Everything I Ever Needed to Know About Voice I Learned in… Drama Class

Recently I attended my first writers conference. Amid all the great information about marketing, the state of publishing and what surprises awaited in the boxed lunch, one elusive topic kept popping up during agent and editor panels.

What is voice?

How do you identify a good voice?

If a voice falls in the woods and no one is there to hear it, does it really make a sound?

Er, okay — maybe not that last one. But, you know, several hours parked in a folding chair and the mind starts to wander. Plus, there were rumors of cookies in that boxed lunch…

In any case — pretty much without fail — whenever the question of voice came up, the most common answer was something akin to the Supreme Court’s take on obscenity:

I know it when I see it.

Frustrating. But true, right? Like most of you, in addition to writing MG, I read a whole lot of the stuff. In fact, I really started thinking about the power of voice while reading with my ten-year-old son. We’d just finished the Percy Jackson series (one of your great post-Harry Potter reading suggestions… thanks!) and had moved on to The Red Pyramid. To say my son has become an enormous Rick Riordan fan would be something of an understatement. He simply devours those books. Why? Sure, there’s action. And humor. And Gods and kids with awesome powers. But that’s not it. Well, not all of it, at least.

The secret ingredient: voice.

My son connects with these stories not because he can move oceans with his mind (although I’m sure he wishes he could) — but because Rick Riordan writes characters that sound just like him. (So much so I occasionally find myself wanting to tell those little demi-gods to just get their socks off the floor, eat their vegetables and for-crying-out-loud-shut-off-their-bedroom-lights-and-take-out-the-trash-already! Sheesh!).

So yeah, I know good voice when I see it.

Nailing voice when you write? Much trickier. There are countless books, seminars, websites that do an excellent job teaching voice. But I have to say — the best lesson I ever learned about voice didn’t come from a writing class. It came from a drama one.

See, back in college I signed up for theater as an elective. Like most teens, I suppose I harbored secret dreams of being discovered by some famous Hollywood scout (because, heaven knows, there are plenty of those roaming the freezing campuses of remote northern colleges in search of the Next Big Thing). Also, I had a horrible crush on a boy who, in the interest of anonymity, will heretofore be known simply as “Algernon Moncrieff,” in honor of the role he played in the class production.

Well, as it turned out, I was a horrible actress (just ask anyone who’s had the good fortune of playing poker with me), and Algernon, I learned, had a girlfriend. Still, the class wasn’t a total bust. It sure beat the heck out of chemistry. Plus, we did some really fun exercises. Like one particular day when our professor sent us up to the stage with the open-ended instruction to just “act like little kids.”

Easy, right?

We all started skipping around, pretending to jump rope, licking imaginary lollipops and smiling coyly. Each of us, I’m quite sure, was convinced we’d nailed it. (And I was positively certain Algernon would be unable to resist my pigtail-twirling impishness.) Then, the professor clapped his hands. We stopped on stage and looked at him expectantly.

He shook his head, no.

Outrage filled the theater! Well, okay, maybe not. But needless to say, we were all perplexed. What could we have possibly done wrong? We were acting just like little kids, right? Doing little kid stuff. Plus, we’d all been little kids once. We knew what it was like. How could we mess that up?

The professor clambered on stage.

“The problem is,” he said. “You are not acting like four-year-olds. You are acting like a bunch of nineteen-year-olds thinking about acting like four-year-olds.”

Lots of confused faces. Wasn’t that what we were supposed to be doing?

“Look,” our professor said. “Have you ever actually observed the way a four-year-old walks across a room? A four-year-old doesn’t stop to consider whether the guy next to him thinks he looks cool. He doesn’t filter his actions through the lens of someone else. If a four-year-old wants to walk like a broken robot, he just does it.”

And with that, our professor lurched himself across the stage, arms twitching, head jerking — then abruptly stopped when he spotted something interesting on the floor, got down on his knees and picked at it.

Just like a little kid.

Total lightbulb moment. And a lesson I’ve always remembered when it comes to writing.

Namely, to be authentic you have to remove the filter. You have to see the world through your character’s eyes — not through the lens of your own perspective and experiences. You have to be able to step outside of yourself and just observe.

And successfully doing that? Well, it’s your turn to hop on stage, Mixed-Up community…

So tell me, what do you do to get into character? How do you remove the filter? And what are some of your favorite examples of great middle-grade voice? Please, share your thoughts in the comments below!

Jan Gangsei might never have mastered acting, but she’d much rather write interesting characters than pretend to be a robot anyway. She invites you to follow more of her random observations (and share yours!) at twitter.com/jangangsei.

Jan Gangsei