Know the Rules Before You Break Them

by James Scott Bell

We’ve had some robust discussions over the years on this matter of “rules” for writers. That word always seems to raise hackles (hackles, n., the erectile hairs along the back of a dog or other animal that rise when it is angry or alarmed).

There are two standard rejoinders when someone mentions “rules” for writing fiction.

First, somebody will inevitably quote Somerset Maugham’s dictum: “There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.” (There, I did it for you.)

The second reaction is more direct: “There are no rules!” (Always with the exclamation point.)

Now, while I don’t recoil at the word rules, my preferred nomenclature is fundamentals. What makes something a fundamental? It works. Fundamentals keep the writer—especially the novice—from obvious errors that frustrate the basic relationship between writer and reader.

“Your mother was a hamster…”

But slip in the word rules and a chorus will rise, with variations on the theme: “Shackle us no shackles! A pox on your rules! And your mother was a hamster and your father smelt of elderberries!

I believe the root of this objection is really a tacit recognition that rules have exceptions. But you’ve got to know a rule before you understand the alternatives. You’ve got to learn the scales before you start playing jazz. You’ve got to master the two-handed chest pass before you start with the no-look, behind-the-back dish. (“Pistol” Pete Maravich and Earvin “Magic” Johnson practiced the fundamentals for countless hours before they became magicians on the court.)

As Alice K. Turner, for many years the fiction editor at Playboy, put it: “If you’re good enough, like Picasso, you can put noses and breasts wherever you like. But first you have to know where they belong.”

The above was throat clearing. Now on to today’s post!

CATO and Its Exceptions

Let’s discuss the character alone, thinking, opening (CATO).

You want readers to connect to your story from the jump, right? I mean, what’s the alternative?

Long experience tells me that the fastest way readers are pulled into a story is when they see a character in motion responding to a disturbance. This is a fundamental for a simple reason: it works every time.

The CATO, on the other hand, is too often slow and uninvolving. The writer thinks that jumping immediately into the inner sanctum of a character’s mind will create for the reader the same emotional bond the writer has with the character. But that’s because the writer has lived and breathed with that character, and knows how the character acts and reacts. Readers don’t know those things yet. They need to see action before they care about thoughts.

That’s why writers are well advised, as a general rule guideline, to avoid the CATO.

Unless…they know how to bring something more to it.

In a TKZ Words of Wisdom we revisited a post by our own Kris (P. J. Parrish) on the subject of openings. This quote struck me:

But I’m tired of hooks. I’m thinking that the importance of a great opening goes beyond its ability to keep the reader just turning the pages. A great opening is a book’s soul in miniature. Within those first few paragraphs — sometimes buried, sometimes artfully disguised, sometimes signposted — are all the seeds of theme, style and most powerfully, the very voice of the writer herself.

Note two things here. First, Kris knows what a hook is. She knows the “rule.” Second, she gives a solid reason for breaking it and mentions, in my view, the most important element—voice.

Let’s look at an example from a surprising source, one Mickey Spillane, in his classic, One Lonely Night.

Mike Hammer novels usually start off like a blast from a .45, in the middle of hot action. But in his fourth Hammer, Spillane breaks his rule because a) he knows exactly why he’s doing it; and b) he could flat-out write. Here’s the opening graph:

Nobody ever walked across the bridge, not on a night like this. The rain was misty enough to be almost fog-like, a cold gray curtain that separated me from the pale ovals of white that were faces locked behind the steamed-up windows of the cars that hissed by. Even the brilliance that was Manhattan by night was reduced to a few sleepy, yellow lights off in the distance.

The mood, the setting, the word choices, the weather (another broken “rule”). The style is immediate and compelling. For the next four pages we have Mike Hammer walking across the George Washington Bridge, thinking.

But what a think it is! It is packed with emotional turmoil that grips and thrashes nothing less than his immortal soul.

