My five-year-old daughter has a voice she uses when she’s playing an adult, be it a teacher, doctor, newscaster, or mom. It’s a cross between James Lipton and the funny voice Billy Crystal uses when he says he’s going to “talk like this” for the rest of the day in When Harry Met Sally. What Cora is going for here is the voice of authority. Why she’s decided this is what that voice sounds like, I’m not really sure, but when she switches into it, I know to listen. In my advanced fiction writing class we’ve been talking a lot about the voice of authority and have found it to be one of the tougher things to identify in a story. It’s like the old saying about porn: I know it when I see it. But why?
Part of it is the same reason I know to listen to Cora–her voice–but it’s not just what she says, it’s the pacing. In one of my favorite examples she sat at my computer chair playing newscaster, and declared, “This just in: gumdrops good for teeth!” She’d grabbed my attention, got to the point, and kept things brief, i.e., she had a sense of the newscaster’s audience.
Another great example of authority comes from my husband who states things so reasonably you wouldn’t dare to disbelieve him. I’ve seen him talk his way out of fender benders and into discounts and all because he is able to establish a sense of authority through his calm nature and crazy vocabulary. Maybe it’s ethos in the classical sense, which includes a healthy respect and goodwill for the person he’s interacting with, along with being well-spoken and confident. He always seems to know the right thing to say and when, which is I guess a lot of what makes good writing. I think of the story “The Cavemen in the Hedges” by Stacey Richter, and how she is able to convince me that cavemen exist in the first paragraph because she has the authority to know they like shiny things. If things are stated as reasonable, you’re more likely to believe them.
Rhythm is part of it, too. Think of dancing and trusting your partner.
It ties too to what Wayne C. Booth talks about in The Rhetoric of Fiction (which I’m here going to pretend to have read when we all know it was more of a Wikipedia skim, which I’ll admit, thereby ruining my authority) as the three reasons people read: 1) intellectual curiosity, or to discover some kind of truth, 2) qualitative curiosity, or an aesthetic attachment to the work, and 3) practical curiosity, i.e., a strong attachment to the characters and the desire to see what happens to them. All of these tie to the author’s ability to make the reader care what happens. Part of this is that the author has some confidence in your intelligence and trusts you to follow along, and who doesn’t want to believe someone who thinks you’re smart?
And finally, one reason I know we sometimes don’t trust a story is because it’s riddled with errors and hesitancy. Want to lose authority? Format your dialogue incorrectly, use comma splices like you’ve got comma splices to spare, and make those antecedents as unclear as possible. Keep saying someone is kind of angry, or a little unsure, or a bit this or that. The more hesitant a writer is (and I’m looking at you here too, adverbs), the less likely I am to trust them.
My class and I will continue to push each other to try and identify what it is that creates this authority. This constant pushing is one of the things I like best about teaching. But in the meantime, any thoughts? I’d love to hear why you believe one story over another, or how you classify authority.