folk from all the region. At Azenomei Fair Cugel had established a booth for the sale of talismans.
Cugel was a man of many capabilities, with a disposition at once flexible and pertinacious. He was long of leg, deft of hand, light of finger, soft of tongue. His hair was the blackest of black fur, growing low down his forehead, coving sharply back above his eyebrows. His darting eye, long inquisitive nose and droll mouth gave his somewhat lean and bony face an expression of vivacity, candor, and affability. He had known many vicissitudes, gaining therefrom a suppleness, a fine discretion, a mastery of both bravado and stealth. Coming into the possession of an ancient lead coffin–after discarding the contents–he had formed a number of leaden lozenges. These, stamped with appropriate seals and runes, he offered for sale at the Azenomei Fair.
Unfortunately for Cugel, not twenty paces from his booth a certain Fianosther had established a larger booth with articles of greater variety and more obvious efficacy, so that whenever Cugel halted a passerby to enlarge upon the merits of his merchandise, the passerby would like as not display an article purchased from Fianosther and go his way.
On the third day of the fair Cugel had disposed of only four periapts, at prices barely above the cost of the lead itself, while Fianosther was hard put to serve all his customers. Hoarse from bawling futile inducements, Cugel closed down his booth and approached Fianosther’s place of trade in order to inspect the mode of construction and the fastenings at the door.
Fianosther, observing, beckoned him to approach. “Enter, my friend, enter. How goes your trade?”
“In all candor, not too well,” said Cugel. “I am both perplexed and disappointed, for my talismans are not obviously useless.”
“I can resolve your perplexity,” said Fianosther. “Your booth occupies the site of the old gibbet, and has absorbed unlucky essences. But I thought to notice you examining the manner in which the timbers of my booth are joined. You will obtain a better view from within, but first I must shorten the chain of the captive erb which roams the premises during the night.”
“No need,” said Cugel. “My interest was cursory.”
“As to the disappointment you suffer,” Fianosther went on, “it need not persist. Observe these shelves. You will note that my stock is seriously depleted.”
Cugel acknowledged as much. “How does this concern me?”
Fianosther pointed across the way to a man wearing garments of black. This man was small, yellow of skin, bald as a stone. His eyes resembled knots in a plank; his mouth was wide and curved in a grin of chronic mirth. “There stands Iucounu the Laughing Magician,” said Fianosther. “In a short time he will come into my booth and attempt to buy a particular red libram, the casebook of Dibarcas Maior, who studied under Great Phandaal. My price is higher than he will pay, but he is a patient man, and will remonstrate for at least three hours. During this time his manse stands untenanted. It contains a vast col-lection of thaumaturgical artifacts, instruments, and activants, as well as curiosa, talismans, amulets and librams. I’m anxious to purchase such items. Need I say more?”
“This is all very well,” said Cugel, “but would Iucounu leave his manse without guard or attendant?”
Fianosther held wide his hands. “Why not? Who would dare steal from Iucounu the Laughing Magician?”
“Precisely this thought deters me,” Cugel replied. “I am a man of resource, but not insensate recklessness.” [“Eyes of the Overworld” by Jack Vance]
The end of the passage is a wonderful piece of foreshadowing. It tells us that Cugel is a thief. And we just know that he’s about to get himself into a world of hurt. That’s the hook, and the promise, that Vance gives us. Does your opening do the same?
To show that I try to practice what I preach, here’s an extensively reworked opening from a work-in-progress (for many years now) of mine.
Dreyon liked the dark danger of the streets of Kunego City. Its nightfog covered and caressed him. It let him dream.
Dreyon froze. Badboys were bigger and faster and knew the streets better; they’d catch him, and it would go worse for him if he tried to escape–or so Kafa had warned. But a fourteen-year knew how to take care of himself. He didn’t need his older brother to protect him.
One badboy came around the corner of a building and amble toward him, tall with greasy, stringy hair and the outbreak of a chin beard. “Wanna play with us, orphanboy?”
