Are you a speaker or a narrator?

Tomorrow I’m the not-quite-guest speaker at our local writers’ group (hard to be a guest when you’re always there). I’ll be talking about narrative voice – past/present, 1st/2nd/3rd person narration and all that good stuff – and our upcoming contest prompt is “dialog.” So, if you write in first person, is the narrative voice the same as the use in dialog?

Given that readers will spend 6-12 hours listening to that narrative voice in their heads, with no gaps to get a word in edgewise, perhaps I should hope I don’t write in my speaking voice, else I’d drive my readers crazy and they’d never come back.

Which kind of begs the question, if I’m the guest “speaker,” speaking for around an hour (yes, with gaps for questions), will I speak in my narrative voice, my dialog voice, or something else entirely?

Anyway, here’s a rough draft of what I’m planning to say:

Why does Voice matter?

  1. Because the reader makes a huge commitment  to spend time – 12-24 hours aloud, 6-12 hours silently –  in company of this voice
  2. Becauser the author commits… lots more hours than that to writing in this voice, so you’d better enjoy it
  3. Because there’s a reader/author contract – you will make it worth the reader’s time (they’re paying you in time and money)
  4. Because of reader expectations –
    1. If it’s a legal contract, should be written in legaleze, but equally…
    2. A sweet old lady’s voice in sweet small-town America probably shouldn’t devolve into pages of swearing
    3. A soldier’s voice as he runs rampage in city shouldn’t devolve into romantic pillow-talk
    4. And what about memoir? Or when people say, “I’m so sorry this happened to you…” when perhaps it wasn’t memoir
      1. How do we avoid being identified with first person narrator, vs.
      2. how do we prove we have the right to tell the tale?

What are our Voice options?

Point of view Tense Assumptions or examples Advantages Disadvantages getarounds
First person hero Present YA dystopia? Immediate

Action experienced alongside character

SYMPATHY for hero

Can’t see at a distance.

Whiny, introspective, boring? Temptation to tell it how it happened – too much detail…

NOT NATURAL!

Make sure it’s a real narrative voice.

2nd pov character?

past Memoir?

Noir

Jane Eyre

Huckleberry Finn

Less immediate

Double consciousness – future looking over past character’s shoulder

Assume the protagonist survived

People ask is it real? Disclaimer?

Make protagonist obviously different from self

First Person multiple heroes Get to see multiple points of view, maybe of same events

Get to be in multiple places at once

Need separate narrative voice for each (NOT SAME as dialog voice) 3rd person only requires one narrative voice
First person observer Great Gatsby Comment on events

Hear about events from other people so don’t have to be present

Can’t see inside protagonist’s head
Third person hero Can spend more time describing internal (even subconscious) thoughts, but maybe can’t “say” them.

EMPATHY for hero

Not as immediate Can’t see at a distance

 

Put 1st person thoughts in italics?

More than one viewpoint?

Third person multiple heroes J.R.R. Martin

 

Brian Doyle

Don’t need separate voices for separate viewpoints.

Can give all sides of epic events

POV character can’t keep secrets from the reader.

Be careful how you switch – one per chapter, one per scene, one per paragraph…

Don’t break the reader’s neck, don’t make readers dizzy or confuse them

 

Use hiatus to separate views

Third person observer Mystery

 

Sees all, knows all the characters’ actions (but not their thoughts). Gets to keep secrets and make comments Have to keep it interesting. Can’t get inside heads. Good plot!
Third person omniscient Dorothy Sayers Sees all, knows all, does get inside their heads, so no secrets

“Little did he know…”

So… if there are no secrets… Need a really good plot

Examples

Tense change

Princess Stella was walking in the forest. Her thoughts drifted back to the corridors and chambers of the castle. Her feet trod lightly on the loamy ground. Her breath drifted in front of her face in gentle puffs of air. Then a wolf leapt out at her.

She falls back in horror. As the wolf’s red eyes stare into hers, as drool drips from the ends of its fangs, her body trembles and she knows she’s going to die.

Why did the writer change to present tense – identifying with the character while writing an exciting scene. Fix it just by changing the tense. Maybe use italics…

                She fell back in horror. I’m going to die. The wolf’s red eyes…

Person change

Princess Stella was walking in the forest. Her thoughts drifted back to the corridors and chambers of the castle. Her feet trod lightly on the loamy ground. Her breath drifted in front of her face in gentle puffs of air. Then a wolf leapt out at her.

I fall back, terrified. The wolf’s red eyes stare into mine, and drool drips on my face from the ends of its fangs. I’m going to die.

Again, identifying with the character. If we change it all to “I,” we might lose sympathy for the character whose head’s stuck in a castle while she walks in a forest, so have to decide what we’re aiming for.

Tense change 1st person

I was walking through the forest, not a trouble in my mind. Okay it wasn’t the castle of my youth, but it was beautiful. Then a wolf leapt out at me.

I fall back, till I land with a thump on the ground. The wolf’s red eyes stare into mine, and drool drips on my face from the ends of its fangs. I’m going to die.

Present tense is more immediate, and, just like switching to italics for internal thoughts, we’re allowed to switch tense sometimes. Just need to make sure it fits the voice.

                I was walking through the forest, not a care on my mind, when suddenly this bloomin’ great wolf leaps out at    me!

Point of view change

Princess Stella walked hand in hand with Prince Jim, dreaming of the future they might share. Then a wolf leapt out at them.

As Jim released her hand, Stella fell, and the wolf seemed set to pounce. She turned around, sure Jim would rescue her, already imagining how she would fall into his arms afterward. But when she caught sight of him, he was already halfway across the clearing, fleeing in terror and wondering where on earth the wolf had come from.

Maybe “fleeing as if in terror, or as if he were trying to guess where the wolf had come from.”

2 thoughts on “Are you a speaker or a narrator?”

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