Writing and Shit – part 42 – Getting voice, tone and point of view right, the easy way

I realise there may have been a little confusion, at your end, about why I’m going into point of view and time in such detail.

Can’t he get onto something else? Like, how to make my sentences better.

(I will. Soon.)

But sentences aren’t just abstractly ‘better’. They are either appropriate or inappropriate. They either fit or they don’t. If they don’t fit, if they’re given to the wrong person, or said by them at the wrong moment, they are bad.

These sentences are the darlings you are warned to kill.

In the next few weeks, I’m going to go over some questions you can ask yourself in order to form a clearer picture of your narrator, and to hear them better. This may seem unnecessary, or hard to remember, but good writers will instinctively (if unconsciously) go through something like this checklist every time they write a sentence.

They will ask themselves, ‘Does this fit?’


In order to make your point of view consistent, when writing a story or a novel, and in order to fix problems with point of view when rewriting, you need to have exact answers to these questions –

  1. Who is doing the writing or telling?
  2. Who is doing the reading or listening?
  3. When is now?
  4. When is then?
  5. What has happened in between then and now?

That may all seem a bit much.

So, to begin with, I’m going to give you a way of thinking about point of view and time that is non-technical. It may be enough for you.

It all comes down to a simple question: Do you know your narrator?

But all simple questions turn out to be complicated.

Do you know your narrator? means Can you hear your narrator? Can you see your narrator? Could you tell me what your narrator’s fingernails are like? Or what they would do when Dancing Queen came on at the wedding reception?

All technical questions about point of view and time evaporate when the writer has a really strong sense of the voice telling the story.


It’s one of the easiest things in the world to think, ‘My narrator’s my Auntie So-and-So.’

You know your Auntie So-and-So. You can hear her voice. You know how she begins, how she does time-leaps, how she picks details, how she leaves out boring stuff.

Perhaps you also know this for Auntie Lee Child or Auntie Margaret Atwood or Auntie Maggie Nelson or Auntie Ben Lerner.

If you’re learning to write, I would encourage you to imitate – but to do it consciously, and to do it with the intention of learning as much as possible, not of getting published or finding an agent.

But if you’re already a writer and you’re trying to get out of the shit then I’d suggest you start to be more ruthless in relation to the sentences that come up from that deep somewhere in your mind.

Your inner Auntie.

Just because they’ve arrived in one form doesn’t mean they should stay in that form. They aren’t naturally right.

Writers do get on streaks, yes. They tune in to the voice and everything after that seems to flow.

Flow is dangerous.

The 5,000 words you wrote on the day you flowed will not match the 1,000 words that took you five weeks. Not unless you’re already out of the shit.

Those 5,000 words!

Their syntax is more daring; the stresses fall more liberally.

To a close reader, the 5,000 words smell of breeze rather than armpit.

What you need to find is a way of following a voice closely, attentively, lovingly but critically.

Auntie So-and-So can sometimes be dull. (Everyone can.) Or truly fascinating, but only to close family members.

However much you may want to write spontaneously, without correction, you have to find a mid-way point with your writing. You need to be able to get through bad days and still produce something readable, and you need to delight in good days but realise that not everything you produce will be of use.


The spoken voice can feel easy to write, but it can be frustrating to read. Very often, this kind of ‘hey there, listen up, sonny’ narration can come across – on the page – as diffuse.

What is diffuse needs to be distilled.

I’ve been thinking recently that ‘distil’ is a better description of what you need to do to most writing, rather than ‘cut’.

Much good writing is vodka, and much actual speech is potato juice.

You need to present Auntie So-and-So as the purest version of herself.

But if you feel that your narration is at one point Auntie So-and-So and at the next Auntie Marcel Proust and then, a little later, Auntie Toni Morrison, then you need to go back and listen more closely. You’re probably jumping around with your tone, your attitude, your everything.


We have come to am major stopping off point. Take a few minutes. Make a cup of something comforting. I want you to mull this over. I’d like you to go away and think about your story-start. Can you answer those five questions?

  1. Who is doing the writing or telling?
  2. Who is doing the reading or listening?
  3. When is now?
  4. When is then?
  5. What has happened in between then and now?

Or you can answer the one simple question?

Do you know your narrator?


One thought on “Writing and Shit – part 42 – Getting voice, tone and point of view right, the easy way

  1. Pingback: Writing and Shit – part 41 – The difference between ‘You remember those…’ and ‘There used to be these…’ | tobylitt

Comments are closed.