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.



The Things We Carry

Unlike personality, state of mind is constantly changing. But that doesn’t happen in a vacuum, not for people and not for characters. How we feel in any given instance is a complex interaction of who we are, what we face, and what we carry with us: our recent experiences, our relevant past, our concerns, our hopes and our fears. Progressing and expressing state of mind is critical to generating tension in fiction, as well as to forging an emotional connection with readers. However, simply stating how a character feels invites incredulity, and dumping a load of back story can undermine the forward action of a piece. Writers must look for more artful ways to convey what their characters carry.

1. Triggers for Memory

If your character was previously traumatized in a way that has significance for the present story, he or she will need to share those difficult memories, but only as they press upon the character’s mind. Relevance is key to building tension. Events in the present, even images or smells, can be used to trigger a vivid recollection of the past. Such memories are best shared in scene, so that readers can experience them along with the character. The Hundred Secret Senses by Amy Tan is a good example of how even extensive secrets of the past can be revealed in ways that enhance rather than dissipate tension.

2. Wear the Scars

A character who was raped should act like someone who was raped, even if the readers don’t know it. Same with other wounds, both psychic and real. Ernest Hemingway was a great believer in leaving his characters’ past in the past, but they wear their scars in how they behave. In The Sun Also Rises, Jake has clearly been injured in the war, but we don’t know much more than that; still, we ache when we see him and Lady Brett unable to consummate their love and overpowering attraction. His stoicism makes it impossible for him as a character to share more or even complain, but that only makes us as readers all the more empathetic.

3. Invest the Past in the Present

In The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, the loss of the main character’s mother at the beginning is tied up with his clinging to the painting of a goldfinch. When he laboriously wraps it in duct tape in a sad attempt to protect it, we’re reminded of the bombing that almost destroyed it and took his mother away. The trauma in the earlier part of the book has been invested in something that’s part of the real-time story, so that the reader carries it forward along with the character.

4. Objective Correlatives

Objective correlative is a fancy term for saying that perceptions are colored by feelings. If your point-of-view character is angry, the furniture looks hard, the food tastes bad, and the weather seems bleak. If it happens to be raining, all the better; if it happens to be sunny, then it’s painfully bright. This holds true whether you’re writing in first person or close third: we see everything, even solid objects, through the filter of the character’s state of mind. Your choice of telling details also comes into this – what you include should be guided by what would be most revealing of the character at that moment.

5. Figurative Language

Imagery and metaphor can reflect a character’s state of mind and keep it present for readers going forward. Figurative language can even amplify and deepen a character’s concerns. In Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann, the tightrope walker suspended impossibly high above them acts to unite the disparate characters, both literally and figuratively, as the reader grasps that in a sense they’re all walking a high thin wire. It is an aspect of state of mind that they share.

6. Intuition

Most important of all, writers need to use their intuition. (See Writing as a Full Body Experience.) They must internalize their main character’s state of mind to find the most real and honest reactions they can. We’ve all read books in which the main character seems to be suffering from sudden amnesia. If something big happens, it should impact the character’s feelings. We expect there to be cause and effect. To progress and convey the things that characters carry inside them, writers must first carry them inside themselves.



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.



Movement with Meaning

Real people are never still. Gesture and movement are part of our language. They usually complement what’s being said, but they can also tell us things the speaker didn’t mean for us to know. Our experience of people guides our interpretation. Because readers come equipped to understand body language, writers can use it to show rather than tell. We don’t want to clutter the page with insignificant movements that readers will simply tune out (see Resisting Your Own Autosuggest), but well-chosen gestures and movements present opportunities for writers:

1. Enriching Character. Distinctive, authentic gestures convey personality. We recognize people by the way they do things. In Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, when Boris pulls his chin back or pinches his nostrils shut, we feel that we know him. Only he would blow his nose sloppily, inspect the contents of the Kleenex and wince (p. 564). Body language can also open up depth, especially in characters reluctant to reveal themselves. When Boris leaves Theo behind in that scene – “his gait loosening and lightening as soon as he thought he was out of my view” (p. 565) – we immediately grasp that Boris has been hiding something from Theo and realize how tenuous their bond has become.

