Vox Populi

Vox populi, vox dei — the voice of the people is the voice of God.

One of the things I love about teaching is that while coming up with new ways to explain things to my students, I accidentally learn a lot of stuff. One of my recent “aha” moments was when we were discussing point of view.

My students struggle with point of view. They can tell the difference between first and third persons, but still make slips in their stories.

Then it came to me: It’s not just a point of view problem, it’s a voice problem. If they can get the voice of their narrator right, point of view comes naturally.

I was thinking of my own novel-in-progress during this discussion. The main character is an exceptionally intelligent eleven-year-old boy. The first draft was written in third person, limited to his point of view.

When I started to revise, I decided to switch to first person. One of my reasons was that the narrative was starting to feel very boring to me. When I wrote it in third person, I started out with a sort of wryly amused narrative voice, but by the time I got a few chapters done, it began to sound flat. I was just reporting what the characters did and said. Boring.

I’ve written in both first and third, but never changed my mind after writing an entire draft. As soon as I started my revision, I saw that it wasn’t simply a matter of turning ‘he’ into ‘I.’ I had to completely rewrite the story in my character’s voice.

I should have realized this long ago: every sentence of a narrative must be suffused with voice.

“Show, don’t tell,” is one of the holy commandments of writing, a rule that writers challenge at their own peril. The narrator isn’t supposed to just ‘tell’ what happens. He’s (or she’s) supposed to get out of the way and dramatize the story with action and dialog, avoiding summary as much as possible.

But ‘showing’ can turn into a mechanical account of action, a script-like ‘he said’ / ‘she said’ reporting of dialog. The narrator is there, and must have a voice.

Every word we use has connotations as well as denotations. An experienced writer chooses carefully, making sure the words chosen don’t have any unintended or unfortunate connotations, and that they fit the narrative voice.

But it’s more than word choice. Voice is also revealed in how we tell our story – what events we tell, what dialog we report, and what we summarize.

When my eleven year old narrator began to tell the story, all sorts of other stuff started appearing in my narrative. He talked a lot about being picked on at school, dealing with difficult teachers, cliques, etc. A lot of this was ‘telling.’ But it was true to his voice, I felt. If a real eleven year old were telling the story to someone, he would throw in a lot of stuff like that — things on his mind, things that bugged him or that he had figured out.

A few people who read my first chapters commented that I was telling too much. I went back and revised again. I did cut out some of the telling, but still left in a lot. I decided what parts of his narrative moved the plot forward or added important information, and cut parts that didn’t contribute much. I didn’t let him go into long discourses about cliques and girls and things — because it would be boring. I kept enough to be true to his voice, but obeyed my instinct to hold the reader’s interest. More revision is needed, but it’s getting closer.

There is a first person story I’ve worked on off and on for a number of years. When I started writing it, I liked the main chararacter’s voice very much. He was an unreliable narrator, bitter, naive, willfully misinterpreting people and events according to his own culture and background.

The problem was, I let him run away with the narrative. He ranted, he lectured, he explained things that didn’t matter just because they bugged him. When I finally realized that the story wasn’t moving beyond chapter 1 because I wasn’t the author anymore, I was able to take back the reins and get the wagon out of the ditch.

Moral: A story is not a democracy.

The people deserve a voice, but I’m still the dictator.


2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. ian g
    Apr 09, 2010 @ 19:57:02

    ahaha, great post. i learned a bit too, and picked up some very, very clever phrases. i’m having a wonderful time reading your posts, escher, and i’ll be here as long as you write them 🙂

    this topic, a writer’s voice, is perfect for you, considering you’ve nearly perfected it in The Zannies 🙂


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