Keys Ways to Add Layers to Your Writer’s Voice

Jordan Dane

Joe Moore’s guest blogger yesterday, editor and author Jodie Renner, had a great post on Developing a Strong Third Person Voice that stirred other ideas for me to dove tail off. I thought of experiencing a scene through the senses of my POV narrator and giving that character an opinion of his surroundings to add setting description color as well as insight into the narrator to reflect on him or her. By making each word choice serve more than one purpose (to add color as well as insight into the character) an keep the pace moving without bogging down the narrative.

James Patterson talked about this at a Romance Writers of America conference in Reno in 2004 to a packed house of writers that filled two ballrooms. He said on his computer, he has words that inspire him to remember the basics. BE THERE were the words he posted to remind him to put the reader into the scene by using their senses to trigger images from the words on the page.

When writing any scene, get the words down, but then go back and layer in other elements to enhance the voice of your narrator and make the reading experience more vivid for the reader. Ask yourself what your character would be seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling, and how something would feel when they touch it. Adding these elements can bring depth to the scene and draw the reader into the world you are creating, by triggering the “familiar” with them.

Below is an excerpt from Robert Crais’s The Sentry, one of my favorite authors. This comes from the very start of the book.

The Sentry – by Robert Crais
Monday, 4:28 AM, the narrow French Quarter room was smoky with cheap candles that smelled of honey. Daniel stared through broken shutters and shivering glass up the length of the alley, catching a thin slice of Jackson Square through curtains of gale-force rain that swirled through New Orleans like mad bats riding the storm. Daniel had never seen rain fall up before.
     Daniel loved these damned hurricanes. He folded back the shutters, then opened the window. Rain hit him good. It tasted of salt and smelled of dead fish and weeds. The cat-five wind clawed through New Orleans at better than a hundred miles an hour, but back here in the alley—in a cheap one-room apartment over a po’boy shop—the wind was no stronger than an arrogant breeze.
     The power in this part of the Quarter had gone out almost an hour ago; hence, the candles Daniel found in the manager’s office. Emergency lighting fed by battery packs lit a few nearby buildings, giving a creepy blue glow to the shimmering walls. Most everyone in the surrounding buildings had gone. Not everyone, but most. The stubborn, the helpless, and the stupid had stayed.
     Like Daniel’s friend, Tolley.
     Tolley had stayed.

This very visual and sensory description from Crais’s excerpt incorporates elements of the senses, as well as metaphors and analogies to describe an opening scene. Using adjectives like “arrogant” to describe a breeze is unexpected yet effective to say that the hurricane winds had been tamed. You can taste and smell the rain. It “tastes of salt and smells of dead fish and weeds” which adds to the raw feeling near the gulf. The narrow French Quarter room was “smoky with cheap candles that smelled of honey.” “Broken shutters” give you more than a visual when you can feel the chill of the hurricane through the “shivering glass.” The notion of “mad bats riding the storm” give the bluster a sinister feel too.

Having given these examples, it’s important not to overwrite the setting/scene. In this excerpt, there is a laser focus on setting the mood and the word descriptors are deliberate choices, like using dead fish and weeds to describe the rain in the French Quarter. It adds to the ambience without being overdone or by being unrelated to the location or mood. Recently I read a book where the metaphors and similes stood out because they were not only unrelated to the other examples on the first few pages, but these comparisons did nothing to enhance the mood or give insight into the character or setting. It made the author appear like a student trying to impress the teacher, with not much thought going into the word choices and how they pertained to the story.

We are Visual Learners
Many people are visual learners, so using the senses (and/or metaphors and analogies) can bring in the visual using something familiar. These ideas can quickly suggest a setting without slowing the pace with too much word description. They give a quick snapshot of the scene in a way to trigger the reader’s mind and delve into their own experiences to make things more vivid. These images can also trigger emotions, such as comfort or fear, at the same time. Adding these elements can not only bring color and distinction to the voice, but they can also layer in elements of emotion and visual triggers to enhance the voice. So let’s talk about metaphors and analogies.

A metaphor is an implied comparison that brings two dissimilar things together and implies that the two things are alike or comparable. Metaphors can be used to describe a complicated concept or setting, to make it more easily understood or relatable. They can enhance the imagery by adding a familiar feeling, such as the lightness of taking flight when you describe being in love, or describing death as a candle that is snuffed out.


