On Writing

Young Writers Contest GuidelinesOn Writing Point-of-View and Voice

Two of the most important considerations as you write your short story or poem are point-of-view and voice.  Having command of these powerful writing tools will add layers of meaning to your writing.  And, believe it or not, they’re not nearly as complicated as you might think.

If you’ve babysat or spent time with young siblings, you’ve no doubt seen them immersed in some kind of role playing game.  Maybe you even remember your own fairy princess tea parties, or fierce light-saber battles as a Jedi knight.   As a child, I loved playing school with my younger sister.  We lined up our stuffed animals, each with their own pencil and paper, and I became the school-marm, demanding complete attention from my students in crisp clear diction – even going so far as to rap the paws of one distractible stuffed bunny.

Great writers are masters of role playing.  As you develop your characters and narrative voice, dive right into that role.  You know the circumstances of your character’s life better than anyone.  Now, slip into his skin and become your character.   What is important to him?  What sights and sounds and smells and tastes permeate his daily life?  What do they mean to him?  Will his voice be dry and barren like the arid desert, or lush and full of life like the rainforest that nurtures his village?  Only you know, and the more specific sensory detail and imagery, the closer you will bring your readers to his experience.

Three of my favorite books on the craft of writing are “Writing Fiction, a Guide to Narrative Craft,” by Janet Burroway, “Make a Scene; Craft a Story One Scene at a Time,” by Jordan E. Rosenfeld, and “Making Shapely Fiction,” by Jerome Stern.  Please see links at the end of this page for more information.

Narrative Voice

In Jerome Stern’s Making Shapely Fiction, he explains Voice as follows:

Voice is the writer’s style as it is expressed in the character’s speech and thoughts.

Writers can be many people and can have access to many voices.  They can assume the voice of an adolescent girl, an elderly woman, a bitter boy, an incompetent salesman, an unhappy teacher.  Each voice creates a character.  The notion of voice is not hard to understand when it’s clear that a character is telling a story in first person.  Salinger’s opening to Catcher in the Rye creates Holden Caulfield:

If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.

Salinger is establishing Holden’s speech rhythms, vocabulary, and degree of awareness-he’s sharp, rude, young but insightful, and he reads books.  That voice has to be consistent if it’s going to be convincing.  If Holden started sounding like a New York Times contributor, “I invested various states of mind – madness, horror, hilarity – fully at ease in exploring every one,” we say the character breaks voice.

Voice in third person is a bit more elusive.  You are narrating, but not entirely in your own voice.  Your reader hears your character’s voice through you, and simultaneously hears you through your character.  Carson McCullers begins The Member of the Wedding:

It happened that green and crazy summer when Frankie was twelve years old.  This was the summer when for a long time she had not been a member.  She belonged to no club and was a member of nothing in the world.  Frankie had become an unjoined person who hung around in doors, and she was afraid.

As the book goes on, that direct, young voice with its breathless little ands lets us hear Frankie through McCullers.  McCullers/Frankie describes the cook:

Her hair was parted, plaited, and greased close to the skull, and she had a flat and quiet face.  There was only one thing wrong with Berenice – her left eye was bright blue glass.

We won’t hear McCullers/Frankie sound like this:

It was full dark now, but still early; Gay Street was full of absorbed faces; many of the store windows were still alight.  Plaster people, in ennobled postures, stiffly wore untouchably new clothes; there was even a little boy, with shortstraight pants, bare knees and high socks, obviously a sissy: but he wore a cap, all the same, not a hat like a baby.

That’s Rufus, the young boy in James Agee”s Death in the Family.  But it’s Agee/Rufus, a kind of double voice with its own rules.

To stay in voice you have to hear that voice in your head.  As you can see from the examples, writers establish a range of vocabulary, imagery, phrasing, and style of punctuation.  Reading your story aloud is a fine way of testing your control of the voice.  You’ll hear where the voice has gone flat or lost its rhythm.  You’ll hear where a certain insight or piece of information seems out of character.

Don’t accept the notion that the character could possibly say or think this or that.  Possibly is not enough.  You want that shock of recognition – you want your readers to say Yes!, not Well, maybe.

Lighthouse Writers Workshop in Denver clarifies Point-of-View follows: 

Point of View

(Who speaks? To whom?)

In daily life we never understand each other, neither complete clairvoyance nor complete confessional exists.  We know each other approximately, by external signs, and these serve well enough as a basis for society and even for intimacy.  But people in a novel can be understood completely by the reader, if the novelist wishes; their inner as well as their outer life can be exposed.  And this is why they often seem more definite than characters in history, or even our own friends.   ––E.M. Forster

Third Person—when the author (vs. a character) speaks

  • Editorial Omniscient—author is GOD; has total knowledge; tells us what to think

To be an enthusiast had become her vocation, and sometimes even when she did not feel like it, she became enthusiastic in order not to disappoint the expectations of those who knew her.  The subdued smile which, though it did not suit her faded features, always played around her lips, expressed as if a spoiled child, a continual consciousness of her charming defect, which she neither wished, nor could, nor considered it necessary to correct.  ––Tolstoy, War and Peace

