Can We Have Too Much Voice?

by Jami Gold on February 21, 2012

in Writing Stuff

Pile of doughnuts

Is it possible to have too much of a good thing?  Sure.  We’ve all overindulged in our favorite foods before.  No matter how much we might like sweets or any other type of food, something can be too sweet, too rich, too whatever.

In my last post about how to add voice to our writing, Eve Harris brought up a great point:

“[T]he challenge is to find a balance of the character’s internalization. … [H]ow many reactions do you need? Do you need them every other sentence? Even if it’s relevant to the conflict at hand, sometimes the character’s voice can be too much.”

The Dangers of “Too Much”

Too much of anything in our writing, including voice, can be a bad thing.  Too much uninterrupted dialogue leads to the “floating heads” issue, where we lose touch with the setting and surrounding events.  Too much uninterrupted action can feel choppy or like, “and then this happened, and then that happened.”  Too much introspection drags down the pacing.

Similarly, too much voice can make a character seem self-involved, the type who’s too chatty, too much in love with the sound of their voice.  Sections with a lot of voice are often internalizations (introspection or internal monologue), which can slow down the pace of the storytelling.  Remember that on some level, internalization is made up of passive, telling sentences without action happening in a setting.

I’ve read stories—NY published stories—that suffer from this “too much voice” issue.  The protagonist was too wrapped up in her oh-so-clever-or-amusing observations.  And her overly snarky attitude was wearying to read for a whole novel.

I’ve read other stories where the internalizations felt repetitive, like the character was telling us the same thing over and over, or telling us something we’d already figured out from the narrative description.  It’s very easy to use a good voice to the point of overkill.

How Can We Know If It’s Too Much?

So how much is too much?

The first thing we can check for is the repetitive or overkill issue.  Have we used two sentences of voice-y internalization when one gets the point across?  Good beta readers can help with this problem, especially if we ask for specific feedback on whether we’ve erred on the side of overkill.

The second thing we can check for is repetition on the paragraph level.  This means making sure we haven’t used several paragraphs in a row of the same writing technique.

At a workshop I attended a few years ago, Karen Rose gave the advice that we should interrupt narrative every two paragraphs with dialogue or internalization.  I think that’s good advice in general, for all elements of writing.

The Two-Paragraph Guideline

Action, description, exposition, dialogue, internalization, etc. should all be mixed up to keep a reader’s interest.  We’ve heard that readers can follow three paragraphs of unattributed dialogue (assuming there are only two speakers), but after that, readers need a descriptive dialogue tag or an action beat to ground them in the scene again.  On the other end, static setting description starts getting boring after one (short) paragraph.  So two paragraphs of any one writing element in a row is a good guideline.

If we need more than two paragraphs of introspection, we might look at how we can mix in action.  Is the character doing something while they’re thinking?  Even better, can we make the action add to the scene by creating conflict or showing subtext?

Maybe a wife is thinking about leaving her husband while she’s folding laundry.  Does she discover a lipstick stain on his shirt, and she decides that’s the last straw?  Or does she take care in folding his clothes “just so” to prevent wrinkles, showing that she still cares about him?

Our writing toolbox has many tools, and we’ll be better writers if we use them all.  As we’re editing, we can use this two paragraph guideline to check our writing, especially in sections where the pacing feels slow.  And as we receive feedback from our beta readers, we can listen to their comments about whether we’ve used a tool “too much.”

Have you read stories with too much voice?  What made it feel like too much?  Do you struggle with sentence or paragraph repetition?  Have you heard of this two-paragraph guideline before?  Do you agree or disagree with it?

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39 Comments below - Time to Add your own.

Angela Quarles February 21, 2012 at 7:00 am

I’ve noticed it more in 1st person when it’s overkill. In third, I’ve noticed it when the characters internalize things for pages. PAGES. And one recent book I read, this was the same musings she’d had the previous chapter (How much she lusted after the hero but couldn’t have him. And the same when in his POV).

For areas I wonder if I’m having trouble, I use Margie Lawson’s color-coding trick, where she uses a different color highlighter for different things. Boy will it jump out at you if you have a sea of yellow (internal thoughts). It’s also helped me see where I might be missing something when I don’t see that color at all when there should be some…

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Jami Gold February 21, 2012 at 7:49 am

Hi Angela,

Great idea about using color coding! Yes, I learned this the hard way in my first novel when a beta reader told me that the climax–the big, tension-filled scene!–dragged. Ugh. I cut the protagonist’s “epiphany” by half and greatly improved the pacing. Tightening fixes a host of problems. :) Thanks for the comment!

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Nancy S. Thompson February 21, 2012 at 9:46 am

This is a problem I see in YA. There’s nothing I hate more than too much snarky attitude. It’s the most grating of voices. I just read a newly released YA debut novel by a well-known blogger that’s been well received, but the drama queen voice was so over the top I nearly quit reading. The story saved it for me but I’ll likely not read the next book in the series when it comes out.