He’s thinking about the complete dressing down he got from a judge earlier that day. Hammer was brought in because he’d killed a man, but in self-defense. That didn’t matter to the judge who knew Hammer’s record as a killer of bad guys. Before he lets Hammer out, the judge makes it clear to Hammer and the courtroom that the PI “had no earthly reason for existing in a decent, normal society.”

He had looked at me with a loathing louder than words, lashing me with his eyes in front of a courtroom filled with people, every empty second another stroke of a steel-tipped whip. His voice, when it did come, was edged with a gentle bitterness that was given only to the righteous.

But it didn’t stay righteous long. It changed into disgusted hatred because I was a licensed investigator.

Now, Spillane being Spillane, he knows he can’t stay inside Hammer for a whole chapter. Of course he gets to the action—and man, what action it is!

A girl is running across the bridge, abject fear in her eyes. Someone is after her. Hammer tells her, “Just take it easy a minute, nobody’s going to hurt you.”

A man emerges from the shadows. He’s got his hands in his coat pockets, but clearly has a gun, his “lips twisted into a smile of mingled satisfaction and conceit.” The guy doesn’t realize Hammer carries a .45.

I blew the expression clean off his face.

The action doesn’t end there. The girl screams “as if I were a monster that had come up out of the pit!”

She jumps on the rail and Hammer tries to grab her, but “she tumbled headlong into the white void below the bridge.”

And Hammer is left there with the dead guy’s body, thinking:

I did it again. I killed somebody else! Now I could stand in the courtroom in front of the man with the white hair and the voice of the Avenging Angel and let him drag my soul out where everybody could see it and slap it with another coat of black paint.

He proceeds to search the dead man.

If his ghost could laugh I’d make it real funny for him. It would be so funny that his ghost would be the laughingstock of hell and when mine got there it’d have something to laugh at too.

Finished with the body:

I grabbed and arm and a leg and heaved him over the rail, and when I heard the faint splash many seconds later my mouth split into a grin.

Wow, talk about action. Talk about Spillane’s famous adage The first chapter sells that book. The last chapter sells the next book.

Spillane ends the chapter by connecting back up with the beginning:

I reached the streets of the city and turned back for another look at the steel forest that climbed into the sky. No, nobody ever walked across the bridge on a night like this.

Hardly nobody.

That’s style. That’s voice. That’s how you break a rule. And you can do the same, if you nurture your own voice…and if you first know where to put noses and breasts.


Note: If you want to know how to find and nurture your unique voice, this will help.

The James Garner Secret

by James Scott Bell

James Garner as Maverick.

When I was a kid my big brother loved the TV Western Maverick. It’s been running on a cable channel and I’ve enjoyed catching up with it. The series introduced the American audience to James Garner as Bret Maverick (who often shared adventures with his brother Bart, played by Jack Kelly).

Garner became an instant star, and it’s not hard to see why. He was masculine without being obnoxious; handsome but not too pretty; charming but not cloying. Most of all he was a natural, relaxed actor (though he put in a lot of hard work to get that way!)

Which all led to a storied career. He created not one, but two, iconic television characters—Maverick and Jim Rockford. He transitioned easily to movies, and was at home in light comedy (The Thrill of it All; Victor/Victoria), action adventure (The Great Escape; Hour of the Gun), romance (Murphy’s Romance), and showed considerable dramatic chops in the experimental Mister Buddwing.

By all accounts, he was as decent a fellow as there was in Hollywood. Married to the same woman for 57 years. Not a party animal or public boor. A true professional who showed up on time and knew his lines.

In the 1970s he did several commercials. I was starting my stint as an actor in Hollywood then, and in a commercial acting class the teacher held up Garner as the quintessential pitchman. “You just believe him,” she said. “It’s all about trust.”

So we students all had to pick an ad out of a magazine and memorize the copy, then spout it as naturally as we could. I still remember my product: The Pentax ME camera.

