Friday, February 11, 2011

Choosing a Voice

Lena Roy Katonah has an excellent blog post on choosing narrative voice.

I can hear my main character's voice better. She's more alive. It's so different! Such a great exercise! It is not merely changing the she to I, the was to is. Check out the one sentence I was able to work on this morning:

The ride to the airport rushed by in a blur. Memories of things said tugging at her mind, things that she would rather not think about.

Changes to:

The ride to the airport is a blur as memories tug at the corners of my mind. Self analysis has never been my friend, so I try to focus on my environment, even though we have left Manhattan far behind. I wish that we had stopped in Harlem to buy a mango-on-a-stick or at least some honey-roasted peanuts, but how could I have done that with a camera in my face?

It's so immediate, and works better for the situation. I am hearing her thoughts. And dialogue is so different too - there's no he said, she said.

I'm interested in this because I always write in third-person past tense. It's just the way I've always written, and it doesn't even feel like a lack of freedom, although Katonah clearly feels like the switch has freed her. Sometimes that happens, by the way-- you make a change in what you're doing and suddenly feel unstopped.

Still, maybe someday I'll try, say, an Alex Van Helsing first-person book, the way Patricia Cornwell goes back and forth from book to book.


  1. I think 3rd person deep POV works just as well as first person. No "she thought" or "he wondered" tags are needed.

    The problem I see isn't with the voice used but that in both paragraphs the author is telling instead of showing.

    "Memories of things said" or "memories tug at the corners of my mind". In those passages, the reader doesn't get to experience the memories with the character. In this case, it's not the POV choice that's causing the passages to lack intimacy; it's that the passages themselves hold the reader at a distance.

    Regardless, an example transform to 3rd person deep POV (without changing the telling to showing) might be:

    The ride to the airport was a blur as memories tugged at the corners of her mind. Self analysis had always been her enemy, so she tried to focus on her environment. Damn, she was hungry. She should have stopped in Harlem to buy a mango-on-a-stick or at least some honey-roasted peanuts, but how could she with a camera in her face?

    In the last few sentences we are in the character's head; the reader knows it without needing a "she thought" or "she wished" tag.

  2. You're very right-- third person can absolutely be very immediate and can ride along with the character's thoughts just fine.

    Incidentally I like that you brought up showing versus telling-- this rule sounds simple but it's actually not so much. For instance, if this whole ride to the airport isn't even important? In that case you might be perfectly happy with the two-sentence version in passing. In fact the length of a novel and the needs of the story require us to do that all the time. But of course that's not what the show-not-tell rules is about: it means show what counts.