Others followed. Their feral eyes glowed under the lime-green streetlights. Dreyon recognized one who used to live at the orphanage, with a half-healed slice down his cheek and wilder eyes than the others. Another stared at him and sidespoke to the first one, their packboy. “Ooo, he’s a darkskin.” Dreyon’s dark tan skin stood out among the paler-skinned Nelafini. “I never had a darkskin service me.”
Now, I present three versions of the opening from my published “Vampires, Inc.” All three contain the necessary elements, but the first version is all telling (by the author), the second a mix of show and tell, and third is almost all show (through the character’s eyes).
The underlit streets still glistened from the thunderstorm an hour before. Unseen, Eli had been watching the woman since she exited a classroom building on the Wayne State University campus. She was Caucasian, a student he guessed, early twenties, too young for a professor. He’d had a lot of experience at guessing ages.
The intense, muggy air made her carry her denim jacket and exposed the flawless skin of her arms. Her tight-fitting blouse and jeans invited trouble, more so tonight because the streets were especially deserted. The thunderstorm warnings issued that afternoon seemed to have given students a logical excuse to forsake their evening classes. Eli felt himself smile. Playing hooky was a human trait that he’d found lingered well into adulthood.
Keys in hand, she reached the parking lot. Only three cars remained in it. Eli saw the two hooded men, in the shadows and still hidden from her sight, coming her way. He heard the wet squeak of their sneakers against the asphalt pavement. The woman was heading toward a red 1996 Saturn when she turned her head toward the men. She walked faster and pointed her keyholder at the car. Eli heard the faint thunk of the automatic door locks.
Eli strolled across the Wayne State University campus on his way home after teaching his Tuesday night class: Black History 1865-to-present. The streets glistened from the thunderstorm of an hour before. It was unusually warm for early October, too warm for the waist-length black leather coat he wore. The shower had left muggy air in its wake.
Every semester that he taught this class, he could always count on a student–sometimes more than one–remarking, “You make it sound like you were there.” They didn’t know he was a century and a half old.
The campus streets were especially deserted tonight. The thunderstorm warnings issued that afternoon gave students a logical excuse to forsake their evening classes. Four of his students had been absent.
On his left, a young woman exited a classroom building. Early twenties, he guessed, probably a student. Too young for an instructor. A denim jacket was folded on top of the books she carried. Despite the inadequate lighting here, his keen eyesight easily discerned the flawless skin of her arms. She was walking to the parking lot. Probably not headed home right away. Her tightfitting blouse and jeans were typical Detroit nightclub attire. Trouble was coming her way from the opposite direction.
At nine-forty, only three cars remained in the lot. She pulled out her keys. Hidden in the shadows, the two men approached her. She stopped and jerked her head at the wet squeak of their sneakers on the asphalt. She looked at the Blue Light Security Phone at the other end of the lot then walked fast toward a red Saturn. She pointed her keyholder. Eli’s keen hearing caught the thunk of the electric door locks.
Eli glanced at the wall clock at the rear of the lecture hall. He’d finished fifteen minutes early. “We’re done for this evening. Next week there will be a short quiz at the start of the period on tonight’s material. Any questions?” Several students groaned, but no hands went up. “Please read chapter thirteen for next time.”
While he packed up his notes, one of the female students approached him. “Professor Howard, I just wanted to tell you how much I’m enjoying this class. Your perspective makes it sound like you were there and experienced it.”
Every semester that he taught Black History 1865-to-present, he could count on at least one student making that remark. He always replied with, “I was born in 1838 in Jackson, Mississippi. I was there.” The student’s eyes would invariably widen and a smile usually–but not always–would follow from the assumption that it was a joke.
“I appreciate the compliment, Miss Michaels.” Eli shut his attaché. Out of curiosity, he tapped into her thoughts. She wasn’t sure which surprised her more: the remark itself, or her history professor pulling a presumed joke out of thin air. “And I will see you next week.” He donned his leather coat and left, with her gaping after him.