The exercise paid off. I nabbed several commercials, which helped pay my bills and later gave me nice residuals all through law school. (Remember the guy at that picnic who pours everyone some Pepsi? Yep, that was me. And I’m sure you recall the handsome lad sliding a tray of hamburgers in a McDonald’s serving window. Me again!)

Which brings me to today’s clever writing segue. James Garner’s “secret”—which applies to writers as well as actors—was that he was always himself within the role. He knew his parameters, and that was his zone. That’s also what my favorite actor, Spencer Tracy, said about his acting style. He would see himself as Spencer Tracy as a priest, or Spencer Tracy as a bride’s father…or a fisherman or Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

Which is why, when we write, we must put ourselves into our fiction by seeing ourselves as the characters.

How does your Lead character feel at each stage of the proceedings? The answer is the way you would feel if you were that character.

That goes for any of the cast, including the bad guy. Why does he do these things? That’s backstory. What’s going on inside him? It’s what would go on inside of you if you lived that same past.

When you tap into these things, you get a James Garner effect—readers will trust your story. (It is also, by the way, how you get at that elusive thing agents and editors call voice.)

In an interview Garner once said, “When people see me in something and say, ‘That’s just you, that’s not acting,’ it’s the best compliment I can get.”

He also said, “I’ve had to work hard at that easy-going manner you see on the screen.”

Working hard to get natural. Good advice for writers, too.

What’s your favorite James Garner role? Mine has to be The Great Escape, especially the moment where Garner insists on taking the blind forger (Donald Pleasance) with him. The outcome of this plot line gets me every time.

Finding Your Voice part II

by Joe Moore

On Monday, Clare posted a great blog on Finding Your Voice. She pointed out that it’s critical for a writer to have a distinctive voice that fits the genre and helps pull the reader into the story. Along with her post, Clare got a number of excellent comments. Check them out when you get through with my post.

Today I want to add some additional thoughts on developing writer’s voice by comparing it to performing music.

If I asked a musician to play a melody on a trumpet, then asked another to play the same melody on a cello, chances are you could tell the difference between the two even though they played the same notes. Not only doesmusic one instrument sound different from the other, but individually, they can convey a variety of emotions based upon the style and technique of the musicians. Both can play the same melody, and when combined with the timbre of the instruments and their respective artists’ style, they can also invoke feelings and emotion.

In a similar manner, when it comes to defining the writer’s voice, it can be the combination of the author’s attitude, personality and character; the writer’s style that conveys the story. It’s called the writer’s voice. Voice is the persona of the story as interpreted by the reader.

So how do you find your writer’s voice and keep it going throughout your manuscript? Here are some tips.

First, start by writing to connect with your readers, not to impress them. Your voice is the direct connection into your reader’s head. Some might argue that the words are the connection. But I believe that the words are like the notes on the sheet music that a musician reads as he or she plays that trumpet or cello. Those notes printed on the musical staff have no value until they are “voiced” by the musician.

Likewise, those written words on the printed page of a book have no value until they are interpreted by the reader. With the musical example, the styles and techniques of the musicians are the connection to the listener. With the novel, the writer’s voice is the connection into the reader’s imagination. The pictures formed in the mind of the reader are strongest when the writer’s voice is solid, unique and original.

The best way to develop your writer’s voice is to simply let the words flow without restrictions—let them speak from your heart. Feel the emotions that your character or (first-person) narrator feels.

Equally important, avoid comparing yourself to other writers. Doing so can be restrictive or downright destructive to your voice. You are who you are, not someone else. Write from your heart while not trying to copy your favorite author. The writer’s voice you need to create is yours alone. There’s nothing wrong with being inspired by other writers, but convert that inspiration into your own style, your own voice.

It’s also dangerous to compare yourself to other writers or become jealous of their style or accomplishments. Doing so always leads to frustration and a product that is not totally yours. If you’ve tried to inject someone else’s voice into your words, the lack of honesty will always come through to the reader.

