All else equal, a great story, WELL TOLD is superior to a great story adequately told.

If this sounds like common sense, that’s because it is. And yet, people argue with it.

What Does “Well Told” Really Mean?

Maybe the skeptics simply aren’t clear on what I mean by “well told.” Let’s remedy that:

Well Told: Conveying a story in a compelling voice, with an interesting and distinct style—authoritatively–such that the reader immediately and implicitly trusts the author will deliver a worthwhile tale.

Listen up:

Voice is literally how the POV’s / narrator’s words would sound if read aloud. Compare: Edward James Olmos to Bill Gates. Or, Queen Latifah to Hillary Clinton (the latter’s mildly offensive black dialect speech notwithstanding). Admittedly, unless you’re listening to an audiobook, this aspect of prose is left somewhat to the imagination. Nevertheless, a good writer will invariably cause you to “hear” someone speaking in your head (who’s not you) when you read their work. Not just any someone. No. Someone compelling. Someone who you’d listen to if they were reading a phonebook. And while voice is arguably subjective, most readers can recognize the difference between a compelling voice and one that belongs in an accounting textbook. Just like most readers have had an otherwise good audiobook ruined by a shitty narrator.

Style is the personality that emerges in a writer’s work. Whereas voice is the sound of the prose, style is the pattern of the words on the page. The choices an author makes in grammar, diction, sentence complexity, and more.

Authority in prose, despite the connotations with confidence and command, is, ironically, more subtle. That’s because there’s little in the prose itself you can actually point to and say that’s authority. Instead, authority exists in the human beings at either side of the story equation; the confidence of a writer in command of their craft, and the state of calm and trust induced in a reader upon absorbing the tale told deftly.

Now we know the “what” of well told, but before we get to the “how,” a few examples wouldn’t hurt, to win over the seeing-is-believing types.

The last camel collapsed at noon.
~THE KEY TO REBECCA by Ken Follet.

The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.

The desert was the apotheosis of all deserts, huge, standing to the sky for what looked like eternity in all directions. It was white and blinding and waterless and without feature save for the faint, cloudy haze of the mountains which sketched themselves on the horizon and the devil-grass which brought sweet dreams, nightmares, death. An occasional tombstone sign pointed the way, for once the drifted track that cut its way through the thick crust of alkali had been a highway. Coaches and buckas had followed it. The world had moved on since then. Then world had emptied.
~THE GUNSLINGER by Stephen King.

I have a meanness inside of me, real as an organ. Slit me at my belly and it might slide out, meaty and dark, drop on the floor so you could stomp on it. It’s the Day blood. Something’s wrong with it. I was never a good little girl, and I got worse after the murders.
~DARK PLACES by Gillian Flynn.

My mom calls me a dreamer like it’s a bad thing.
~BETWEEN THE LINES by Claudia Whitsitt.

Homer opened the door.

“Come on in, Randolph.”

Jaffe hated the way he said Randolph, with the faintest trace of contempt in the word, as though he knew every damn crime Jaffe had ever committed, right from the first, the littlest.
~THE GREAT AND SECRET SHOW by Clive Barker.

Because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.
~JOHN 20:29 by Jesus Christ.

And there you have it. Six spectacular examples of compelling voice, stylistically interesting and distinct from one another, each just oozing with authority. Proof it can be done…

But How’d They Do It?

I have no fucking clue. I mean, I can’t be sure. You’d have to ask the authors themselves (and good luck getting in touch with the last one). The point was, to show you what’s possible. And anyway, it doesn’t matter. Because now I’m going to share principles and techniques that—with practice and experimentation and perhaps the right drug cocktail—might very well elevate your mealy-mouthed bumbling stutter-bump of a your perfectly competent (but lacking in flair) prose style, to something readers will recite during wedding toasts, funerals, State of the Union addresses, and on first dates when they hope to get laid. [Full disclosure: None of this will actually help you get laid.]

How You Can Infuse Your Prose With Authority, Voice, & Style

Microphone ImageVoice, style, and authority are as much about what you DON’T sully up the page with, as with what you strive to include. Here are some of my favorite tips, starting with what to avoid, and concluding with techniques you ought to leverage.

What to Avoid:

  • Avoid filler words and qualifiers: “almost”, “sort of”, “really”, “just”, “kinda”, “what I mean to say is”, “very”, “maybe”, etcetera. Better to make your POVs and/or narrator damn certain of what they’re saying or describing, even if they’re wrong. And don’t be vague, either. Be specific.

I’ll illustrate this (and all other) warning signs, with an abhorrent, made-up example (because I wouldn’t want to offend anyone by quoting from work I find sub-par); then, I’ll follow it up with an edited version excerpted from my work because I want to wow you with my command of the language so you’ll buy all my books because I’m too lazy to research suitable examples.

Horrible

Mercy was what some people might call a kind of exceptional woman.

She hit the heavy bag again, very hard, with a variety of kicks and punches. It was almost ready to be thrown away, like several others had in the last couple of months.

Maybe it was the memory of her difficult childhood that made the female hormones in her blood feel like male hormones instead.

Kickass

Mercy Lake was an exceptional woman.

