A Writer’s Voice

A Writer’s Voice

Ruth E. Walker

In my workshops, I often remind writers that their voice is unlike anyone else’s. No one has their life experience, no one thinks with the same brain or writes with the same heart. Writers may share the same topic or scenario or even characters, but none will produce the same story in the same voice.

The voice with which we write is unique to each of us. It’s found in the types of words we prefer to use, the kinds of sentence structure that fits our imagination, the things we choose to include or exclude, the punctuation, verbs and metaphors. Our writing is full of signposts for readers: This is a story by…Margaret Atwood, Charles Dickens, Ernest Hemingway, Alice Munro…

At the same time, a writer’s voice is not exactly a static quality. As we experience life, our deepening well of compost combines with new material and alters our perspective and thus, affects our writing. But essentially, the core of our voice—the beating heart of our motivation and the words that flow from that core—that doesn’t change.

So what does that change in perspective bring us if it doesn’t affect our voice?

Tone.

Tone is the mood of our writing

It’s in the email we fire off to a company to complain about a faulty product. My preferred tone in those emails is more like I’m disappointed but giving you a chance to fix it versus You people suck and I’m never buying a thing from you again. We may be using our writer’s voice with word choice and punctuation but a complaint email is not the same tone one uses to invite friends and family to a party, right?

A recent trip to the Stratford Festival in Ontario got me thinking about the difference between a writer’s voice and tone.

Our playbill included a matinee performance of William Shakespeare’s Henry VIII (a history play that should appear on the stage more often, especially if Martha Henry directs it) and an evening spent chortling away during The Merry Wives of Windsor (a comedy both hilarious and uncannily fit for our times.)

Same author (I thought) on the playbill. Same iambic pentameter. Only…I thought Henry VIII‘s prologue sounded off to me. It all seemed a bit “loud” and “instructive” in tone. Same with the epilogue.

Will didn’t write it all!

A bit of research revealed that a collaborator, playwright John Fletcher, worked with Shakespeare on Henry VIII and likely contributed the prologue and epilogue, as well as nearly half of the play. Admittedly, I didn’t notice the change in voice elsewhere, but I think my reaction to the prologue and epilogue relates to how non-Shakespeare they felt.

Is that because I like Shakespeare’s work so much that I noticed when the featured lines didn’t quite deliver The Bard to my ear? I’m not sure. This is not the only play on which he had a collaborator. But it was a revelation to discover that someone else contributed both prologue and epilogue to Henry VIII, along with full scenes including the last four scenes of the final act.

Nonetheless, the production at the Stratford Festival is outstanding: high moments of drama, tender pathos and a healthy dollop of pageantry is expertly delivered.  Of course, Shakespeare’s trademark irony brings occasional smiles, but the tone of the play is serious and reflective, with a shift into pomp and ceremony at the end at the baptism of the infant Princess Elizabeth.

The Merry Wives of Windsor could not be more opposite with “pomp” placed squarely in over-amorous Falstaff’s pompous conceit and “ceremony” delivered through weddings—only one of which was real. Farcical and staged with plenty of visual hilarity, the tone of this play is decidedly different from the serious historical Henry VIII.

And yet. There is an undercurrent that suggests the mistaken conclusions of a jealous husband  could have unhappy consequences. And how very modern to have two women as central characters, devising a plot to shame a lecher. Thrice. (Falstaff is not the brightest bulb in the chandelier.)  And to have a daughter choose her husband, instead of the choices of her parents, is likewise a modern twist in a time when marriages were driven by economics and social standing.

Tone can’t hide voice

Despite the collaboration in Henry VIII, both plays held the trademarks of Shakespeare’s voice: iambic pentameter in free verse, rhyming couplets to emphasize dramatic moments, themes of love, betrayal, confused identities. His metaphors and similes enrich meaning in a language that is almost foreign to contemporary audiences. And his invented words—nouns and verbs—remain in current use.

Critic.

Bandit.

Swagger.

For more on his wordsmithing, See Grammarly’s 15 words invented by Shakespeare.  But more than inventing words, the worlds Shakespeare invented were stories that hold lessons for our world today.

Not born a genius; he worked for it

As he honed his craft, the sometimes stilted structure of Shakespeare’s earlier plays gave way to more natural breaks and punctuation. His characters moved from near-stereotypes to more nuanced humans with flaws that made them shine. Like all of us, he learned to make language work for what he wanted to achieve on the page…and, on the stage. And his voice remained, naturally, his.

Shakespeare’s plays hold different tones: from sombre and heartbreaking tragedies to hilarious near-slapstick antics and imaginings. But they carry the same voice, one that keeps us coming back to productions since the 1590s. And that is a track record any of us would long to have.