Finally, as you work on your manuscript, try to visualize a specific reader and write directly to that person. Remember that you’re trying to communicate, to make a single connection with a single reader.

Just like a musician playing the notes on the sheet music, finding your writer’s voice is the process of communicating with your reader the emotions and feelings you feel through your characters. You can’t learn voice, but through writing, more writing and even more writing, you can develop a distinctive, unique writer’s voice.

Key Ways to Layer Depth Into Your Scenes

Jordan Dane

I’d been writing for awhile before I heard the term “layering.” It was a writer craft thing I was doing instinctively in my rolling edits, but I’d never heard it called something specific until I attended a writer’s craft workshop and saw examples.
Most scenes are written in a bare bones fashion, like erecting the framework of a house before the walls are finished. The general structure creates a flow of what is happening in the scene, but usually the depth is lacking in things like character development, setting, body language, action, and reaction. Since I had limited time at my former day job to think about my writing, I would break away for lunch on some days and focus solely on dialogue like a script. I wanted the voices of the characters and what they said to be strong and not be trite or too conversational. For scenes where there is conversation between characters, I found it easier to use the dialogue as my framework to hold the flow together.
The right amount of layering can enhance your voice, but there needs to be a balance. Every writer should come up with their own method for what works for them. Below are the highpoints to layering, from my experience. I’ve also included an example from my WIP, The Last Victim, with the layers added in highlights.
Key Ways to Layer Depth:

1.) Dialogue – Avoid chit chat lines. Even if you hear voices in your head (something you should talk to a doctor about), the lines should move the plot forward and mean more than talk about the weather.

2.) Setting & Senses – Dribble in a touch of setting to color the scene. (The scene below is sparse due to space for this post, but I’m a believer in an atmospheric setting. The mood was set in this scene earlier.) Be sure to utilize the senses of your characters to put the reader into the scene, triggering their senses.

3.) Body Language & Action – Frame the scene with key body movements and action to have the characters doing something. The scene below is tight for space purposes, but I am a fan of characters saying one thing, but their body language shows something else, like chess players not wanting to give away their next move. And with action, there is no time for too much internal monologue if bullets are flying. Stick with the action and explain later, in that case.

4.) Backstory – Backstory can be filtered into the book. A frequent mistake is the devilish “backstory dump” where the author expounds on details the reader doesn’t need to know all at once. Backstory dumps slow the pace. It’s best to sprinkle the backstory in throughout the story, sparingly. Give the essence, and even unravel it as a mystery, to enhance the telling of it when it’s necessary. Never underestimate the power of a good mystery.

5.) Introspection/Voice of Character – This is the fun part. Try to give your character an attitude about what he or she sees. That attitude will serve to reflect who they are, as well as the other people in the scene. Don’t waste a room description and make it seem like an inventory. Color the description by allowing the character to express what they think and make it fun or memorable.
Partial Scene – The Last Victim (WIP):
Below is basic dialogue lines to start a conversation between my FBI profiler and an Alaska State Trooper sent to help him:

“Alaska State Trooper, Sergeant Peterson. Justine. Are you Special Agent Townsend?”

“Senior Special Agent, yes. Ryker. Thanks for meeting me. I’m here to search the residence of Nathan Applewhite. Deceased. We positively identified his body yesterday outside Seattle in the Cascade Mountains. He’s a victim of a serial killer my team’s been after.”

“It’s been on the news. Everyone on the island is talking about it. Word even got out about you coming here,” she said. “I was the one who notified his ex-wife. Too bad you didn’t stop whoever did it before he got to Nate.”

