Alphabet Blogging Challenge Day 22

It’s day 22 of my September blogging challenge.

The letter is V

and the subject is VOICE and VIEWPOINT

It’s important if you want to be a successful writer to create a strong voice. It doesn’t always have to be the same voice – in fact it’s an advantage if you can use different narrative voices to suit your material. Different voices can be achieved in various ways: through the narrative point of view you choose – the character telling the story will largely dictate the voice; through the sort of language and sentence structure you use – a terse writing style with short punchy sentences might lend itself to a thriller or adventure story, but not be the best voice for a love story; through the tone you adopt – cynical, ironic, serious, dreamy, optimistic, cocky. Point of view, use of language and tone can all contribute to a distinctive voice.

A strong narrative voice gives readers confidence in the writer. They can relax in the knowledge that the writer knows what he/she is doing. A reader and writer enter into a contract with each other. The reader trusts the writer to produce a well-written story that it is worthwhile spending time reading, and the writer implicitly declares ‘I’ll deliver the goods.’ It is a similar experience to going to the theatre or cinema. If the actor on stage stumbles over their lines, lacks stage presence, ‘feels’ wrong for the character, or the film star doesn’t inhabit their role convincingly, or lacks the authority to make the character authentic, the audience will be disappointed and feel let down by the failure of the film/play to fulfil the terms of the contract.

We can see an example of a strong narrative voice in Stephen King’s ‘Carrie’: Momma was a very big woman, and she always wore a hat. Lately her legs had begun to swell, and her feet always seemed on the point of overflowing her shoes. She wore a black cloth coat with a black fur collar. Her eyes were blue and magnified behind rimless bifocals. She always carried a large black satchel purse and in it was her change purse, her billfold (both black), a large King James Bible (also black) with her name stamped on the front in gold, and a stack of tracts secured with a rubber band.

I think this is a strong narrator. Stephen King has chosen specific and wonderful details – I love her feet always seemed to be on the point of overflowing her shoes – which help create an authentic, commanding voice.

Point of view is inextricably linked with voice. If a writer chooses a first or third person narrator, or even second, or an unreliable narrator, or a detached, external narrator, the voice used will inevitably be different.

John Gardner in his book ‘The Art of Fiction’ explains very clearly the impact of an intimate narrator versus a distant, external narrator. Essentially, his work explores the different ways in which the reader is taken, by the narrator, inside the character’s head. Gardner gives us five different ways of narrating the same scene.

  1. It was winter of the year 1853. A large man stepped out of a doorway. A completely detached narrator. One who focuses more on the year and the season than the character – we don’t even discover his name. This is an observer of events, a distant narrator conveying little emotion.
  2. Henry J. Warburton had never much cared for snowstorms. We now have the character’s name. Based on a name, we can start to form impressions, make judgements. We’ve moved a little closer to the character.
  3. Henry hated snowstorms. The description becomes more personal. The surname is dropped, and this is potentially someone we know, or are about to get to know. He could be a friend.
  4. God how he hated these damn snowstorms. A much more intimate voice. It’s not quite first-person, but  we are close to the character, not in his head exactly, but perhaps perched on his shoulder, feeling and hating these snowstorms as much as he is.
  5. Snow. Under your collar, down inside your shoes, freezing and plugging up your miserable soul. This is an interesting one. We’re right with the character, the snow under our collar and inside our shoes. Wet and miserable. It’s an intimate description, and we’re in the second-person. This can sometimes create a sense of detachment, but here, I think, it draws the reader in, so that we share the character’s experience and emotions. We’ve moved a long way from (1) where we don’t even know the character’s name.

Clever, isn’t it?!

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2 Comments

  1. Christine says:

    I think that voice is the hardest thing to get right. You don’t want everything you write to sound the same but you also want to establish your own ‘sound’ as it were. Viewpoint – well, that’s another thing altogether! I downloaded The Picture of Dorian Gray the other day, mainly because I like the story and also, it was free on Amazon. Bur I couldn’t cope with the omniscient narrator thing. Drove me mad – wanted to say, choose a character and stick with it,Wilde! I gave up halfway through chaper 1 and decided to watch the movie instead.

  2. Lindsay says:

    Love the comment, Christine. Isn’t it funny how the omniscient narrator who used to be in every novel now feels like some alien being!

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