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Jami Gold February 21, 2012 at 9:53 am

Hi Nancy,

Yes, I enjoy some YA, but there are other YA books I won’t touch because of the voice. The example I gave above was from an adult urban fantasy novel, and many of them suffer from the same problem.

Now that I think about it, I think that’s one thing that turned people off from chick lit too. What is it about stories with single protagonists–a female–that leads to this problem? There has to be more ways to show a female character as being strong than just using snark. :) Thanks for the comment!

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Kim Terry February 21, 2012 at 9:53 am

Helpful suggestions, here! I’m revising my WIP, right now. The color-coding is a great idea!

I’m put off by pages and pages of straight narrative. Even high-profile authors fall into this trap.

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Jami Gold February 21, 2012 at 9:55 am

Hi Kim,

Yes, this is something we can all pay attention to, as it’s all too easy to get lazy. :) Good luck with your revisions and thanks for the comment!

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Carradee February 21, 2012 at 11:30 am

I think part of the problem is that, for many folks, “strong personality” = “snarky.” Some of it’s the same reason characters often have “too independent” or “hot-tempered” as their character flaws: they’re easy.

At least, that’s why I think they’re common. It’s easy to demonstrate that your character has a temper; but that your main character is oblivious or paranoid? Not so easy. Particularly because your MC has to take an active part in events in the story.

I recently read Chime by Franny Billingsley, which I think is a fantastic example of strong “voice” (even for side characters), without snark. Of course, YMMV. ^_^

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Jami Gold February 21, 2012 at 1:04 pm

Hi Carradee,

Yes, I think you’re right. It comes down to author shortcuts–like, say, making the protagonist an orphan.

An author could make them an orphan and leave it there, assuming that will be enough to make the protagonist sympathetic to readers. Or the author could make them an orphan and integrate that into the storyline, plot, backstory, personality quirks, attitude, etc. It’s an issue of using a superficial shortcut versus thinking things through on a deeper level.

Thanks for the great comment! :)

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Tahlia Newland February 21, 2012 at 4:29 pm

I’m glad you picked up on this because I’ve often found repetitive introspection in novels, regardless of who published them. I came across the two paragraph rule a while ago and it’s a really good guide. It’s amazing how when you look at a thought process with the aim of cutting it back, you find that you can say something much more succinctly and without losing the voice.

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Jami Gold February 22, 2012 at 8:16 am

Hi Tahlia,

Yes, I completely agree. Tightening and “getting rid of stuff” doesn’t have anything to do with “losing voice.” My first novel is proof of that. I cut 25K words by tightening everything–and gave it more voice. :) Thanks for the comment!

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Melinda Collins February 21, 2012 at 5:34 pm

Hi Jami!

Thank you for covering the topic of having *too* much voice! That’s one of the things I absolutely cannot stand, and seeing it within published novels out there on the shelves gets to me sometimes. Strong personalities, timid ones..whatever the case, I think Beta Readers are the life – er, word – savers here because they would be the first to catch when the author is just going on and on and on.

I hadn’t heard of the two paragraph rule, so thank you for including that in this post. I’ll definitely have to keep that in mind so that I won’t end up deleting thousands of words during my revisions in the future. ;)

Thanks again!

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Jami Gold February 22, 2012 at 8:18 am

Hi Melinda,

Oh yes, beta readers are the life/word savers with this issue (and with so many others). I often think the problems with multi-published authors and their “lazy” books is that they thought they didn’t need beta readers anymore. I know I’ll always need them. :) Thanks for the comment!

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Scott Bury / ScottTheWriter February 21, 2012 at 6:38 pm

Very insightful. This is an issue I struggled with in my novel: the oblivious hero. I want to get across that, due to his disability, he is oblivious to many things that most people understand – but if the MC doesn’t see it, how do you put it in the story without becoming detached?

Hitting that balance is also a challenge. Skilled writers who edit their own work carefully will achieve it.

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Jami Gold February 22, 2012 at 8:25 am

Hi Scott,

I agree that’s a tricky thing. I think we all come across that issue to a certain degree when we’re trying to plant clues for the reader without making it seem like a clue. In that case, we have to find a way to mention a detail without having it make an impression on the protagonist.

In real life, I’m rather oblivious (and have the bruises to prove my klutzy obliviousness :) ), and I run into things like the open dishwasher door all the time. It’s not that I didn’t see it–I saw something out of the corner of my eye–but that I didn’t pay attention to it. You’re right that it’s a hard balance to master. :) Good luck and thanks for the comment!

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L'Aussie Denise February 21, 2012 at 8:56 pm

I hadn’t heard of the two paragraph guideline before but it sits well with me. Thanks for this.

Denise

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Jami Gold February 22, 2012 at 8:26 am

Hi Denise,

I hope it helps. :) Thanks for the comment!

