Essays > Published on September 17th, 2011

Nuts and Bolts: “Big Voice” Versus “Little Voice”

A lot of what happens here, in this workshop, will be us establishing a common language about writing.  That way, we’ll be able to communicate about what works in a piece of writing.  And about what could work, better.

Some of these terms or distinctions – “horses” or “recording angel” or “on-the-body” – you could call by other names.  The point of these essays is to recognize each distinction, name and describe it with a common term, then practice using the distinction to make your writing more effective.

This months term, you could call “Voiceover.”  Or an “Aside.”  But here, we’re going to call it “Big Voice.”

This is when the character speaks directly to the reader, making observations about the world – NOT describing a physical scene.

It’s called “Big Voice” to differentiate it from “Little Voice” which is that detailed description of a scene.  Also called “Recording Angel.”  Little Voice records who does what, how the scene appeared, how the narrator’s body felt – all the objective details that create the scene in the reader’s mind.

But “Big Voice”…   That lets the character step up on a soap box and make a little speech.  That’s Tyler Durden’s proclamation about “… what you see at fight club is a generation of men raised by women…”  Or Carl Streator’s rants about noise pollution.   Or the speculations about God in Invisible Monsters

These “Big Voice” statements don’t have to be “true,” only true to THAT character.  Hell, you don’t even have to believe the statements.  Those chest-thumping rants.  But your character has to make their case to support each statement, and present enough evidence so the statement will resonate with the audience.  An interesting character does stuff, makes mistakes, has needs, and gives strong opinions.  Sometimes stupid opinions, but even those beat the crap out of a passive character without a thought in their head. 

More important, moving to a “Big Voice” rant lets you create different effects.  Besides just creating a better character.

There are plenty of ways NOT to present Big Voice, but first, the benefits:

Think about the television series The Waltons:  each episode started with a slow pan across the landscape, and a short voiceover speech about the narrator’s childhood on Walton’s Mountain.  This speech ended as the physical scene between characters began.  And it almost doesn’t matter what the voiceover says.  Often, I never hear it.  Or the speech is so vague it could precede any episode.  Still… it creates a mood.  It frames each episode and sets up a tone of nostalgia.  Almost like a fade to a flashback.  As the camera pans over the forest, the voice is moving across time, taking us back to the 1930’s.

So, Big Voice can be a framing device.  As it is at the beginning of The Great Gatsby, that first chapter, where Nick (now grown up and jaded and bitter) talks about how he lost his innocence.  Only then… after this tone of loss is established… do we drop into the long-long flashback that the novel really is. 

So, Big Voice can be a framing device that sets up mood.

Now, think of the television series Sex and The City, and the main character, Carrie, typing in her laptop computer as we hear her observations in voiceover.  (… “Was I the only woman not in a hot three-way, every night?  I wondered…)  Again, here’s Big Voice at work.  But here, it acts as a buffer between physical, Little Voice, scenes.  And here, the Big Voice creates the effect that time has passed between each scene.  Again, it’s a faming device, but its biggest use is to separate the scenes and “space” them apart in time. 

Now, think of the movie Citizen Kane, there the Big Voice is literally the voice of the newsreel reporters who stand in profile, their faces lost in darkness and cigarette smoke as they demand of each other:  “Who WAS Charles Foster Kane?  What were his dreams?  What was Rosebud?”   They ask all the Big Voice questions – establishing the themes and mood of the story – without ever becoming characters.  Plus, we come back to them in order to establish PLACE for each segment of the Little Voice flashbacks.  Each reporter tells someone (a boss, bystander, interview subject) who we’re about to go visit, next.  This frames the story location-by-location, and interview-by-interview so the viewer is never left behind in the confusion.

Okay, so far?

Big Voice does all that.

It develops a character’s view of the world – allowing the character to have an opinion and be controversial.  And philosophical.  (Again, you don’t have to agree with your characters – in fact, it’s more interesting if you totally disagree, but still have to make their case strong and convincing.)

Big Voice develops mood and sets the scene:  “On Walton’s Mountain, during the Great Depression, we seldom had shoes but our hearts were always filled with love for each other…”  And then the cow would run away to give birth.

Big Voice also creates a sense of time passing.  This way, several hours and days can seem to pass in only a few pages.

And cutting to Big Voice can help you set up your next scene, location-wise. 

Plus – if nothing else – Big Voice gives another “texture” of information to the story.  It helps vary the narrative voice. 

Now, what NOT to do with Big Voice:

Don’t use it too long. 

Again, do NOT use Big Voice too long.  It seems to work best in short passages, intercut with physical action and sensation.  Consider chapter three from Lullaby, there the Big Voice rant is cut into a scene with shitloads of little physical business.  The narrator is building a model from a zillion tiny pieces.  The glue smell.  The noise from next door.  They all help “ground” the scene in a physical way so the Big Voice rant won’t overwhelm the reader.  Here, the narrator is alone – always a terrible situation for creating tension.  But the physical task, plus the Big Voice rant create enough interest for the reader.  Otherwise – NOTHING happens here.  A man builds a plastic house and steps on it.  The end.