“The body count is fourteen. That’s why I’m here. This killer has to be stopped. Applewhite had a post office box for his mail, but I’m assuming he lives near here. How far is his place?”
Layers added for Setting/Body Language/Backstory:

When a vehicle rumbled to a stop behind me, I glanced over my shoulder to see a white Ford Explorer with the Alaska State Trooper blue and gold logo on the door. The words ‘Loyalty, Integrity, Courage’ were painted on the rear panel. I locked eyes with the trooper and nudged my chin in greeting before I grabbed my bag. By the time I got to the truck, the driver had boots on the ground, showing me an ID badge.

“Alaska State Trooper, Sergeant Peterson. Justine.” She grasped my hand. “Are you Special Agent Townsend?”

“Senior Special Agent, yes. Ryker. Thanks for meeting me.” I fished out my credentials and showed her.

Even off-duty and out of full uniform, Trooper Justine Peterson was clearly law enforcement. She carried a holstered weapon on her duty belt and had on jeans, well-worn hiking boots, and a navy polo with the Trooper’s emblem on it. Her windbreaker and cap bore the official logo, too. Clothes and weapon aside, the tall blonde had a no nonsense attitude and a slender body, lean with muscle. She had a penetrating stare that had sized me up.

“I’m here to search the residence of Nathan Applewhite. Deceased. We positively identified his body yesterday outside Seattle in the Cascade Mountains. He’s a victim of a serial killer my team’s been after.”

“It’s been on the news. Everyone on the island is talking about it. Word even got out about you coming here,” she said. “I was the one who notified his ex-wife. Too bad you didn’t stop whoever did it before he got to Nate.”

Justine had to know Applewhite. She’d called him Nate.

“The body count is fourteen. That’s why I’m here. This killer has to be stopped. Applewhite had a post office box for his mail, but I’m assuming he lives near here. How far is his place?”

Layers Added for Character Voice/Introspection:

When a vehicle rumbled to a stop behind me, I glanced over my shoulder to see a white Ford Explorer with the Alaska State Trooper blue and gold logo on the door. The words ‘Loyalty, Integrity, Courage’ were painted on the rear panel. I locked eyes with the trooper and nudged my chin in greeting before I grabbed my bag. By the time I got to the truck, the driver had boots on the ground, showing me an ID badge.

“Alaska State Trooper, Sergeant Peterson. Justine.” She grasped my hand. “Are you Special Agent Townsend?”

“Senior Special Agent, yes. Ryker. Thanks for meeting me.” I fished out my credentials and showed her.

Even off-duty and out of full uniform, Trooper Justine Peterson was clearly law enforcement. She carried a holstered weapon on her duty belt and had on jeans, well-worn hiking boots, and a navy polo with the Trooper’s emblem on it. Her windbreaker and cap bore the official logo, too. Clothes and weapon aside, the tall blonde had a no nonsense attitude and a slender body, lean with muscle. She had a penetrating stare that had sized me up.

If I were a fish in Alaskan waters, she might’ve tossed me back.

“I’m here to search the residence of Nathan Applewhite. Deceased. We positively identified his body yesterday outside Seattle in the Cascade Mountains. He’s a victim of a serial killer my team’s been after.”

The trooper’s expression turned harsh and unyielding.

“It’s been on the news. Everyone on the island is talking about it. Word even got out about you coming here,” she said. “I was the one who notified his ex-wife. Too bad you didn’t stop whoever did it before he got to Nate.”

The woman glared at me, without backing down. Although I hadn’t expected a show of hostility from someone in law enforcement, I didn’t take it personally. Hearing about a murder made it easy for those who knew the victim to lash out in frustration.

Justine had to know Applewhite. She’d called him Nate.

“The body count is fourteen. That’s why I’m here. This killer has to be stopped.” Since I needed her cooperation, I let her show of attitude slide. “Applewhite had a post office box for his mail, but I’m assuming he lives near here. How far is his place?”

The woman let her eyes drift down my body and back to my eyes again. It had been a long time since a woman made me feel like a porterhouse steak.
Since we have so many wonderful writer followers at TKZ, I would love to hear examples from your WIP for my favorite layer: Voice. Show me some attitude, TKZers.