  • Limited Omniscient––author has limited insight (generally, this means the author has access to the mind of one character only):

It was ten o’clock on the evening of the same day, and the permanent residents of the household on the mountain were restored to routines and sobriety.  Jane, on the other hand, sat by herself in the kitchen, a glass of Scotch before her on the cleanly wiped table, going deeper and deeper into a mood she could recognize only as unfamiliar.  She could not describe it; it was both frightening and satisfying.  It was like letting go and being taken somewhere.  She tried to trace it back.  When, exactly, had it started?  ––Gail Godwin, “The Odd Woman”

  • Objective––author is restricted to external facts; reader infers the internal

Here’s an example of third person objective from Cormac McCarthy’s The Orchard Keeper:

For some time now the road had been deserted, white and scorching yet, though the sun was already reddening the western sky. He walked along slowly in the dust, stopping from time to time and bobbling on one foot like some squat ungainly bird while he examined the wad of tape coming through his shoe-sole. He turned again. Far down the blazing strip of concrete a small shapeless mass had emerged and was struggling toward him. It loomed steadily, weaving and grotesque like something seen through bad glass, gained briefly the form and solidity of a pickup truck, whipped past and receded into the same liquid shape by which it came.

He swung his cocked thumb after it in a vague gesture. Little fans of dust scurried up the road shoulder and settled in his cuffs.

  • Pros—author is able to interpret a character’s appearance, actions, and thoughts, even if the character cannot do so; author has more freedom of movement, can give us a panoramic view, tell us what has happened elsewhere, or in the future; story can be told from several viewpoints.
  • Cons/Common errors––As Janet Burroway says about writing in third person, “You make your own rules and…having made them, you must stick to them.”  In other words, you can’t begin a story using limited omniscient, then switch to editorial omniscient when it suits you; readers develop expectations and will get mad at you if don’t live up to them.

Wrong:  Leo’s neck flushed against the prickly weave of his uniform collar.  He concentrated on his buttons and tried not to look into the face of the bandmaster, who, however, was more amused than angry.

Right:  Leo’s neck flushed against the prickly weave of his uniform collar.  He concentrated on his buttons and tried not to look into the face of the bandmaster, who, however, was astonishingly smiling.  ––Janet Burroway, Writing Fiction

Second Person – when a character is referred to as “you”

  • An entire work can be told in the second person, as in Jay McInerney’s novel Bright Lights, Big City or Pam Houston’s story “How to Talk to a Hunter” (excerpt below):

When he says “Skins or blankets?” it will take you a moment to realize that he’s asking which you want to sleep under.  And in your hesitation he’ll decide that he wants to see your skin wrapped in the big black moose hide.  He carried it, he’ll say, soaking wet and heavier than a dead man, across the tundra for two –– was it hours or days or weeks?

  • Sometimes only part of a work is in second person, as in this excerpt from Tom Robbins’ Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, in which the author briefly addresses his central character:

You hitchhike.  Timidly at first, barely flashing your fist, leaning almost imperceptibly in the direction of your imaginary destination.  A squirrel runs along a tree limb.  You hitchhike the squirrel.  A blue jay flies by.  You flag it down.

  • Pros––forces reader to relate to “you”; reader, in essence, becomes the character
  • Cons/Common errors––story must be specific enough to interest the reader, yet general enough to make the “you” universal; note that it’s not second person p.o.v. when an omniscient author addresses the reader as “you,” as in this Tom Robbins’ example, also from Even Cowgirls Get the Blues:  “If you could buckle your Bugs Bunny wristwatch to a ray of light, your watch would continue ticking but its hands wouldn’t move.”

First Person – when a character tells the story

This may be the protagonist (central narrator) telling his or her own story, or it may be a character telling a story about another character (peripheral narrator).  For example, in The Great Gatsby,  Nick Carroway tells us the story of Jay Gatsby (note, however, that although Nick is peripheral throughout the novel, he is ultimately changed by the events he witnesses and relays).

  • Pros–character’s voice really comes across; reader is brought directly into the character’s world, as in the following example:

We’ve got a ranch house.  Daddy built it.  Daddy says it’s called RANCH ‘cause it’s like houses out West which cowboys sleep in.  There’s a picture window in all ranch houses and if you’re in one of ‘em out West, you can look out and see the cattle eatin’ grass on the plains and the cowboys ridin’ around with lassos and tall hats.  But we ain’t got nuthin’ like that here in Egypt, Maine.  All Daddy and I got to look out at is the Beans.  Daddy says the Beans are uncivilized animals.  PREDATORS, he calls ‘em.  ––Carolyn Chute, The Beans of Egypt, Maine

  • Cons/Common errors—narrator is limited to telling us only what he/she knows; it can be hard to fully describe a character through his/her own eyes; and, as Andrea says, “A mistake many of us make is to fashion a first person narrator after ourselves, then [fail] to vividly render that character (because the ‘character’ is so known to the writer, the telling details are often lacking).”

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