Tim Hallinan raked me over the coals pretty good in an interview at The Blog Cabin a couple of weeks ago. Among the questions was how I would rank five key elements of fiction, in order of importance. Here’s the exchange:
Generally speaking the components of a novel are story/plot, character, setting, narrative, and tone. How would you rank these in order of their importance in your own writing, and can you add a few sentences to tell us more about how you approach each and why you rank them as you do?
I ranked Tone second, just above story/plot. My reasoning: Raymond Chandler once said, “The most durable thing in writing is style, and style is the most valuable investment a writer can make with his time. It pays off slowly, your agent will sneer at it, your publisher will misunderstand it, and it will take people you have never heard of to convince them by slow degrees that the writer who puts his individual mark on the way he writes will always pay off.” It’s been said that Elmore Leonard—and he pretty much admitted it—wrote essentially the same book with essentially the same characters over and over again, and I still read and re-read them all, because his tone is so perfect, and tone and style and voice are inextricable. I’ve ditched story ideas I liked because I couldn’t get the tone I wanted, and the tone was what I was less willing to change.
As luck would have it, the next day I made an appearance with the gentlemen who compriseMeet Myster Write (Austin Camacho, D.B. Corey, and Larry Matthews). The question came from the audience about what we looked for in our own reading. The woman seemed surprised when I noted voice or style above the plot, and an enjoyable exchange ensued. The core of the discussion came down to, “Why?”
Good question. Reading for voice has become so ingrained in me, I honest to God don’t remember why. It’s part of who I am now, like brown eyes and Size 12 shoes. I pondered this for almost an hour just now before it dawned on me it was less a conscious decision than an evaluation of my reading habits. Which authors did I come back to time after time? Who do I re-read? What do they have in common?
Each of them has a distinctive voice. There may be little or no similarity between them—I read Elmore Leonard, Raymond Chandler, Ed McBain, James Ellroy, John McFetridge, and other disparate stylists with great anticipation—but they all have their own unique voices, such that I can likely open an unfamiliar book by any of them (if I can find one) to a random page and tell who wrote it damn near every time. That’s what stays with me, and may well turn me off when the voice is not to my taste, or is absent. (This is why I don’t often read bestsellers, which often have such a bland voice there can be said they have none at all, I suppose in the interest of turning off as few readers as possible.)
What’s interesting is, this is one area where I—as a writer—am not the outlier. Many, possibly most, readers read for voice. (Tone, style, whatever. They aren’t identical, but I defy you to separate them.) They might not admit it, or even realize it, but they do. Don’t believe me? How many people have you heard say they open the book and read the first page to see if it grabs them? This is usually used as an
excuse reason to begin with a
body or action or some other kind of plot hook. Listen closer. Just as many
people, often the same ones, will open the book to a random page and read it
for the same reason, to see if it grabs them. That’s not going to find them a
plot-related hook. What can a reader discover from a random page that will
inform his or her purchasing decision?
“Is this a tone/style/voice I’m going to want to invest several hours and up to $30 in?”
People have to read the whole book before they can decide whether they like your plots enough to come back for more. They’ll know right away if they like your style. Take a stand.