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?

Developing a Strong Third-Person Voice

Today I welcome back to TKZ my friend and editor, Jodie Renner, to share her tips on strengthening your main character’s voice, especially when writing in third person POV. Enjoy!
Jodie_June 26, '14_7371_low res_centredby Jodie Renner, editor & author

Thanks, Joe. There’ve been some great articles here on The Kill Zone and elsewhere about “voice” in fiction and how to develop an authentic, compelling voice that readers will love. To me, the key is in recognizing that voice in fiction is – or should be – inseparable from the words, thoughts, attitudes, and reactions of your main character.

For example, some strong, unique voices that sweep us immediately into the character’s world and the fictive dream, are Huck’s in Huckleberry Finn, Holden Caulfield’s in Catcher in the Rye, Stephanie Plum’s in Janet Evanovich’s series, Scout’s in To Kill a Mockingbird, and Katniss’s in The Hunger Games.

These novels are all written in the first person, so of course it’s a lot easier for the author to immerse us in the character’s attitudes and world-view – especially with such great characters! But I think we can create and maintain an equally strong, appealing voice in third-person, too, if we take a tip from first-person POV and keep all of the narration for each scene firmly in the viewpoint of the main character for that scene – and have at least 70% of the novel in the protagonist’s point of view.

To begin with, of course, your main character needs to be charismatic enough to carry the whole novel, so it’s critical to take the time to first create a protagonist who’s engaging and multi-dimensional, with lots of personality and openness, fairly strong views, and some baggage and inner conflict. Then show his world through his eyes and ears, not the author’s.

Stay in character for the narration of each scene too, not just the dialogue and any inner thoughts and reactions. It’s your character who’s moving through that world, reacting to what’s around him. Don’t describe the surroundings and what’s going on from a distant, authorial point of view – show the character’s world directly through her observations, colored by her personality and mood.

Look through your WIP novel. Does the narration (description and exposition) read like the main character for that scene could be thinking or saying it, or is it someone else’s (the author’s) words and phrasing? Are the descriptions of the surroundings neutral? Or are they colored and enriched by the character’s feelings, goal, mood, and attitude at that moment?

Beware of stepping in as the author to blandly and dispassionately explain things to the readers, as if it’s nonfiction. Besides being a less engaging read, that approach yanks us out of the character’s mindset and world – and out of the fictive dream.

Read through your fiction manuscript. Are there places where you can bring the scene to life more by writing the narration in the language of the POV character?

Here’s one of many examples I could give from my editing of fiction, with details, setting, and circumstances altered for anonymity:

Setup: This is a flashback, a ten-year-old’s frightened observations as, hidden behind a tree, she watches some bad guys in the woods.


The heavyset man pulled out a knife and strode toward the older, slimmer one. The thin guy looked stunned, like he didn’t expect that. In one swift movement, the big guy plunged the dagger into the older man’s carotid artery. Bright red blood gushed out like a river.

Jodie’s comments: We’re in the point of view of a ten-year-old who is observing this and telling us what she sees. I doubt she’d know the term “carotid artery,” much less exactly where it is. Also, she probably wouldn’t say “heavyset man,” “dagger,” or “in one swift movement.” And probably not “strode,” either.


The big man pulled out a knife and charged toward the older, slimmer one. The thin guy looked at him, his eyes wide. Before he could do anything, the big guy raised the knife and plunged it into his neck. Bright red blood gushed out like a river.

To me, this sounds more like a ten-year-old telling us this now.

Tips for keeping narration and description in the POV character’s voice:

Here are a few little techniques for livening up information-sharing and imparting it with attitude, from the viewpoint of the POV character involved.

~ Use stream-of-consciousness journaling.

To bring out the character’s personality in the parts where he’s thinking or planning or worrying or ruminating, not just when he/she is interacting with others, do some stream-of-consciousness journaling by him/her. Have him ranting in a personal diary about the people around him, what’s going on, etc. Also show his deepest fears here. Then use this stuff to show his personality more in the scenes.