Jab-cross-hook-elbow-knee-elbow-chop-crescent-kick.

Just ask the heavy bag, two Thai-kicks away from the dumpster, the second one she’d retired in as many months. Male hormones, make way for memories of a fucked-up childhood.

  • Avoid “filtering” description through the senses: “saw”, “heard”,  “smelled”, “tasted”, “felt”, “sensed” …unless you have a good reason to (a good reason might be to characterize your POV as someone who sees / hears something that other people wouldn’t, by emphasizing that he sees / hears it).

Mediocre

I hear the deadbolt clunk free from the jam. I hear the door creaking inward, and I can smell clove-scented cigarettes and vodka as the smoke and fumes billow into the hall. They mask, but do not entirely cloak the warm coppery smell of blood. A lot of blood.

Totally Dope

The deadbolt clunks free of the jam. The door creaks inward as a plume of clove-scented cigarette smoke and vodka fumes billows out into the hall. The vice-laden vapors mask, but do not entirely cloak, the warm coppery scent of blood. A lot of blood.

  • Avoid “borrowed” or cliched language. Say it different. Say it better.

Pathetic

“Run for your life!”

With no time to think, I run like a bat out of hell.

Pretty Damn Slick

“Run!” someone screams.

By the time my brain registers the command, I’m forty yards away from where I stood in front of the Council’s podium, wind in my face like a deodorant commercial.

  • Avoid unintentional passive voice construction when an active style would read better.

An Abortion

The call was ended by Mercy and the phone was put back in her purse.

Smooth Delivery

Mercy ended the call and returned the phone to her purse.

  • Avoid the obvious / boring / shit no one cares about; your first thought often isn’t the best. Strive for originality.

Typical, Lame Crap

Everything will be different for her, after what I’ve done. Now she won’t care about anything else except her craving for blood.

Done Proper

She might have been on her way to a party. A first date. A job. None of this will matter now. Only her new craving until quenched.

What to Leverage:

  • Leverage specific nouns and accurate verbs. Don’t dress up vague nouns and weak verbs with adjectives and adverbs.

An Abomination

The shockwave hits the cab loudly and roughly. The back glass is turned into painful fragments that collide with our head very forcefully. The cab’s rear-end is raised up off the ground quite high by the blast, and the wheels make a high-pitched noise against the road when they come back down because they were still spinning very quickly. We hit the tops of our head on the ceiling of the cab painfully, and then we jostle about against each other in the back seat in an uncontrolled manner as we come to rest.

Like A Professional

The shockwave hits the cab like a herd of invisible bison. The back glass implodes, pelting our heads with fragments–hard–like windblown hail. The rear axle–thrust from the roadway a full foot into the air–slams back down with a squealing chirp of rubber as over-revved tires reconnect with the pavement. Our skulls slam into the headliner; our limbs tangle and flail in an ear-ringing scrum.

  • Leverage all five senses for more revealing descriptions. Relate those sense to one another as *emotionally* as possible.

Weak

Henrik couldn’t hear anything except loud music because his captors had placed large headphones over his ears. It was heavy metal, which he didn’t like. He couldn’t see anything because of the hood, and so he let one of the men guide him by the arm. He couldn’t smell anything familiar in his surroundings. Only his own bad breath.

Better

Henrik did as he was told and clamped on the earmuff-style headphones over his hood. He wanted to tell the man, that no, he didn’t like heavy metal, that he found it altogether lacking in musical artistry. Keeping his mouth shut seemed more prudent. Now effectively deaf as well as blind, he had to let the man guide him by the arm. He tried to filter out a scent from the salt and damp of the ocean air. The aroma of seafood or steak emanating from a nearby restaurant, perhaps. But his own sour breath overpowered any other smells wafting by on the other side of the hood.

  • Leverage the visceral. Favor descriptions that cause an involuntary, emotional, and physiological response.

Lackluster

She is very, very attractive. Taught and curvy. The kind of woman you want to touch. Like a living statue carved by a master sculptor. Her long black hair has a lustrous sheen to it. Her teeth are clean, white, and straight. Her eyes dark but reflective. She is sexy and she knows it; you can tell by the way she moves, like she’s showing off for a hidden audience.

Tantalizing

Every curve taunts gravity and mocks time. Every joint a shadowed hollow begging to be tongued, or a velvet-veiled ridge to read like braille with learned fingertips. She is a sculpture manifest from the geometry of youth, but in color, not limited to the muted palette of bronze or stone. Her long, thick hair is the black-brown of tilled soil in an Argentinean vineyard, damp and glowing with the light of dawn. Her smile shows hard, white teeth regularly attended to by dentists and hygienists. Teasing the camera, her eyes are the dark of an eclipse and flecked with golden penumbra. She is aware of her beauty, aware it is on display, and she delights in showcasing it to the best possible effect, both to her lover, and for an audience she seems to know is watching but pretends isn’t there.

  • Leverage episodic sentences. Maintain tension by writing sentences where the meaning isn’t clear until the very end of the sentence. This increases suspense, tension, and narrative drive.

Phoned-In

The decline started gradually, she thought.