Outside, the Wayne State University campus streets glistened from the brief thunderstorm of an hour before. The storm had left muggy air and deserted campus streets in its wake.
Ahead of him, a young woman exited a classroom building carrying a folded denim jacket on top of the books under her arm as she walked toward the parking lot. His light-sensitive eyes easily discerned her attractive facial features and flawless skin. He also spotted the two individuals lurking in the shadows nearby. He stopped next to a tree and set his attaché on the ground. The Blue Light Security Phone at the far end of the lot wasn’t close enough for quick access by either of them.
Three cars remained in the parking lot. The woman pulled a set of keys from her jeans pocket and pointed her keyholder. The door locks on the red Saturn thunked. Maybe she’d reach her car in time and he wouldn’t have to intervene.
I make no claim that the final opening is perfect. While perfection is an admirable goal, you might drive yourself crazy attempting to achieve it. As long as the opening hooks the reader and makes him want to continue, that’s all you need. If, in the process, you create a spectacular opening, then even better. Remember that, no matter how good your opening is, the rest of the novel must be just as good. Don’t disappoint your reader or you’ll receive bad reviews from readers who expected more but got a lot less.
On another note, Scott and I have seen our blog hits steadily increasing, which suggests more people are finding us and hopefully reading our blogs. But they aren’t leaving any comments. Please let us if we’re helping you, and tell us what topics you’d like us to cover or continue in the future.
Because the spammers have finally found us, we’ve restricted comments to registered users. Even though the spam was sent to a spam folder, we still had to clean it out to ensure it didn’t trap non-spam comments. We’re working to find a better solution for everyone and hope to one in place shortly.
Thanks for visiting our blog.
4 thoughts on “Story Openings–Part 3: Voice”
Rick replied: It’s difficult to tell how a translator rendered it, but I would suspect he didn’t change a pronoun to a noun. I wouldn’t write the way Coehlo did and likely would do it similar to your way, but you also have to recognize that the voice would be significantly altered. Coehlo’s narrative conveys an honest simplicity and purity in the boy, which is what makes it such a charming and moving tale. It really the same theme of “there’s no place like home” conveyed in “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.” Indeed, there are parallels between the two stories.
The literary Voice plays a strong part in the beauty of “The Alchemist,” and is one of the things that sets it apart from Baum’s classic. I’ll go so far to say that the nature of the story almost demands this type of omniscient narrative voice to give it its emotional impact. One mark of an accomplished writer is recognizing what the story needs, not what the writer wants.
Not that I claim to be an “accomplished” writer, but a number of years ago I write a short personal essay called “His Boyhood.” It was subsequently published. It’s a rule that personal essays be written in first person. I wrote it that way initially, but it didn’t feel right to me afterwards. As an experiment, I changed it to third person. It worked, and the publishing editor made note of the fact that sometimes you have to break the rules when the story requires it. But judge for yourself. The essay can be found on my website under “Shorter Works.”
This kind of opening gives me hope for mine, as I would have taken my trusty red pen to this: “The boy’s name was Santiago. Dusk was falling as the boy arrived with his herd …” and used a pronoun instead of the second “boy.” Or even written “Dusk was falling as ten-year-old Santiago arrived…” but maybe the wording is the fault of a translator??
It definitely grabs my attention. I want to know more. The story has a great deal of promise. You have all but current setting in here, but if you bring that in with the next paragraph or two–so the reader knows where the narrator is–you’ll have it nailed. If the rest of the novel matches this, you’ll could have a very good story here. Glad we could help. I’ll ask Scott to comment.
Yes, you are helping a lot. The original opening of my present project, I had already re-written before I found your blog. It is now rewritten again. I don’t think I’ve hit the mark entirely yet, but consider this paragraph:
“Depending on where you start the count, its gestation period was a hundred years or more. But the few people who know count from a cold November night when, without hot sheets and passion, the final necessary merge of elements occurred. Now that the other is on the way to Mars and can’t be recalled, the story can be told.
In fact, Max insists. But that’s another story.
For now, we’ll start from Miko’s designation of the beginning.”