~ Write the scene in first-person first, then switch it back.

Write a whole scene, or even a chapter or two in first-person narration/POV to get the rhythm and flow of that person’s language patterns and attitudes, then switch it to third-person.

~ Stay in character.

Stay in the POV of your character throughout the whole scene. How is he/she feeling at that moment? Let the narration reflect their present mood, level of tension, and sensory feelings.

So to bring the scene and characters to life, deliver those details through the POV of the main character for that scene, in their voice, with lots of attitude!

Fiction writers and readers – what are your thoughts on this?

Copyright © Jodie Renner, July 2013

Related articles by Jodie Renner:

Show Your Setting through Your POV Character:

Info with Attitude – Strategies for Turning Impersonal Info Dumps into Compelling Copy

Voice – That Elusive but Critical Ingredient of Compelling Fiction:

Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor and the award-winning author of three craft-of-writing guides in her series An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: Captivate Your Readers, Fire up Your Fiction, and Writing a Killer Thriller. She has also published two clickable time-saving e-resources to date: Quick Clicks: Spelling List and Quick Clicks: Word Usage. You can find Jodie at,, at her blog, and on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.


Finding Your Writer’s Voice

by James Scott Bell



You hear it every time there’s a panel of agents and/or editors, when they are asked what they’re looking for in a manuscript. Someone always says, “A fresh voice.”

But no one knows how to define it. Over the years I’ve heard some attempts at explanation, and I’ve jotted them down. Here they are:

• A combination of character, setting, page turning.

• A distinctive style, like a Sergio Leone film.

• It’s who you are.

• Personality on the page.

• It’s something written from your deepest truth.

• Your expression as an artist.

Well, okay. I guess. But how do we develop voice? Indeed, is it something that can be developed? Or is it something you’re born with?
What if you write in different genres? Is your voice in a noir thriller going to be the same as your voice in a romance?
Should writers even worry about voice? I counsel my students to be true to the story they’re telling, true to the characters, and not to worry about this elusive thing everyone says they want. If the tale is well told, that’s the main thing.
But I do think there is something to be said for trying to coax out a little more voice, even though you can never quite nail it down to pure technique.
So what is it that does the coaxing? In a word, joy.
“In the great story-tellers, there is a sort of self-enjoyment in the exercise of the sense of narrative; and this, by sheer contagion, communicates enjoyment to the reader. Perhaps it may be called (by analogy with the familiar phrase, “the joy of living”) the joy of telling tales. The joy of telling tales which shines through Treasure Island is perhaps the main reason for the continued popularity of the story. The author is having such a good time in telling his tale that he gives us necessarily a good time in reading it.” – Clayton Meeker Hamilton,A Manual of the Art of Fiction (1919)
I think Professor Hamilton nailed it. When an author is joyous in his telling, it pulses through the words. When you read a Ray Bradbury, for instance, you sense his joy. He was in love with words and his own imagination, and it showed.
I recall a Writer’s Digest fiction column by Lawrence Block, back in the 80’s, and he was telling about being at a book signing with some other authors, one of whom was a guy named Stephen King. And Stephen King’s line was longer by far than for any of the other guys.
Which got Larry to thinking, what was it about King’s stuff? And he decided that it was this joy aspect. When you read Stephen King, you feel like you’re reading an author who loves writing, loves making up tales to creep us out, enjoys the very act of setting words down on paper.
Because when you’re joyful in the writing, the writing is fresher and fuller. Fuller of what? Of you. And that translates to the page and becomes that thing called Voice.
So the question is, how can you get more joy into your writing?
Here are some thoughts:
1. Be excited about your story. If you’re not jazzed about what you’re writing, you can’t be joyful about writing it. Dwight Swain, the great writing teacher, once said that the secret of excitement is to go deeper into your characters. Create more backstory, more secrets, more complexity, and you’ll get excited again.
2. Write at your peak “freshness” time. Find out when you’re most creative and awake and alive. Write for all you’re worth during that time.
3. Take a break when it’s drudgery, and do something else for awhile. I find that if I read a passage by one of my favorite writers, I soon enough get excited about writing and want to go back to my project.
4. Try a dose of Dr. Wicked. This neat little program can be accessed online, or downloaded to your desktop for ten bucks. Basically, it makes you write fast, because if you don’t it will soon emit a terrible sound that will sandpaper your brain. Writing fast, without thinking too much, is fun, and many times you’ll tickle out some of your best stuff that way.
5. Picture the reward. Now and then you need to daydream about your finished book and all the happy readers who are going to enjoy it––and who will put you on their favorite authors list.
For more on voice, please see my book on the subject.
So what about you? Do you find joy in your writing? If not, what are you going to do about it?