Not Too Shabby

That’s how it starts, she thought, like love draining away in a long distance relationship.

  • Leverage a varied sentence length and the occasional fragment. Avoid monotony at all costs.

Dense & Stuffy

Cynthia’s cell, fully visible through the glass partition which separated the two rooms, was a stark contrast with its bare metal floor, bare metal walls, a port-a-potty, and furniture like a waist-high craft table, constructed from unfinished four-by-four posts and hastily sawn particle board, plus a couple of cheap plastic stools off to one side, as if it were a room where the Geneva Convention held no sway.

Room to Breathe

This was in stark contrast to Cynthia’s cell, fully visible through a glass partition separating the two rooms. Bare metal floor. Bare metal walls. A port-a-potty. For furniture, a waist-high craft table constructed from unfinished four-by-four posts and hastily sawn particle board, plus a couple of cheap plastic stools off to one side like an afterthought. The kind of room where the Geneva Convention held no sway.

  • Leverage the moments in a scene when the POV’s emotional state of being changes, and devote more time to those moments.

No One Cares

Jequon rolled onto his back and Mercy rested her head on his chest. Unlike other first times, she felt no urge to speak.

There was nothing to apologize for. No reassurances required. No expectations to clarify.

It was enough to feel safe in his arms. To listen to his pulse gradually slowing in sync with hers. To have a reason to go on living.

She fell asleep, and it was the deepest, most sound sleep she’d ever had. She dreamed of their first kiss, and of holding hands on the beach, and of spilling strawberry sauce on his new white shirt. When she woke up, she was still in a state of bliss. She smiled at him, and he smiled back, and doves cooed out on the balcony.

People Turn The Page

Jequon rolled onto his back and Mercy rested her head on his chest. Unlike other first times, she felt no urge to speak.

There was nothing to apologize for. No reassurances required. No expectations to clarify.

It was enough to feel safe in his arms. To listen to his pulse gradually slowing in sync with hers. To have a reason to go on living.

She fell asleep, into a nightmare.

  • Leverage alliteration and assonance, meter and rhythm. Who says genre fiction can’t be lyrical?

Lazy

The staccato noise of machine gun fire overpowers the end of Mercy’s warning. Doesn’t matter. The triangular shape of the craft against the sky tells me its hang gliders.

Bullets ricochet off the surrounding gravel, a high-pitched whine. Other projectiles hit at less of an angle, forming little dust tornadoes. Lying on my stomach, on top of this wedge of stone, I’m very exposed.

I roll to the right, down the south face of the pyramid. All instinct. If there’s any logic to it, it’s subconscious. The glider port is to the south, thus forward momentum ought to carry my attackers to the north. I do not descend smoothly. The mound isn’t contiguous whatsoever.

Clumps and balls of sandy soil cling to stepped pockets, a fertile home for cacti, which don’t slow my roll much, but rather, inflict pain on me for not planning better. I bang against the hard-packed trail at the base of the mound. Wince as the impact inserts a porcupine’s worth of long needles deep into my thighs and shoulders.

Lyrical

The staccato rattle of automatic gunfire drowns out the last two words of Mercy’s warning. Doesn’t matter. The skewed triangle silhouettes scream hang gliders!

Bullets ricochet off the surrounding rock, whining like heel-stomped bagpipes. Others strike at a less oblique angle, setting off miniature geysers of powdered stone. Lying on my stomach, perched atop this pyramid, I couldn’t be more exposed.

I roll to my right, down the south face of the mound. Pure instinct. If there’s any logic to it, it must be subconscious. The glider port is to the south, thus forward momentum should carry my attackers to the north. I do not enjoy a smooth descent. The mound isn’t contiguous by any means.

Clumps and clods of sandy dirt cling to terraced pockets, fertile soil for prickly-pear cacti, which do little to slow down my log-roll, but plenty to punish me for not coming up with a better plan. I thud against the hard-packed trail at the base of the mound. Wince as the impact drives an acupuncture supply store’s worth of inch-long needles hilt-deep into my thighs and shoulders.

  • Leverage a powerful metaphor or simile from time-to-time.

Yawn

It ignites then burns slowly with a slight hiss. The hairs on the back of my hand catch fire as I shield my cheek from the flame. They stink. The rags burn slowly. The tiny flame crawls toward the bullet hole at a pace set by the chemistry which governs flammable materials.

Damn, Son

It erupts into a wedge of orange heat, whooshing like the lost breath from a sucker-punch as it licks at the edges of its own fumy aura. I smell the hairs melt from the back of the hand protecting my face before the flame contracts nearer to the surface of the makeshift fuse.

Vapor spent, the rag doesn’t burn quickly. The tiny flame inches toward the bullet hole, the sail of a miniature ghost ship propelled by an imperceptible wind.

Where To Go From Here

Read metric shit tons of great writing, obviously. But you knew that already. Still, the techniques above are just a small sample of how very small changes can massively improve the voice, style, and authority of your prose. The best way to discover new methods, is to see what others have done. No author does it all well, so you have to read broadly. Hint: unplug your WiFi.

Bottom line, put in the time. Don’t settle for “good enough.”

Aim for top-shelf.