Voice is a Verb

Three riddles, all with the same answer: When we talk about inborn talent in writing, what do we mean more often than anything else? What attribute is most likely to make a novel leap off the page? What do many people write entire novels without understanding, despite its centrality and importance to modern fiction? Voice. Hard to teach and even harder to learn, except for those writers for whom it seems as natural as breathing.

Voice is often defined in terms of attitude, especially in first person, but it’s more than that. Voice gives us our lens, our scope, our storytelling rhythms, our sensibilities, our figurative language, and our potential for insight. Each new voice opens up fresh territory to us and confines us at the same time. Mark Haddon does a brilliant job of rendering the narrative voice of an autistic boy in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, but it has none of the edgy self-reflection which Joseph Heller brings to Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye. How could it? When a writer finds a voice, she or he also finds a particular take on this world – a unique way of experiencing and processing life. In first person, the writer essentially inhabits the main character, akin to playing a part.

The ownership of voice is more complex in third person. At one end of the continuum are novels in which the narrator is clearly distinguishable from the characters and makes comments, such as in Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte or, more recently, White Teeth by Zadie Smith. At the other end are novels in which the third-person narration seems to be at one with the words, thoughts, and attitudes of the main character. The technique of free indirect style may be used to achieve a certain elasticity, at times moving closer to the main character and then farther away. This allows the writer to open up dramatic irony, as in Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout, when Olive stands next to Jack Kennison as he lies in bed, both of them widowed, aging, and alone (pg 269):

“God, I’m scared,” he said, quietly.

She almost said, “Oh, stop. I hate scared people.” She would have said that to Henry, to just about anyone. Maybe because she hated the scared part of herself – this was just a fleeting thought; there was a contest within her, revulsion and tentative desire.

These insights somehow belong both to Olive, the character, and to the barely visible narrator. It’s as if the writer has stepped into the character and written from that inside place, but at the same time retained a kind of privileged discernment. Still, the dominant personality of the voice remains the character’s own. This type of voice may also progress through a series of characters in turn, colored differently for each one, as is the case in Strout’s book. In Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann, the voice shifts in every section, sometimes in first person, sometimes in third, each time taking on a markedly different set of attitudes and manner of speaking, in a tour de force on the power of voice.

I say elsewhere in these pages that fiction is the art of human empathy. Voice is that empathy given flesh. When we refer to “finding” a voice, we’re talking about the work of sympathetic imagination. Voice isn’t simply a noun, a thing, a conclusion; it’s also a verb, an action, a state of becoming. To voice is to express, to make known, to reveal. Voice is the ultimate show rather than tell: the distillation of our main characters’ personalities and histories into the very way in which we tell their stories.



Thoughts Without Strings

One of the greatest pleasures in reading is getting to settle into someone else’s head for a while. Point of view can be seen as another way of saying whose thoughts we get to hear. One of the attractions of first-person narration is that the transitions from observation to thought to action can be so seamless. In a sense, an entire novel in first person is a confiding of thoughts by its protagonist, particularly if it’s written in past tense. The writer has no need to use quotation marks or italics or attributions such as “I thought” or “I wondered,” unless those verbs need to be emphasized in some specific situations. Otherwise, the first-person character’s thoughts should flow onto the page as they come to mind based on her experiences. “Sam came into the room, but he didn’t meet my eyes. He’d lost weight. From missing me? If only that were true. June followed close behind him; he smiled and reached back his hand for a squeeze. The smile creased his cheeks – he looked fit, younger, stronger even. Free.” What the character observes, how she feels about it, and whatever else it makes her think of, including memories, are all of one piece.

What may surprise you is that the same can be accomplished in close third person by using free indirect style.

James Woods does a masterful job of explaining free indirect style in his chapter on “Narrating” in How Fiction Works. He contrasts three different approaches to the sharing of thoughts in third person.

(1) Quoted: He looked over at his wife. “She looks so unhappy,” he thought, “almost sick.” He wondered what to say.

(2) Reported: He looked over at his wife. She looked so unhappy, he thought, almost sick. He wondered what to say.

(3) Free indirect style: He looked at his wife. Yes, she was tiresomely unhappy again, almost sick. What the hell should he say?

As Woods goes on to explain, narration in free indirect style seems to float away from the writer toward the character. The voice coloring the words becomes the character’s own. It is in this way that a novel written from a third-person limited point of view can be just as saturated in its protagonist’s voice as a novel written from a first-person point of view. But in third person, the barely visible narrator also retains a slight hold on the words – an ability to open up dramatic irony by encouraging the reader to see more than the character may see. In Woods’ example, I think the word “tiresomely” could be read as the character’s own, or it could be read as a knowing observation about the character’s feelings on the part of the writer, or possibly a bit of both. This complexity and richness is part of the appeal of third person. With free indirect style, the writer has the flexibility to shade language like this, as well as to zoom in and out seamlessly.

If you’re new to free indirect style, you should begin by eliminating the direct attribution of thought and instead let yourself move toward the character’s own way of putting things, without shifting out of third person or past tense (assuming that’s the tense you’ve been in). Any reporting or quoting of thought should be avoided – that would risk breaking the spell. Small actions and other visual clues can work to signal that we’re going in closer. (See Movement With Meaning.) Don’t be afraid to use fragments or lists to represent thought. The more agitated or emotionally affected a character is, the more likely she is to think in fragments. You may find yourself wanting to use swear words – James does in his example – swear words seem to give writers the sense that they’re pulling unvarnished thoughts out of their characters’ heads. You can always tone it down when you edit. Sometimes it helps to write a section in first person and then do it over in third. The more you work in free indirect style, the more natural it will seem. You’ll still need to go digging for the deepest and most surprising thoughts you can get your character to reveal. (See Pushing Your Characters Deeper.) But free indirect style will give you a tool to get there in third person – to write closer to the bone – with greater flexibility, style and grace.



The Corrections

Franzen, Jonathan. The Corrections. Farrar, Straus & Giroux (New York: 2001).

The Corrections A brilliant, wide-ranging novel book about a disintegrating family: a managing mother obsessed with getting her adult children home for Christmas as if it could save her life; an autocratic father plummeting into dementia; a pompous son disturbingly dependent on his manipulative wife; a creative daughter prey to self-destructive impulses; and a clever youngest son, victim of his own bad choices. All desperate, all lost, yet grasping at life, they’re rendered so honestly and vividly that the reader can’t help but sympathize. They lurch toward each other, resisting all the way.

For writers: Franzen is exceptional at writing in an extremely close third-person voice, using free indirect style. He doesn’t simply translate his characters; he seems to pull the words right out of their heads. He once confessed to touch-typing his work while wearing earplugs and a blindfold to help him go deep. Try reading a chapter of his, then your own work, to learn what you could do to bring yours closer.



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