Who is your reader?

By Joe Moore

readerEvery writer has to ask this question. The more you can define your reader, the stronger your voice will be in speaking to him or her. Is your reader your neighbor or your co-worker? Is she the checkout lady at the super market or the bank teller at the drive-thru? What about a fellow writer friend? Is he your reader? It’s only natural to look at all these people and everyone else in your life as your reader. But you may be wrong to do so.

I believe that the chances of any of these people being your reader or target audience are slim to none. Yes, each one of them may share some of your interests, hobbies, tastes, lifestyle and background. But there are no perfect matches to you. Well, at least with the exception of one. And that is the answer to the question. Your reader is you. You are the reader to whom you should be writing. For in doing so, your natural voice will emerge.

Your voice is the storyteller that speaks within the imagination of your reader—the projectionist creating the mental movie. It is the direct link you use to communicate the story from the page into the mind of your reader.

If you consider yourself the primary reader of your story, you will naturally avoid over-writing, clutter, over-explaining, unnecessary backstory, clumsy dialog and excessive tags. Telling yourself the story doesn’t involve bloated exposition. Telling yourself the story will make for crisper, cleaner, easier-to-understand prose.

It’s such a simple technique, most writers overlook it. When you write for yourself, you don’t have to have much explained to you. Remember that your reader (you) knows what you know at any given point in the story. So rather than talking at the reader, you’re talking to him as you would yourself. It becomes personal, close, intimate, clean, sharp-edged.

You can’t be everything to everyone—there’s too much difference between you and the teller at the bank or the checkout lady. But if you consider yourself as your primary audience, your true voice will come through loud and clear, and all those other people will then become your readers.


Suspense Magazine called THE BLADE "One incredible suspense thriller." See for yourself at

Finding your voice as a writer

Sometimes it’s hard to find the right voice for a story.

During the two years it took me to write the first book in my series, I struggled mightily to find the narrator’s voice.  My first writing efforts were dry and objective–the chapters sounded like they’d been written by a former journalist (which I was). In despair I hit the bookstores, looking for inspiration. Ultimately I came across a new (to me) genre called “chick lit”. As I read the first few pages of a random book, I grew excited.

“I can write like that,” I thought.

After going back to my manuscript, I injected it with the snappy, snarky rhythm of the chick-lit style, including (hopefully) lots of humor.  And voila! Dying to be Thin was born.

My new WIP is a thriller–and once again, it was a struggle to find the right voice. This time I  read Michael Crichton, Dean Koontz, and Lincoln Child, among others, for inspiration. I studied the way they pull off their narrators’ voices, trying to find techniques that would work for me. I visualized how how their various styles would work with the particular story I’m  writing.

In the end it was no one particular author, but an amalgam of techniques, that worked. 

Joe had some good technical tips about creating voice in his post, “Look who’s talking,” and Jim has more suggestions in his post, “How can I learn to write like…“.

How about you? Do you struggle to find a voice in your stories? What are some of the techniques that you use?