Developing Your Storytelling Voice


WOTS logo

Edmonds, Washington, home of the WOTS conference

Storytelling gets done using a voice. Knowing which voice requires knowing something about your options. At the recent Write On The Sound (WOTS) conference in Edmonds, Washington I gave a presentation on different voices to use for story telling , but we ran out of time for the final practice exercise. Here is a voice exercise writers can do on their own.

Ten ways to capture a storytelling voice:


  • Go to an unfamiliar place and record what you observe with your senses. Do not comment. Spend about ten minutes. Record what you see, feel, hear, smell, taste in a notebook. Then change a few verbs and adjectives to give it a slant without an observer narrating.
  • Describe a character entering this space and pursuing a goal with an object found there. Stay close to the character’s voice.
  • Report on this event as news with a reporter’s objective detached voice and insist on the facts.
  • Comment on it with the distant, authoritative voice of an historian placing this long ago event in the context of surrounding events or issues or themes, and comment on its cultural significance.
  • Write a 150 word folktale (anonymous society voice) about the event that starts, “Once upon a time…”
  • Turn this event into first person memoir with a subjective character voice that has strong attitude reflecting the significance of this event to the narrator.
  • Narrate the event as though it were the opening of a novel. Start with a panoramic view using a voice that is detached from any character and uses sophisticated language and long sentences and mixes observation with some commentary but with no character present.
  • Turn the event into a staged scene. You can only observe surfaces, describe actions, note details, and push two characters into conflict with dialogue over the object used in Step 2. (No commentary allowed.)
  • Now go deep inside the head of one of the characters in the above scene and produce that interior character voice that will feel as psychologically and emotionally close to the character as possible.
  • Now you’re a critic. Using a critic’s wised up, semi-cynical voice comment on the futility of the character above ever coming to an original and authentic resolution of their problem. Maybe even make fun of the obsession with the chosen object and the near fetishizing of its significance. In other words, use your last voice to comment ironically on the situation. (And note, this degree of detached irony in the voice could very easily segue into the next episode in the trials of your poor character.)

What have you accomplished? You’ve learned how to use ten different voices to tell essentially the same story. Feels like ten different stories doesn’t it?

Barry Lopez

Olive Kitteridge

To practice, I recommend looking at a few models. For writers of creative nonfiction involving the natural world, I recommend Barry Lopez’s Arctic Dreams. For writing that involves researching historical subjects, but giving it a personal voice, I recommend The Worst Hard Times by Timothy Egan. For memoirists who want the voice to capture the feeling, I’d go with A Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion. For good examples of character-driven voice in short fiction, I’d look to The Tenth of December by George Saunders. For fiction storytelling that employs a voice capable of moving smoothly between author voice, objective narration, and character voice definitely check out Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout.

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