Sue Harrison’s “Writing the Third Dimension” – part 9: Sing out!

Welcome! Over the next many months we invite you to return here, specifically on the fourth Thursday of each month for the newest installment of Sue Harrison‘s teaching: Writing The Third Dimension. You can read all the segments by clicking on the page title WRITING THE THIRD DIMENSION, found under Writers’ Helps & Workshops on the drop-down menu. Please feel free to ask questions and leave comments for Sue. Now for the topic for month nine:


“Writing the Third Dimension” – part 9: Sing Out!

Few things convey a writer’s skill more dramatically than Voice.  For something that is so important, Voice is difficult to define, but let me give it a try.  (You knew I would, right?) Voice is the “person” you hear talking in your head as you read a book.  I know that sounds rather strange, but that’s what Voice is to me – the narrator/storyteller/magic genie/ Pooh Bear/ crocodile who speaks to me from the pages. (Crocodile? Sorry. This was the best photo of a mouth that I could find…)


When a reader begins reading your novel, or agents or editors are taking that first look at your unpublished manuscript, a strong Voice will keep them reading past the first paragraph.

Here are a few quotes from authors who are gifted with strong Voices:

1.  “When Mary Lennox was sent to Misselthwaite Manor to live with her uncle everybody said she was the most disagreeable-looking child ever seen.” Frances Hodgson Burnett, The Secret Garden. (A tongue-in-cheek sentence that foreshadows both the serious and the humorous sides of this classic children’s book. The lack of a comma after the word uncle carries a subtle message that this book and its characters don’t always obey the rules.)

2.   “Awake! For Morning in the Bowl of Night Has flung the Stone that puts the Stars to Flight: And Lo! the Hunter of the East has caught The Sultan’s Turret in a Noose of Light.” The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, translated by Edward Fitzgerald. (The meter and rhymes support the exotic, visual, and poetic nature of this work.)

3.  “Marley was dead, to begin with.  There is no doubt whatever about that.  The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner.”  A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. (Short to-the-point sentences and short phrases separated by commas tell the reader that the life portrayed in this novel is harsh, and that the writer is an honest man about to relate important facts and truths of life.)

So, how do we get there (writing with a strong Voice) from here (no Voice yet established)?

First, and most importantly, we need to decide what aura we hope to convey. Let’s consider the possibilities. Where is the novel set?  What type of speech will that location suggest to our readers? Do we want our readers to hear an accent in the narrator’s words?  Is the theme of the novel something soft or harsh? What is the genre? (Genres generally have a general type of voice. Detective novels often use a quick, to-the-point voice. Romances may have more flowery and flowing voices. However, exceptions sometimes make a novel noteworthy.)

Second, we should search out published books with a similar theme or setting or in the same genre. Then the fun part: read, read, read. Their words in our heads combined with our natural writing “personality” will help us choose the best devices to use as we develop our novel’s Voice.

Here’s a list of devices.  Long phrases or short phrases.  Lots of commas or a dearth of commas.  Long and short sentences and combinations thereof.  Alliteration of words; the rhythm of our sentences; creative punctuation. Fancy words, short words, old-fashioned sounding words, modern words, made-up words.  Short or long paragraphs. Following all the rules of grammar religiously, or breaking a few rules here and there. Contractions (casual) or no contractions (formal). I’m sure you can think of more.

With my first novel Mother Earth Father Sky, I spent a month working on the Voice and used my studies of Native American languages to help me establish a general rhythm (short, short, long — a poet would say “anapestic”) that follows Native speech patterns.

Then I wrote one page. I rewrote it until I liked it, and then I read that page out loud.  And rewrote again. And read it out loud again. For days, I worked on that one page until I knew that my narrator was “speaking” my novel with a distinct Voice that conveyed my theme, my setting, and my point-of-view characters’ mindsets. Then I printed out that page and kept it handy. Each time I sat down to write, I skimmed the page and settled that Voice back into my head. That’s what worked for me. Maybe it will work for you!

Any questions or comments? How do you develop a Voice for your work?


*Writing the Third Dimension, copyright, 2010 Sue Harrison*

Sue HarrisonBestselling author, Sue Harrison, has written two Alaska trilogies: The Ivory Carver Trilogy and The Storyteller Trilogy, and a middle readers’ book SISU. Prior to the publication of her novels, Harrison was employed at Lake Superior State University as a writer and acting director of the Public Relations Department and as an adjunct instructor in creative writing and advanced creative writing. For more information, click here. To inquire about booking Sue for workshops or speaking engagements this year, click here.

Thanks for joining us! Please feel free to leave your questions and comments. We invite you come back October 24, 2013, for part 10.


3 responses to “Sue Harrison’s “Writing the Third Dimension” – part 9: Sing out!

  1. Have you read Avi’s “City of Orphans” – wonderful voice in the beginning. 🙂 Great post! 😀


  2. Voice is so important. Thanks for another great post and for so many useful ideas.


  3. Thank you, Darlene. Erik, I haven’t read CITY OF ORPHANS, but your recommendation just put it right up top on my list. Thank you!


I look forward to reading your greatly appreciated comments. Thanks for making my day! :)

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