2. Invoking Sympathy. Small movements can be a subterranean way of engendering sympathy for characters who evoke a mixed response. An example here could be an embittered woman speaking hard truths to a child, but having that woman’s hands open for a moment, then close as if with regret. Imagined actions can be even more subtle – those considered and not taken – as contemplated within a close point of view. In Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout (p. 180): “She would like to rest a hand on Marlene’s head, but this is not the kind of thing Olive is especially able to do. So she goes and stands near the chair Marlene sits on, gazing out that side window there, looking down at the shoreline….” Olive’s urge to touch Marlene makes her sympathetic, but her inability to do so is heartbreaking.

3. Creating Layers. Gestures and staging can contrast with narration and dialogue to set up an unreliable narrator, in books such as Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn and The Girl on The Train by Paula Hawkins. They act as our clues. Contrasts like these can also be mined for irony and humor or built up to increase the tension. Jennifer Egan does both in A Visit from the Goon Squad (pp. 180-183) when, in contrast to the typical back and forth of an entertainment interview, the reporter keeps taking little inappropriate actions such as staring at the movie star’s legs. Finally, he experiences an urge to push her back on the grass and then does, which launches a scene of full-blown action, while retaining the tone of dark absurdist comedy.

4. Marking Transitions. Movement can be of great practical use to a writer. For instance, small actions can be used in place of attributions like “said.” Movement draws the reader’s attention; we assume whoever moves is the one who speaks. Similarly, gestures can help us to transition between current time and memory or between dialogue and thought. Not only does movement draw the eye, a gesture can carry a sense of intimacy that invites us deeper. In Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin (p. 330), we move seamlessly from outside to inside the character of Jaslyn: “She rubs her hands together, nervously. Why, still, this small feeling of tightness at her core?”

5. Inspiring Discoveries. Gestures are easy for writers to improvise – to try on, if you will. They may open up paths we didn’t know we were on. They encourage us to surprise ourselves by making our scenes more real and vivid and may lead us to unexpected discoveries. All of us – writers as well as readers – interpret body language without consciously meaning to. Remember always to picture how your characters would move as they speak and listen and think, and you may find yourself learning something important and new about them.



A Visit from the Goon Squad

Egan, Jennifer. A Visit from the Goon Squad. Alfred A. Knopf (New York: 2010).

9780307477477The music industry may link this fascinating collection of characters, but what we experience is each one’s separate, deeply personal movement through time as they dance with their demons. The way forward is murky, as it is in our own heads, but there are insights here that light up the page. We see Sasha, who works for record executive Bennie and is in secret a kleptomaniac, standing by her pile of stolen objects with “a tenderness that was only heightened by the shame of their acquisition. She’d risked everything, and here was the result: the raw, warped core of her life.” Egan’s postmodern techniques of fragmentation and ever-changing perspectives only make us more determined to hunt for these treasures of truth – to seek for answers to how and why people change. We get the sense that even in this vain, selfish world, there are people fighting to be honest with themselves, if only for a moment, people struggling to learn. We find ourselves caring about them, often in spite of themselves.

For writers: If you wonder what agents mean by a literary novel with a commercial hook, here is one answer. Don’t be fooled by Egan’s breezy postmodernism: this is a serious book. Her restless narrative techniques complement the edginess of her chosen milieu, and the prose at the heart of every perspective is powerful and lucid. The insights she achieves come from connecting deeply with her characters and staying with them – from the hard work of laying down character-specific actions and details that lead to discovery and truth. And even though the narrative devices vary all over the place, each is chosen with a distinct character in mind: Sasha is revealed through a reluctant close 3rd; naive Rhea through uncensored 1st; egocentric Lou through distant, ironic omniscience; celebrity Kitty through a crazed interview. Near the end, a child obsessed with the pauses in music only lets us peak in through her charts. But there we glimpse one of the most startling insights of all: pauses are a gift, because you’re afraid the song’s about to end, but it doesn’t, not yet. You still have time left for more.



Click here for more reading recommendations.