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Debra Eve February 21, 2012 at 10:26 pm

I see too much talking heads in thrillers and mysteries, too, mostly to misdirect the reader. A certain amount is fine to preserve the element of surprise, but when the protagonist obsesses about one person or solution, it drives me nuts. I like that two-paragraph rule, even just as a self-check. Great advice here, Jami.

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Jami Gold February 22, 2012 at 8:33 am

Hi Debra,

Interesting. Yes, we can use certain techniques to maintain the element of surprise, but you’re right that we don’t want to overuse them. Thanks for the comment!

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Fiona Ingram February 21, 2012 at 11:41 pm

Thanks for another great post. Some comments about the ‘too much snarky voice’ reminds me of why I stopped reading funny-writer Kathy Lette. She is a great writer and the first book I read of hers was Mad Cows. It had me screaming with laughter. However, I found that her subsequent books (2 or 3 sequels) had too much of the same thing and I gave up on it. Every line was a belly laugh and it became extremely tiring. I found I wanted a rest between jokes. It was, simply, too too too much! A big lesson learned from one’s own reading habits about how not to turn off one’s own readers!

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Jami Gold February 22, 2012 at 8:36 am

Hi Fiona,

Wow, great observation! Too much humor–who would have thought? :) But I understand what you mean, especially when it comes to subsequent books. Just as much as publishers are looking for “the same but different,” so are readers. We want followup books to be similar enough that they have the elements we loved from before, but different enough that it doesn’t feel like a retread. Thanks for the great comment!

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Robert Datson February 22, 2012 at 2:56 am

Jami, thanks for this post. When I started my first novel two years ago, I realised the enormity of the task – to sustain page after page of words without losing the reader. There were no rules, and moving from short story to novel did not prepare me adequately. I like the two para rule, and the colour coding idea is great.
When I get to the first edit later this year, these ideas will help immensely.

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Jami Gold February 22, 2012 at 8:51 am

Hi Robert,

Great! I’m happy to help. :) Good luck with your novel and thanks for the comment!

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Gene Lempp February 22, 2012 at 11:58 am

The two paragraph idea is a new one for me but sounds effective. I’ll have to test this out during my next few writing sessions and look over some older material. Thanks, Jami :)

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Jami Gold February 22, 2012 at 12:06 pm

Hi Gene,

I’m in the middle of editing a WIP right now, and I just (literally, in the past two minutes) came across a section that dragged and felt choppy. Sure enough, I had four short paragraphs in a row of physical action. I tightened a bit and reparagraphed to turn those into two longer, tighter paragraphs, and it flows much better now. Yay! :) Good luck with your efforts and thanks for the comment!

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Amanda February 22, 2012 at 1:17 pm

So I’m hoping maybe you can help me with the whole “two paragraph” idea. I’m in the middle of editing a WIP, and I’ve just hit a section that’s about six paragraphs long, and it’s all memory. The story is in 1st person, and right now, she’s essentially summarizing a portion of her past life with another character (now dead). I feel like when it comes to describing a past event, even if it takes more than two paragraphs to do so, it’s a good idea to keep it all together because to do otherwise would be confusing. But at the same time, I don’t want the reader to get bored and skip over it, because inevitably they’ll have to come back to it when they get lost because they didn’t bother to read through the whole section to begin with. Any suggestions?

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Jami Gold February 22, 2012 at 4:24 pm

Hi Amanda,

I have some thoughts, but it’ll take more than a blog comment to explain them. Another “Ask Jami” post might be in order. :) Thanks for the comment and I’ll get back to you!

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Beth Balmanno February 24, 2012 at 9:45 am

Thank you, thank you, thank you for posting this! I adore YA books but, honest-to-god, the overpowering voices of some of the more recent releases are a big turn-off. I *love* getting in a character’s head — to a degree. Balance is everything and right now it seems that many novels have reached the tipping point. GREAT post!

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Jami Gold February 24, 2012 at 1:21 pm

Hi Beth,

I agree–balance is important. Sometimes it seems as though the voice overpowers the story, becoming stronger than the characterization, the plot, and the other elements that add up to a rich reading experience. A great voice is more superficial enjoyment, like a comedy often is, without providing the full meal of a story. Thanks for the comment! :)

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Amber April 24, 2012 at 8:04 am

I’m a dialogue junkie, so I bore myself if I have more than a bit of “introspection” or narrative anywhere. I like that two paragraph guideline (I say guideline, because I hate “rule” :) ).

I get a little tired of the snark, too. Don’t get me wrong, I love it when it is done right, but I think we are hitting an age of oversnark in a lot of writing (TV included).

Lovely post as always!

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Jami Gold April 24, 2012 at 8:07 am

Hi Amber,

Yes, go with “guideline”–especially because I break it all the time (“Well, one long paragraph and two short paragraphs are okay, right?”). :) And I’m with you on the over-snark. Thanks for the comment!

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