Chapter Six of Fight Club, same deal.  Here’s a man sitting in a boring business meeting.  He’s not even running the overhead projector.  He’s in a dark corner.  But the physical sensation of his blood-filled mouth, plus his Big Voice rants, they allow his story to jump around in time and place.

So, Big Voice, keep it short. 

The only chance to go longer, might be a closing speech.  But even there, it can kill the energy of the plot if it goes a beat too long.  The closing speech in Gatsby is heart-fucking-breaking.  And short.

Another warning about Big Voice: reconsider ever leading with it.  This is just my pissy, personal issue, but I seldom like a book or story that opens with a thought, observation or statement.  Me, I need to be hooked by a compelling action – then, I’ll listen to Big Voice. 

This is why the first chapter of The Great Gatsby always made me stumble.  As a reader, I don’t know Nick Carraway, not yet, so I’ve always resisted his long, vague, self-involved speech. 

No, my preference is always to use a quick, compelling scene – now called a “gripper” scene in movies – before risking Big Voice in the second chapter.  The exception to this was Diary, and I did it only for the sake of a change.  It’s still my first choice to lead with a compelling Little Voice scene.

For homework, look around your world and find examples of Big Voice.  Figure out what purpose they fill.  Mood?  Framing?   Implication of time passing?  Political message?   Location shift?

Then, look at your own work.

Experiment with using Big Voice to create mood.  Then to transition from scene to scene by creating a sense of time. 

Then, write a soap box rant for a character.  Something that will allow your character to state their world view, and write a Little Voice scene where you can present that rant.

Yes, it’s summer.  And this is the worst time to write.  Nobody is submitting work in their local writers workshops.  Everyone is traveling. 

To keep working, consider carrying a notebook with you.  As you spend time with strangers and family, as you travel, listen and take notes.  Airports are a gold mine for physical business – how people loiter or stand or lean.  Spend this good weather looking for the material and ideas you can develop once the weather gets crappy.

If you have a project going, print a hard copy and carry it around with you, adding physical business and sensation as you see it.  Literally “fleshing out” your characters from real-life models.

So… be listening and harvesting ideas.  Odd-ball phrases.  Physical gestures.  Be paying attention.  And taking notes.

Something compelling and irresistible will stick in your mind.

Another thing is – I’m sorry, but I can’t read and critique manuscripts.   Nope, sorry, no way.  There’s not enough time in the day.  Or days in my life.  The stack is too high. 

Back in the days, when I had a manuscript ready, I’d take it to Tom Spanbauer.  To read it, he’d charge me five hundred dollars, cash.   That’s FIVE HUNDRED DOLLARS!

And, yes, this galled me a little.  This “work” was actually something I figured Tom would enjoy.  Damn it.  It would be a “pleasure” to read and comment on my work.  Besides, I was already paying him hundreds and hundreds of bucks for his workshop.  And I’d bought and read all his books.  So, it just seemed fair that he’d read my work – free of charge.  And help me get it published.

Well, I paid the money.  Pleasure or not, this is really about time.  That time he spent reading my work was time away from his own work – or anything else he’d prefer to do.

So, between writing, and the mail and filing and research and book promotion and my family and bill paying and these essays – my time is stretched tight.  Please don’t ask me to review your manuscript.  It’s nothing personal. 

Your job is to write something so compelling that an agent or editor will enjoy it.  Hell, they don’t even have to enjoy it – they just have to be terrified that someone else WILL enjoy it.  Then, publish it. 

These essays are – honestly – the best contribution I can make to your work.

If your work doesn’t sell, check the way you establish “head and heart” authority.  Check it for on-the-body detail.  For consistent themes or horses that build to an emotional climax instead of settle and spread flat.  Check it for those dreaded “thought” verbs or too many “I”s. 

Then, use Big Voice effectively.

If your story is strong, your work will sell.  If your story is weak – all the advice in the world won’t sell it.  So, write a better one.  That’s the secret.

Once you’re published, you’ll still have to Write a better one…

Again, later this year, I’ll answer more letters – but only those sent between two dates yet to be announced.  If you’d like a personal response, please keep checking the web site for that future mailing “window,” and make sure to write between the two dates.

And again, thank you for reading my work.

About the author

Chuck Palahniuk is author of the novels Fight Club, Survivor, Invisible Monsters, Choke, Lullaby, Diary, Haunted, Rant, Snuff,  Pygmy, Tell-All, DamnedDoomed, and the upcoming Beautiful You. He also has two non-fiction books, the Portland travel memoir Fugitives & Refugees and the collection of true stories, essays, and interviews, Stranger Than Fiction.

Reedsy Marketplace UI

1 million authors trust the professionals on Reedsy. Come meet them.

Enter your email or get started with a social account: