You know that show, The Voice, where singers have to sing and the judges sit in big chairs with their backs to the singers? If the singing is distinctive enough (not just good) – BAM! the judge hits the button to turn the chair around. This is exactly what you need to do with your first chapter. Find your voice and make your readers turn around.
Is it easy? Is there a secret formula? Hell no! But let us take a look at what voice is, why it is important and some examples which might help you with the how.
Voice is the thing that makes your book stand apart from others. Voice can be a combination of many different things including how your character or narrator talks, their world view, their personality. Anything that evokes images and stirs up feelings in your readers can be attributed to voice. The stronger the voice the better. Sometimes, you might even be able to give voice to a place, if it is a central character in your story. Readers are looking for a unique and original voice that they can connect with that brings them directly into the book’s world.
Because it’s no fun reading a string of words. Words need to make us feel things, think things. If the voice is not original, or even worse not believable, then we are likely to put the book down. Ho-hum, I’ve read this before. Next.
Well, that’s the million dollar question, isn’t it? I could tell you to write from the heart, or to do some free writing, or to try some ‘method writing’ (google method acting), but I like to learn by reading works of others. Maybe you do too. Here are some examples of opening chapters with a strong voice.
Into That Forest – Louis Nowra
Me name be Hannah O’Brien and I be seventy six years old. Me first thing is an apology me language is bad cos I lost it and had to learn it again. But here’s me story and I be glad to tell it before I hop the twig.
Who is this lady? Why does she talk so funny and what does she mean that she ‘lost her language’? How does this happen? Hop the twig must mean she is going to die and sounds like a phrase from many years ago. I have an image in my head and a feeling for this woman already. Hit that button – turn that chair!
Hunger Games – Suzanne Collins
When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold. My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim’s warmth but finding only the rough canvas cover of the mattress. She must have had bad dreams and climbed in with our mother. Of course, she did. This is the day of the reaping.
OMG, it’s the day of the reaping! Wait, what’s the reaping?? Must read more…how do I turn this blasted chair around?!
A Series of Unfortunate Events – Lemony Snicket
If you are interested in stories with happy endings, you would be better off reading some other book. In this book, not only is there no happy ending, there is no happy beginning and very few happy things in the middle. This is because not very many happy things happened in the lives of the three Baudelaire youngsters.
Wait, what? Who are you, you snooty narrator to tell me what to read and what not to read? So what happened to these Baudelaire kids, surely it wasn’t all bad? Smack that button-turn me around!
Eleanor & Park – Rainbow Rowell
XTC was no good for drowning out the morons at the back of the bus.
Park pressed his headphones into his ears.
Tomorrow he was going to bring skinny Puppy or the Misfits. Or maybe he’d make a special bus tape with as much screaming and wailing on it as possible.
He could get back to New Wave in November, after he got his driver’s license. His parents had already said Park could have his mum’s Impala, and he’d been saving up for a new take deck. Once he started driving to school, he could listen to whatever he wanted or nothing at all, and he’d get to sleep in an extra twenty minutes.
Oh it’s 1986 and he’s listening to cool music and making mix tapes. I ‘ve heard about those. Wait, let me just pop over to YouTube and listen to Skinny Puppy and see if it’s cool. I bet Park is cool. He seems cool. What’s going to happen on the bus? Chair, turn!
In all of these examples, whether they are told in first-person present tense, first person past tense, or third person, I can hear a clear and loud voice. What happens when the voice is loud and clear? We listen. In those first opening lines I learned so much.
In Into That Forest I learned that Helen lost her ability to speak, which is why she talks funny now and even though her language now is sometimes hard for me to read, I want to read more to find out what happened to her.
In the opening lines of The Hunger Games I learn that Katniss has a sister who is afraid of the reaping, even though I don’t know what the reaping is yet. I also learn that they live with their mother and sleep in the same bed. I want to read more because I want to know about the reaping.
Lemony Snicket has an unusual, but not unappealing voice, which makes me feel smart for wanting to read on. Of course I am not one of those shallow people who only wants happy beginnings, middles and ends.
And finally, in Eleanor & Park I get a strong voice of the times in the form of music and mix tapes and rides on the school bus. How cool is Park? That’s an usual name and I want to know who this kid is and what he is all about.
Don’t be afraid of voice. Use it, embrace it, and experiment with it. But whatever you do, don’t be bland. Now get out there on that stage and sing! Those judges are going to love you.