Non-Fiction Wednesday: VOICE by James Scott Bell

VOICE: The Secret Power of Great WritingVOICE: The Secret Power of Great Writing by James Scott Bell

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Ever wondered how to make your voice more unique? Ever wondered just what the heck voice was in writing? Ever wanted give your characters more narrative pizzazz?

Well, this book’ll tell you. But it won’t tell you everything.

VOICE: The Secret Power of Great Writing by James Scott Bell is one of the few guides on literary voice out there — especially in terms of creating memorable first-person narrators. Bell explains in simple terms how voice isn’t some super complicated, elusive thing. I don’t want to spill all the teachings in this review, as I think you should read the book yourself, but if you are willing to get to know your character intimately and develop your word-sense on a craft level, you should have no problem grasping what Bell offers.

My only gripe with this short little book is just that: It’s too short and thin. While Bell explains the methodology for creating voice fairly simply, I wanted him to back up what he claimed. In many cases, I was left wanting more analysis of the examples he used to present good voices. For example, he cites this passage from Elmore Leonard’s Stick as a good example of third-person narrative voice:

Stick left his bourbon and went to the men’s room. He was tired of hearing guys talk, guys wanting you to believe they were street, guys saying MAN all the time. He shouldn’t have called Rainy. Well, maybe call him and have a drink, but he shouldn’t have promised him anything.

The reason Bell cites it, he claims, is because it sounds like it’s coming “right from the character’s own thoughts.” But he doesn’t offer any sort of explanation as to how. No mention of fragments or diction or free indirect discourse or any hard literary terminology. Now, I’m not saying that one needs to know this hard literary terminology in order to be a better writer (I’m biased as an English major), but as someone who has read quite a few books on the craft of writing, the books that I’ve liked the best are the ones that gave detailed breakdowns of the examples they gave. Doing so lends a certain credibility to the author who is assuming the role of teacher as well, and it just makes the depth of the material much easier to grasp. Not saying that it isn’t easy to grasp, but… you get my point.

VOICE is good. Really good. But I wish it was meatier.

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