Specificity with Voice

And then he breaks.
Shaking violently, shattering in my arms, a million gasping, choking pieces I’m trying so hard to hold together. And I promise myself then, in that moment, that I will hold him forever, just like this, until all the pain and torture and suffering is gone, until he’s given a chance to live the kind of life where no one can wound him this deeply ever again.
And we are quotation marks, inverted and upside down, clinging to one another at the end of this life sentence. Trapped by lives we did not choose.
It’s time, I think, to break free.
— Tahereh Mafi, Ignite Me

When I think of authors who blow me away with their artistic voice, Mafi is always at the top of my list. I found her through a friend and opened the first book in the Shatter Me series a few days before 2013. I had already written a blog post with my favorite books of the year, and three pages into the novel I shut the cover and placed it on the shelf to crack open in the new year.

I knew it would be a favorite even then, and I didn't have time to edit the blog post waiting in the queue.


Look at the quote above. There are a few things that set Mafi's writing voice apart from others in her genre. First, you have variation of sentence structure. Not every sentence can be easily untangled through diagramming. Often, writers can hit a groove in their writing and before they know it, almost every single sentence has the exact same structure. I fall into this camp with the overuse of the em-dash. When I'm in a hurry, I rely on it too much and my voice suffers from it. Mafi's words reveal intention in everything: even the length of sentences.

She brings us in to this particular scene with the short and violent first sentence: and then he
. It pushes the reader to keep reading. If you're just taking a cursory glance at the amount of commas, the second (and much longer) sentence may seem like a run-on. However, if you're studying her structure, you'll notice the technique of making sure every single phrase can't be separated as its own sentence. She does this often. It's a rhythm that's unique to her writing.

Short sentence.
Long sentence with sweeping description and lots of commas. Shorter sentence with continuation and clarification of description. Short sentence.

Next, within that structure, she relies on higher syntax to build emotion.

The sentence And I promise myself then, in that moment, that I will hold him forever, just like this, until all the pain and torture and suffering is gone, until he's given a chance to live the kind of life where no one can wound him this deeply ever again includes the technique of polysyndeton — where you list multiple words back to back with a conjunction.

....all the pain and torture and suffering

This technique is highly useful in emotional scenes when you're needing to speed up or slow down the pace of the reader. If you look closely, you'll hear the rhythm of that sentence flow faster at the beginning because of the syntax of the previous sentence moving so quickly. When you get to the polysyndeton, something happens with our brains and we slow down — sometimes imperceptibly — but we breathe. We pause. We notice the scene. This is particularly useful in a scene such as this, because I don't know about you, but as I was reading I felt my breath begin to quicken. My heart rate increased. I was rush-rush-rush and then suddenly, a brief pause and I literally took a breath.

And did you notice her use of beginning the sentences with and? This is another technique: anaphora. When you use anaphora, you begin sentences with the same word. Often, you see this back to back. It builds rhythm. It builds consistency. It forces us to notice. Mafi flips the script just a bit with this passage and includes a sentence in the middle of her flow that doesn't begin with and, but in a passage of six sentences, half of them begin with this word. That's worthy of note, and it builds the anticipation of this particular couple and what they're facing.

Finally, her poetics and imagery. Earlier I mentioned that every word is intentional. This reminds me of poetry. The first sentence in this passage is and then he breaks. The last one? It's time, I think, to break free.
Sandwiched in between these two images of breaking — and breaking free, is the shift.

- I promise myself I will hold him forever
- live the kind of life where no one can wound him this deeply again
- we are quotation marks, inverted and upside down
- clinging to one another at the end of this life sentence (did you catch this play on words?) - trapped

It's in this development and clarification that the characters are able to see their next move. And I want to be clear: this isn't Mafi's voice transitioning over a character's. It's her poetic voice shining through syntax and structure and imagery that allows the characters to develop so beautifully. In this particular series, it's the character Juliette — one who's touch used to kill, but is learning the strength and power she possesses. Her characterization from beginning to end is beautiful and empowering.

So it's Mafi's style + structure + syntax + knowledge of development that reveals this voice that only she can accurately produce. Others can try to imitate her, but it won't work because they don't have the memories and stories and creativity that Mafi holds.

It's the same for you.

We all have style. A few years ago, my agent always addresed her emails to me with my poetic one, and while she represented me she spoke of my description and attention to detail as particular strengths. There are other poetic writers out there. Katja Millay. Laini Taylor. Rainbow Rowell. John Steinbeck. Flannery O'Connor.

None of these write (or wrote) like me. All of them had stories within them that only their voice could speak. Style and development and syntax are important for building voice, sure. It's what will set you apart. But what will make your words sing? Writing what you know you're meant to write. Writing the words that just won't leave you alone at night. Writing the story you are meant to tell.

Thoughts to consider: 

1. Do you know how your words work?

2. Do you know what sets you apart from the rest of the crowd?

3. Make a list of your own quirks and style within writing. Celebrate these things. 

Grab My Book! 

This book is for the creative who knows you have a story to tell but you have no idea where to start.
Let me help you: you don't have to wait for the gatekeepers anymore. 

The time for your book is now. There is no excuse. You know this — you feel it in your bones. That's what this book is for — that's why I wrote it. 

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Posted on May 2, 2017 and filed under Indie Publishing, Building Your Craft.