Voice is at the heart of a story. Voice is what you “hear” in your head when you read. Voice is what runs through your head even after you put the book down.

The Lakota Indians (often referred to as the Sioux) believe that each of us has a life song. By listening steadfastly to what we are meant to write, we learn to let our writing write through us. Every conscious and unconscious choice we make while writing, from selection of words to the shape of sentences, from length of paragraphs, to the dialogue and diction, contributes to our distinctive voice.  In The Writing Life Annie Dillard says that a writer inquires not after what he loves best, but after what he alone loves at all. “You have to give voice to your astonishment,” Dillard says. When you do this, how can your voice not be pure and honest and resonant?

A George Eliot sentence could not have been written by anyone else. Her pace is deliberate – the pace of a rational mind contemplating one thing and then another. Her style is ironic and wryly funny. Listen to Dorothea Brooke in Middlemarch. Evidently, Dorothea hardly knows herself or her own contradictory nature:
"Most men thought her bewitching when she was on horseback. She loved the fresh air and the various aspects of the country, and when her eyes and cheeks glowed with mingled pleasure she looked very little like a devotee. Riding was an indulgence which she allowed herself in spite of conscientious qualms; she felt that she enjoyed it in a pagan, sensuous way, and always looked forward to renouncing it."

You wouldn’t have to read far to recognise Virginia Woolf’s “stream of consciousness” narrative in Mrs Dalloway; to see the leaps of association that connect unvoiced thoughts. Seemingly irrelevant and random memories burst into the present, and into the scene she is describing:
How fresh, how calm, stiller than this of course, the air was in the early morning; like the flap of a wave; the kiss of a wave; chill and sharp and yet (for a girl of eighteen as she then was) solemn, feeling as she did, standing there at the open window, that something awful was about to happen; looking at the flowers, at the trees with the smoke winding off them and the rooks rising, falling; standing and looking until Peter Walsh said “Musing among the vegetables?” – was that it?  – “I prefer men to cauliflowers” – was that it?

Going beyond mere meaning

Don DeLillo’s prose acts like memory, simply collecting and listing vivid detail, giving us a sense of ‘the sand-grain manyness of things.’ Here is an example from the Underworld, in a scene describing a sizzling, New York summer’s day:
"The tar softened and fumed and the heat beat down and the green gnats stuck to their bodies and across the way the pigeon kid sent his birds into spiral flight with a bamboo pole, and waved a towel at times, and whistled like a traffic cop, and his flock mixed in midair with a rival flock from a roof three blocks away, a hundred- birded tumult and blur,…."

And this is only half the sentence.

When words are right, not arcane or pompous, but right, when rhythms sway and are buoyant, the story lifts into the realm of art and hymn.

In Beach Music, Pat Conroy strings words into a necklace of moonstones. His voice has a lazy quality –you can almost hear the “Southern drawl” of his characters. His vivid, baroque, sometimes startling prose, bordering on purple, but not quite, brings out the colours and flavours and scents of South Carolina and Italy. His voice, nostalgic of a bygone era, evokes grand, sweeping vistas and women, both sensual and ethereal. His turn of phrase is unusual, he makes up words as he goes along, and uses them as only he knows how, but his voice carries the ring of poetry, as in “The cat came to her on the run with tawny movements of leaf and silk.” Conroy is partial to moonlit scenes, and here is one:
"[The water] enclosed us in its laceries as we watched the moon spill across the Atlantic like wine from an overturned glass. ….With the light all around us, we felt secreted in the moon-infused water like pearls forming in the soft tissues of oysters."

Conroy’s dialogue is at odds with his opulent descriptions. It is casual, off-the cuff and sometimes slapstick. Here is an example:
“ 'I’m not drunk, the judge said, I’m on medication.'
'Dr Jim Beam,” Dallas said. “Still practising after all these years.' ”

Taking a stand

Who can ever forget Frank McCourt’s unself-conscious, brutally honest voice in his memoir, Angela’s Ashes? His Irish boyhood was miserable, with little or no food, no heat, “hacking coughs, bronchial rattles, asthmatic wheezes, consumptive croaks,” a “shiftless, loquacious alcoholic” father, and countless beatings. “Clothes never dried: tweed and woolen coats housed living things, sometimes sprouted mysterious vegetations,” and on and on he goes in this vein. He tells it like it is and though he does not make light of his misery – there is a levity to his voice. It is not as if these things don’t matter – they do – but there’s not much he can do about it, so he might as well get on with it and not waste time wallowing in self pity:
"…I take the greasy newspaper from the floor. I lick the front page, which is all advertisements for films and dances in the city. I lick the headlines. I lick the great attacks of Patton and Montgomery in France and Germany. I lick the war in the Pacific. I lick the obituaries and the sad memorial poems, the sports pages, the market prices of eggs butter and bacon. I suck the paper till there isn’t a smidgen of grease."

A powerful voice has a unique world view, takes a stand, makes a credible point and substantiates it clearly and creatively. Such a voice inhabits the book. Here Toni Morrison’s Beloved comes to mind, which is not just an all-time great novel, but a socio-political document of the horrors of slavery. Black folklore feeds her style as well as her story. Her matter-of-fact, graphic narrative – she never flinches – is colloquial without ever veering towards dialect. She returns again and again to certain images and events, layering them to create an indelible impression in the reader’s mind. Hear the pathos of this passage:
"Baby Suggs chopped away with the hoe. What could it be? This dark and coming thing. What was left to hurt her now? ….. The last of her children, whom she barely glanced at when he was born because it wasn’t worth the trouble to try to learn features you would never see change into adulthood anyway.  Seven times she had done that: held a little foot; examined the fat fingertips with her own- fingers she never saw become the male or female hands a mother would recognise anywhere. She didn’t know to this day what their permanent teeth looked like; or how they held their heads when they walked. Did Patty lose her lisp? What colour did Famous’ skin finally take? ….Does Ardelia still love the burned bottom of bread? All seven were gone or dead…"

The slave masters could stop you from “hearing doves or loving moonlight.” On a whim slave masters could “snap you like a twig”:

So you protected yourself and loved small. Picked the tiniest stars out of the sky to own; lay down with head twisted in order to see the loved one over the rim of the trench before you slept. Stole shy glances at her between the trees at chain-up. Grass blades, salamanders, spiders, woodpeckers, beetles, a kingdom of ants. Anything bigger wouldn’t do. A woman, a child, a brother – a big love like that would split you wide open in Alfred, Georgia.

I combed my bookshelves for titles that meant something to me. I reread the books I have quoted and more, some after many years. The stories had turned skeletal with age, but I remembered how they had once made me feel. The voice that had whispered in my ear had stayed with me. Can anyone ever forget Nick Carraway’s voice in The Great Gatsby, a voice redolent of the Jazz Age and all its trappings, of champagne-fuelled, hedonistic parties on “moonlit” (again) evenings, ridiculously handsome men of dubious antecedents and sad and lovely women draped in chiffon and silk?

Next week: How to begin a story or a novel. 

A lifelong reader and writer, Debika Lahiri has written a novel. She conducts nature walks in Delhi's gardens and parks.