If I’m writing a story, I need two things: a voice, and a hook to hang it on.
Of course, ideally I’ll have a lot more than that – characters, a setting, a title, some ideas, a large espresso, a bag of Cadbury’s Giant Buttons – but a voice and a hook are enough to be going on with. I’m not sure which of the two is more important, or which ought to come first; my hunch is that the hook comes first, but the voice matters more.
My story for The Lonely Crowd, ‘Smile Harder’, is in three parts. The middle part is an adaptation of a true story, related to me by a psychologist friend (no spoilers here – all I’ll say is that I know it’s not easy to believe, but it really did happen, more or less as I’ve written it). The bookending parts have the same narrator, the psychologist Róisín, but the story is driven by another voice: that of the troubled delivery driver, Inzamam.
By ‘voice’, I of course mean vocabulary, syntax, rhythms of speech (Inzamam speaks in Indian-inflected Yorkshire, one of my favourite dialects to listen to) – but I mean a lot more than that, too. A voice is more than the sum of its parts. It’s an expressive force that, as Philip Roth put it, ‘begins at around the back of the knees and reaches well above the head’. In prose fiction, a character’s voice does an awful lot of work; for me, as a writer, the voice isn’t just a way in to a character’s identity – it is their identity.
So I had Róisín’s story (names have been changed to protect, well, everybody); I knew that I wanted to tell it, and I reached for a voice that would help me to do that. Along came Inzamam – bubbling, volatile, funny, menacing, vulnerable. Where he came from is another question. But I don’t think he’d have come from anywhere if it hadn’t been for that hook.
My first novel, Wild Ink, grew out of the voice of the narrator, hospitalised and bed-bound Albert Chaliapin. Again, I’ll never know exactly where Chaliapin came from – I’ll always wonder – but I do remember the hook. My brother’s then-girlfriend, a trainee nurse, had been visiting, and she’d left a training booklet in the guest bedroom by mistake. It was pretty gruesome: it was sort of like a pamphlet of colour swatches you’d get from a DIY shop, but instead of Birch White or Lambent Teal the images were of – there’s no pleasant way of putting this – different kinds of bedsore. That, improbably enough, was where it began. Before I really knew how, the griping, rambling, eloquent voice of poor old Albert Chaliapin was building into a story.
I’m currently trying to publish my latest novel, Quays, through the crowdfunding publisher Unbound (*rattles bucket hopefully*). Here there’s no first-person narrator, but the novel still has a voice – it’s a composite voice, many notes making a single chord. The hook, the starting-point, is a little more complicated, too. The voice grew not from a single point or a single story but from a city – the city of New York in the 1920s, rich, plural, noisy and magnificent. I suppose, here, the two things bled into each other: the city made me reach for a voice, and the voice, when it arrived, was the voice of the city.
Maybe stories aren’t as simple as I’ve tried to make out.
But each one does need that hook, that trigger, whatever form it takes (you might have a dozen hooks, or only one; your hook might wind up being what your story is all about, or, when you’re finished, you might find that you’ve written the hook out of it altogether). And if you don’t have a voice, you don’t have a story. Voices are what writers do.
Richard Smyth‘s short fiction has appeared in Structo, Foxhole, The Stockholm Review, Riptide Journal, The Stinging Fly, The Fiction Desk, Litro, .Cent, Haverthorn, Firewords and Vintage Script. His latest novel, Quays, is being crowdfunded by London publisher Unbound. As a journalist, he writes for publications including The Guardian, The TLS, New Statesman, New Humanist and New Scientist. He is also the author of four non-fiction books, including A Sweet Wild Thing. Tweet him @RSmythFreelance.
You can read ‘Smile Harder’ in Issue Six of The Lonely Crowd which may be purchased here.
The Lonely Crowd has been shortlisted for Best Magazine at the annual Saboteur Awards, please consider voting for us here.
Copyright @Richard Smyth, 2017. Image © Jo Mazelis, 2017.