Our last post looked at voice: what it is, and how writers can strengthen it in their own writing. (You can read it here.)
Several of you have questions, so let’s spend a little more time on voice, this time with the first paragraph of Made in America: My Story, by Walmart founder Sam Walton, with John Huey. (By the way, the “with” tells us that Mr. Huey was the ghostwriter. Technically, Mr. Walton is the author and Mr. Huey is the writer.)
“Success has always had its price, I guess, and I learned that lesson the hard way in October of 1985 when Forbes magazine named me the so-called ‘richest man in America.’ Well, it wasn’t too hard to imagine all those newspaper and TV people up in New York saying ‘Who?’ and ‘He lives where?’ The next thing we knew, reporters and photographers started flocking down here to Bentonville, I guess to take pictures of me diving into some swimming pool full of money they imagined I had, or to watch me light big fat cigars with $100 bills while the hootchy-kootchy girls danced by the lake.”
Earlier, I said that, “Voice is the articulation of your authentic self—the capturing of your essence in prose. It's what gives your story energy, momentum, and depth.”
What do we know about Mr. Walton after reading this paragraph?
First, in terms of energy (or the book’s “life force” that makes us want to know what happens next), we learn plenty. Mr. Walton cuts right to the heart of what most readers are wondering: What is it like to be the richest man in the country?
He starts the book at the plot’s highest point—a terrific way to immerse the reader in the plot structure. If we’re hooked by what he says about being at the pinnacle of business success, we’ll want to read about how he got there and what he did after getting there.
Next, in terms of the plot’s horizontal momentum, which I think of as “the rhythm that moves the plot forward at the appropriate pace,” we first notice that it’s a llloooonnggg paragraph! As with our first example, it’s as if we’re with him at the kitchen table, chatting informally.
And right off the bat, we find out that this Sam Walton is a talker, a natural salesman, a guy who never met a stranger. And while he’s speaking of his status as the nation’s wealthiest man in comic—even corny—terms, there’s an undercurrent of discord.
There’s clearly an “us versus them” mentality. A self-made man, Sam Walton still thinks of himself as the underdog, perhaps with a huge chip on his shoulder. Every word in this first paragraph builds momentum that upholds the plot structure of the whole book. It’s a David and Goliath story, and even after David has won, he’s still a scrappy fighter. That momentum carries his story.
And, finally, in terms of vertical depth, or insight into characterization (his own personality), we get plenty of clues. Notice the old-fashioned—again, even corny—choice of words. When’s the last time you heard someone say “hootchy-kootchy girls?” I'm 54, and the term is archaic even at my advanced age.
And it’s clear that this isn’t just the story of an underdog—it’s the story of an underdog who thinks himself superior to the big dogs. Notice the “us versus them” language: “all those . . . people up in New York” judging him “down here in Bentonville” and “flocking” like birds of a feather to see what they must “imagine” will be his swimming pool full of money, his cigar lighting tactics, and dancing girls.
If we buy into this, we nod at his folksy charm and chuckle right along with him. But make no mistake: Sam Walton is no bumpkin. The very first word of Chapter One is “success,” and the first sentence summarizes his story: the price he paid to climb to the top and stay there. This is the story of sheer will, his drive to reach the top.
Sam Walton has little in common with Frank McCourt (from the last post), but each does a masterful job of infusing his unique voice in a way that makes readers want to read more.