  • Ideas can mushroom
  • Love has wings
  • A brave man has the heart of a lion

Just like a metaphor, an analogy makes a link between two dissimilar things, but implies there is a difference between the two things, while a metaphor treats them as the same.


  • A fish is to water, what a bird is to air
  • A CEO is to a company, what a General is to an Army
  • A mother giving birth to a child, is what an author would be to the creation of a novel

I wanted to include other excerpts that use a visual imagery well in terms of metaphors and similes. One of my favorite books is The Book Thief. If you’re a regular at TKZ, you’ve heard me talk about this book before. I hope you enjoy these:

The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak
“She was the book thief without the words. Trust me, though, the words were on their way, and when they arrived, Liesel would hold them in her hands like the clouds, and she would wring them out like rain.” The Book Thief by Markus Zusak 
“Upon her arrival, you could still see the bite marks of snow on her hands and the frosty blood on her fingers. Everything about her was undernourished. Wire-like shins. Coat hanger arms. She did not produce it easily, but when it came, she had a starving smile.” The Book Thief by Markus Zusak 

Anne Bronte – The Tenant of Wildfell Hall
“His heart was like a sensitive plant, that opens for a moment in the sunshine, but curls up and shrinks into itself at the slightest touch of the finger, or the lightest breath of wind.” The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte

If you are a reader – what are some of your favorite and memorable lines from books you’ve read that enhanced the mood, setting, or characters? If you are a writer – do you have any tricks to share on adding layers of a unique voice to your work?

29 thoughts on “Keys Ways to Add Layers to Your Writer’s Voice

  1. I apologize in advance but I must hijack this thread and abuse it for my own nefarious devices. I have trouble with metaphors and analogies.

    Is this line, taken from my WIP, either one of those or something else all together?

    “I ran to my car and headed over to the Gullevins, guns a-blazing. Except no one was home to shoot, to continue with the metaphor.”

    And I must start writing down bits from books that resonate with me. I don’t have any handy to share.

    Now I’m questioning the word resonate. Did I use it in the proper context? I have these days, where I question everything I write.

    • Resonate is used perfectly, Amanda. On the WIP example, I might need more context. I’m not sure if I see a metaphor unless you aren’t literally shooting a weapon. TKZ tends to focus on crime fiction, so blazing guns is typically literal, but in this case you might be referring to being angry and looking for a fight. Using the word “metaphor” pulled me out of the writing to remind me of grammar and a reference an author would use. You’d be better off deleting that part. Guns a blazing seems cliche-ish. You might think of an analogy of comparing your angry words to bullets from a gun. Do they target someone you have in your sights? Are they coming out rapid fire, blasting everyone in sight? Are they caustic enough to pierce metal? This is an exaggeration, and more dark humor I’m assuming, but if you want to avoid a cliche reference, yet use the gun thing, you might ask yourself how a gun is similar to raging anger. The visual of it.

      The main thing is to get the words down first before you tackle added color. Don’t force it. You can add voice by “hearing” your character in your head and writing their voice fast, without editing yourself. You can always delete later. I call this “free association.”

    • I want to cry, that was so helpful. But I don’t have time, more rewrites are necessary. Page by flippin’ page of rewrites.


      Thank you.

  2. Thanks for an excellent post, Jordan – and for linking to my closely related article yesterday!

    I love Robert Crais and I’ve read The Sentry, which opens with the excellent passage you quoted. The other thing about these impressions of immediately after Katrina in New Orleans is that if we reread it carefully, we’ll see lots of insights into the POV character for that scene, who is the villain, not the protagonist. His observations and attitudes come oozing out, just in the choice of words and the way of speaking and thinking, like “Daniel loved these damn hurricanes.” He loves destruction. And descriptions like “dead fish” and “arrogant breeze” and “clawed through New Orleans” and “stupid” kind of portend a bit of what is to come, I think. Just a few lines past that it gets really creepy: “All this noise and all this emptiness, no one to hear Tolley scream.”

    Thanks for an interesting and insightful blog post, Jordan!

    • Absolutely, Jodie. Deliberate word choices are important on many levels. I even like choosing words that add sound and feeling, like the word “slither” or “ooze.” Thanks for commenting. You always add so much to the conversation.

  3. She sat up slowly, looked in turn at each of us, and her dark eyes were like twin entrances to two deep caves. Nothing lived in those caves. Maybe something had, once upon a time. There were piles of picked bones back in there, some scribbling on the walls, and some gray ash where the fires had been.

