Last time I suggested that, in order to write with a convincing, consistent, compelling voice, you needed to be able to answer to these five questions –
- Who is doing the telling?
- Who is doing the reading or listening?
- When is now?
- When is then?
- What has happened in between then and now?
We’re going to take them one by one, day by day.
Who is doing the telling?
Along with ‘When is now?’ this is probably the thing you’ve thought about the most in your story-start, and in other things you’ve written.
If they are a first person narrator.
(But are they writing or talking? Do you know this for certain? Or do they sometimes just chat shit and sometimes redraft an image six times?)
If they are your main person, too, they are likely to be someone you’ve thought about a lot.
Perhaps you have imagined your equivalent to their fingernails, or what they’d do when ‘Dancing Queen’ comes on.
In other words, you know more about them than you have put on the page. That is likely to give them depth. (A deep person is one who is capable of believable self-contradiction. A deep person has convincingly existed for their whole life before we meet them.) The question then comes, are you granting an equivalent depth to other people who appear in your story?
(First person narrators have the tendency to also be the moral centre. If you’re writing from a position of the ‘I’ always having been right, you’re probably writing something a bit dead.)
Perhaps you are more at home with how your narrator is with language. How they say stuff. What they pay attention to.
First person narrators are useful. They’re awfully relatable. They can walk and run through the various places of your novel. If necessary, they can hide in cupboards or sneak to the top of stairs, so as to overhear conversations they shouldn’t.
Aside: I have said this before. But it’s worth repeating: I would make it a rule only to allow one overhearing scene per novel. If you find you are repeatedly having to put your first person narrator where they learn stuff not intended for them, it suggests they are either not central enough to the action or that they should be replaced by a third person omniscient narrator. Third person omniscient narrators never have to hide in cupboards or listen at the top of the stairs. They are invisible, they have no scent and make floorboards creak.
Literary aside: Except in Muriel Spark’s The Comforters and one or two other fictions in which characters become aware that they’re being narrated. The film Stranger than Fiction, starring Will Ferrell, takes this form and plays with it. Will Ferrell’s narrator is Emma Thompson.
Return to first aside: You are more likely to end up writing cupboard-listening scenes for powerless characters – children, servants. Stories involving children dealing with the consequences of adult decisions are going to be tempted again and again to engage in contrived overhearing. Resist.
Who is the fairest of them all?
Another common pitfall of the first person narrator is the Oh, look, there’s me in a mirror scene – usually happening within the opening five pages of a novel.
In order to convey how the narrator looks, they encounter themselves in a shiny surface and – for some reason, I wonder what? – treat this appearance of themselves as non-routine.
Possibly, they notice themselves in something like this way: My black hair was looking a little unkempt. Rather than this, God, I thought, that mess needs a haircut!
Like the employed waiter looking at but not seeing Paris, the first person narrator – unless you give them a very good reason for remarking on their appearance – is not convincingly going to take in anything but differences from the norm.
I had clear, freckled skin on my forehead.
No. That’s a generalisation. They were there yesterday.
I saw I had a pimple hiding high up among the freckles.
Yes. That’s new, and does two jobs at once.
The Oh look, a mirror scene is particularly clunky in first person present tense stories.
My advice would be, leave out all description of the narrator and have their appearance be conveyed by the way others react to them. Whether they are attractive or likeable is usually more important than whether their eyes are brown.
All of this goes to say, you’re more likely to know your first person narrator better than you know your third person narrator. (Second person narrators are very hard to get friendly with.)
It’s possible to take the attitude, ‘The third person narrator is basically me.’ That’s the simplest approach – they have access to all your vocabulary and all your insights. You give them all the time you have, in writing the story, to write the story as well as you (and they) can write it.
However, this is likely to mean you don’t characterise your narrator all that much. Few of us have a very clear idea of ourselves; and none of us can see ourselves from outside for any length of time.
Having your narrator be you can make rewriting very difficult. How can you be you badly? Or need to be you a second, third, fourth and fifth time?
Even if you’re writing as yourself, you need to know what the third person narrator’s attitude is towards the story they are telling. Are they distanced or heart-wrenched by every shift? Are they amused or trying to disturb the reader profoundly?
Again, the simplest attitude is, ‘I have to tell you this – it’s the most urgent thing I have to say.’ You may not know exactly why it’s urgent, but that question itself has to get across to the reader – even in a description of flowers in a vase. They are somehow urgent flowers. Their truth needs to be told.
I hear you
What is common between writing first person and third person stories is voice.
To tell a story well, voice needs to be consistent. This doesn’t mean it needs to be unvarying, as this would become monotonous (particularly if the tone is bitter or angry).
A storytelling voice should be flexible enough to cope with what it has to cope with, but consistent enough not to have to become another voice at any stage of the action.
If we think back to our Victorian carriage and blunderbuss, that’s an example of an inflexible voice. Starting out a novel with a highfalutin’ explainer of a third person narrator, whilst heading towards a climactic fast-paced fight scene is going to cause your narrative voice real problems.
Similarly, starting a novel in either diary or letter form is a mistake if what you’re heading towards is a single day on which a lot of the important action takes place.
Within a third person omniscient novel, a day full of action may take up 30,000 words – no problem. Why? Because there’s no time limit on the actual physical writing, the production of word after word in satisfying order, of the story.
But if you need us to believe that your first person narrator sat down, after all that excitement, and wrote a 30,000 word diary entry before the end of the day, then you’re a very silly billy.
A 30,000 word letter may be a tad more convincing, but not if every other letter they’ve ever sent has been 1,000 words max. That’s inconsistent.
A diary or letter form is good for stories or novels in which the action takes place over a reasonably long period (a year rather than two days), and where the important events are distributed regularly over the whole of that time. So, family drama rather than adventure story, romance rather than giant battle of forces of Good vs Evil.
Lots of people talk to themselves. But narrators, by virtue of narrating, are addressing someone else.
All of what I’ve said so far is fine and dandy, but who someone is when muttering to themselves on the back stairs will be very different to who they are when speaking to their favourite gay nephew at a garden party, or to their rebellious son at the end of their second wife’s funeral, or to their old headmistress bumped into in Tesco’s, or even to that vaguest of addressees – the unknown human being who has somehow started to read the words your narrator (via you) has put together in that particular order.
Exercise: Go back to your story-start. Can you write a short paragraph about who the narrator is? Explain why they’re telling the story. Say how they are different from you. List five words they would never use. Write out the exact sounds of one words they would pronounce distinctively.
How people tell their stories depends on who they’re telling their story to. (I’m avoiding ‘to whom’ – although I know it’s out there, being grammatically correct. Why am I avoiding that? Because I don’t want you to think I’m a to whomy person.)
This, we will think about next time.
With Question 2.