A Play’s the Thing

A Play’s the Thing

Ruth E. Walker

Recently, a writing colleague asked for my help. She was excited about an upcoming playwriting opportunity. My friend is a gifted emerging writer. And she enjoys theatre productions. She knew I’d written a few plays and had some of them produced, so she asked for advice.

The following is based on some of that advice. And, of course, I offer it with the proviso that I am not a full-time playwright. It’s one of the forms I’ve explored and learned from — and will expect to continue to learn from in the years ahead. So here’s just a few points to ponder when thinking about writing a play.

Just actors talking, right?

It’s easy to fall into the trap of it’s just dialogue, right? Because it is and it isn’t.

Think “poetry” when you are writing a play. A poem is an economy of language that expresses far more that the words on the page. Less is more. White space is as loud as a sentence. Meaning builds, word by word, until the end is reached and you return to the beginning with a new understanding.

A play operates in a similar manner.

Not one word wasted. Not one word that doesn’t build on the next and combine to offer layers, possibilities, surprises. And here’s the most important word in that last sentence. Offers. An excellent play offers directors, actors and set, costume, sound and lighting designers room. Room to be creative. To interpret. To “play” with the words. To develop their own vision of what those words can create on the stage.

Consider Come From Away, the international smash hit born out of the sacrifice and kindness of remote Gander, Newfoundland in caring for planeloads of strangers during the 9/11 crisis. The dialogue in that fast-paced musical took the actual words of residents and 7,000 passengers to build a compelling human drama. Was it every word from every interview? Nope. Just a very few that left room for a minimalist stage to support a talented troupe of actors playing multiple roles.

Brilliant. I’d see it again if I could get tickets.

Pay attention to the classics

I still remember seeing Anton Chekhov‘s The Cherry Orchard many years ago. A “simple family drama” with light comedic twists becomes an critical examination of the classes. It is profound. It is also a lot of talk, talk and more talk. And there is repetition. Has Lopakhin, the former peasant now merchant, proposed to the now impoverished family’s adopted daughter, Varya? How can the family’s beloved estate, especially the cherry orchard, be saved?

Repetition is deadly. Except when it matters. And in this play, the repetition underscores the lack of will and clear thinking that defeats the formerly wealthy family. Along the way, it builds a tension in the audience. In our heads, we’re yelling at the fools on the stage. And powerless to do anything but watch the progress of social change.

Remember the smoking gun

Chekhov’s quote is often paraphrased in writing classes.

Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.

He takes this approach in his plays as well. When you read them, his scripts can appear dense with heavy monologues. But look closer. Give your imagination room to see the bigger picture that Chekhov’s developing.

The Bard in the 21st Century

Many of William Shakespeare‘s plays, on the other hand, are full of fast-paced intrigue, action and character complexities. Swordfights, battlefields and royal processions are on stage. No wonder over 420 films have explored The Bard’s greatest plays. But check out some of the intimate stage productions at Ontario’s Stratford Festival. Minimalist staging makes for modern connections.

 Durham Region-born Driftwood Theatre Group revels in non-traditional outdoor settings as they travel throughout southern Ontario. Remarkably, they can recreate Verona in a barnyard or Venice in an urban park. And show audiences that Shakespeare is as relevant today as he was centuries ago.

 From the darkest of hearts to innocent-sweet, Shakespeare’s characters talk, talk, talk. But, like Chekhov, Shakespeare gives room throughout his dialogue for contemporary directors and actors to imagine something remarkable: a way to bring classical theatre to modern audiences.

Quick Tips for modern playwrights
  • Limit your stage direction only to what is integral to the play’s meaning and plot
  • Create characters that represent your themes and fit the plot
  • A play is not a movie script — there are no camera angles or editing rooms, just the stage
  • Start in action; scene by scene, keep upping the stakes
  • Read aloud for timing
  • Challenge yourself — go for the unexpected and inspire your muse

Here are some resources you might find useful as you hone your playwrighting craft:

An article in The Guardian is ostensibly about technical aspects but there are subtle, important bits there about expectations.

Playwright/screenwriter Jonathan Dorf has some basic tips designed for kids, but truly useful for any age and they’re not just about format.

And the Playwrights Centre has great tips based on scripts they’ve had submitted. Learn how to get directors and producers interested in reading your work.

DID YOU KNOW

William Shakespeare’s birth date is presumed to be April 23, three days before his baptism on April 26, 1564. Coincidentally, that’s the same date as the day he died, April 23, 1616. He wrote 14 comedies, 11 histories, 12 tragedies and hundreds of poems. His work continues to be studied in thousands of schools, colleges and universities. His plays have been translated into many languages, including French, German, Punjabi, Welsh, Polish, Catalan, Danish, Tagalog and Latin, and are produced worldwide.

Not bad for 52 years on this planet.