    – John D. MacDonald, Darker Than Amber

  4. I have a totally unrelated question. I love the Crais excerpt and I believe excerpts of this type teach better than any amount of explanation–especially when they are paired with the explanation.

    But what is the legality of using them? Do you need to get permission for such a short snippet or does it fall under the fair use doctrine?

    • His excerpt was online at his site. It is clearly his copyright and he is credited here. I do similar excerpts on my website to give readers a peek. Similar to the “look inside the book” feature on retail sites.

  5. Thanks for the Crais excerpt. I’ve been in hurricanes and he nailed it — what the storms feel, taste and smell like.
    I’m writing my May 2014 Dead-End Job mystery now and I have to keep reminding myself — can the readers feel, hear, smell, taste and touch this chapter. They need all five senses.

    • Good comment, Elaine. I think it’s important to get the words down first, then layer in more complex descriptions if it fits the character and the author’s voice. If it doesn’t feel natural to the character, then it might not be a good fit. Use sparingly.

  6. Good post. Metaphors et al are so often misused or rather overused. If I had one piece of advice on using them it would be from Coco Chanel:

    “Before you leave the house, look in the mirror and remove one accessory”.

    Less is always more.

  7. I loved The Book Thief when it came, truly lyrical writing. While I enjoy writing thrillers, historical fiction is my favourite reading material by far and Markus Zusak is among the best. Other’s I’ve wnjoyed who write with such lovely descriptives are Frank Delaney and Nadeem Aslam.

    Across the genre sea I sit on my island chiseling out worlds of words that aspire to accurately render a living image in the reader’s mind-eyes. And by drawing them in to the fullness of the scene, be it lush landscapes or stark wilderness, position them perfectly for the surprise gut punch that makes the thriller a killer.

    • Abdolutely, Basil. Thanks for the author recommendations. I’ll check them out. I am reading LOOKING FOR ALASKA by John Green and LOVING it. He has an amazing voice and his character’s observations of a woman’s body, expressed in connecting curves, travels the female body in a sensual way that is lyrical and unique. I can see what all the hoopla is about when people rave about Green’s writing.

    • Ah, I see. For a moment there you had me wonderin’ like a loaf of bread swimming upstream in the captain’s barrel of milk an hour before squeezin’ the cow’s teat.

      But now it’s clear as gramomma’s moonshine sittin’ in the window next to an apple pie the horse daren’t eat fear’n floxious masses driftin’ it’s main.

      …as my kin are wont to say…

  8. Jordan–
    I have nothing to add to your clear and useful post. I lied: I have two points. First, it’s tempting to overdo the visual and auditory senses, at the expense of touch, taste, smell. I try to remember that smell is supposed to be the most primitive and basic of all the senses, so I make a point of “being there” in terms of scent.
    The quote you use from Robert Crais illustrates this very well–the taste of salt, the smell of fish and weeds carried by the hurricane. This is not boilerplate, this is fresh and imaginative.
    But I would add a small criticism about the quote from Crais: for me, the length of the second sentence in the first paragraph reduces the effectiveness of detail. I imagine Crais wants to convey the ongoing, in-motion quality of the storm. But in forcing the reader to hang on for so long as perceptions are added, I think Crais loses something. But that’s a small quibble for what is otherwise “professional grade” prose. Thanks again for this excellent post.

    • Hey there BWK. Always good to hear from you. I agree on the length of that line. Not all of Crais’s intros are like this, but I liked it as an example. Have a good evening and thanks for partaking.

  9. Well, I’ll throw this one to TKZ. Deal or No Deal?


    I checked my parking options and didn’t like them. No secured garages. No gated lots. Plenty of vacant buildings. At this end, after Willow had turned into Park Street, the buildings were less grand and there was a lot less traffic.

    However, a big church, a block or so down, was having some kind of do and their parking lot was bustling. I felt nicely inconspicuous in the crowd of minivans as I locked the car. I breathed deep and immediately regretted it. It had been a while since I’d been to Beaumont, but one thing hadn’t changed. When the wind came from the chemical plants to the south, the city smelled like a tuna sandwich left in the car trunk over Fourth of July weekend.



  10. I try to create metaphors and similes related to the character. For my hairdresser sleuth, that would be something like “as tight as a newly permed curl.”

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