From Sarah, With Joy

*Poet * Author * Wanderluster*

Monday, July 25, 2011

Barbra Streisand vs. Sarah McLachlan: Writing in Belt and Falsetto

As writers, we hear a lot about voice. We're told to make our voice genuine and interesting and unique, and that a stand-out voice can make all the difference. I agree.

Voice is a dynamic thing, though, and I think we can develop and enrich our own voice by learning from all the different voices around us, as well as tapping in to the range we've all got within ourselves. Today I want to look at it in a sort of spectrum, the power belty side represented by the queen of belt, Barbra Streisand, and the piercing falsetto side represented by the beautiful Sarah McLachlan.

When you write with your belty voice you don't hold back. In my mind this end of the spectrum focuses on power and emphasis. Characters and stories are strong and blatant. I think J.K. Rowling is a good belty writer. Her characters are very well defined, you know what they're thinking and feeling, and the story is powerful and clear.

One word for good falsetto writing is haunting. It sticks with you long afterwards, even if you're not sure why. Sometimes its just a feeling that they get you. The writing is subtle, but still very clear. If belty writing is like a punch in the face, falsetto is like a knife in the heart. Wallace Stegner does falsetto incredibly well. The voices of his characters are piercing and clear, and his language sweeps you softly and quietly off your feet.

Here are two videos from Barbra and Sarah to help illustrate my point. Both are clips from movies, because that helps bring this back to telling stories, and I also happily just realized that they're about somewhat the same topic. In both cases the characters have just been, in some sense, dumped.

My Man: Barbra Streisand

When Somebody Loved Me: Sarah McLachlan

This is not to say writers are one way or the other, and in fact my real point here is to try and get ideas from you about getting the best of both. Each side has dangers: belty might get brash, melodramatic or impersonal, and falsetto might get dull, sentimental or bland. But if we can add subtlety to the strong and excitement to the soft then each is benefited, as well as our voice as a whole. So how do we do that?

I think the key is emotional honesty. That's what makes Barbra's belty so haunting and piercing, and Sarah's falsetto so relatable and attention grabbing. That's where you have to start, at least, but technique-wise, what specifically can we do to create that good mix? What gauges can you think of to make sure our belt isn't brash and our falsetto isn't dull? Do we just have to rely on other readers to tell us? Which voice do you use most, do you think, and how do you use it most effectively?

Does any of this make sense?

Sarah Allen


  1. When I write my dialogues, I imagine my characters voice. It is deep? Sqeaky? Whiney?

    Great post!

  2. Because I write stories either with a female point of view/strong female presence, a good portion of my dialogue is brash, opinionated and confident.

    I know it doesn't make much sense, but it works for me.

  3. I never really thought about it, but I'm more of a belter than a falsetto voice I think. I know that my comfort voice has long sentences, occasionally elaborate language, and a casual, fun tone.

    If you get a chance, check out a fellow writer's zombie story and help me make him wear an embarrassing shirt next year! Details are here:

  4. I've never thought of "voice" in those terms! Is there such a thing as a combination of both belt and falsetto?

  5. I think it all comes back to your own words: "the key is emotional honesty". When we are honest in everything, even our emotions, then we can be true to our character's voice (and our own). :)

    T.A. Demings: Words for a rainy day


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