Hello and welcome to the 100 Day Writing Challenge, Day 27.
Heads up – which is a bit of street slang used to indicate you should pay attention – today I’m going to ask you to pull from some of the list exercises you were doing right back near the start, so you might like to make sure you’ve got those close at hand.
For the last few days we’ve been exploring through diverse means this concept of voice. I personally think ‘voice’ is one of the most prized commodities in fiction and probably one of the most undertaught.
Partly because it’s hard to define. When we talk about voice, sometimes we mean the narrator, you know we just liked hanging out with them, sometimes we mean style, there was something enjoyable and engaging about the way the story was written, sometimes we mean this adjacent but overlapping concept of tone – which is its own six-pack of worm cans but I think in this instance has to do with the way the story relates to itself. Does it present the subject matter seriously, frivolously, satirically, confidentially?
If you can write a story with a voice that readers engage with, they’ll forgive any implausibility or even the complete absence of plot. Readers like a quotable voice, a mischievous or forthright voice, and in a way I think the term ‘voice’ misleads us as to what the appeal actually is. Because it’s less about receiving something, and more like giving the reader a fantastic new pair of spectacles through which they can view the world.
So if the voice of a novel is very erudite and well-read then, for a while, we get to feel a bit brainy and ooh look at me aren’t I fancy. If it’s cackling and wicked then we get to indulge our dark side, which can be cathartic and healthy and fun.
One very important point to note is: ‘voice’ doesn’t mean a ‘first-person narrator’. Lots of novels hailed for their ‘strong voice’ are told by a first-person narrator – often a nominal outsider who maybe sees the world in a slightly unusual way – but it can just as easily be a third-person narrator written with a bit of spark. Jane Austen is I suppose the classic example.
I’m not sure you can plan or calculate the voice of your story. You can’t sit down and go ‘right, I’m going to create a bold voice’ or whatever. But you can play with style, with attitude, with the way in which your narrative orients itself in relation to the story and characters, you can make strong choices, and a memorable voice will often emerge organically from that process.
Now like I say, this shades into areas like tone and even genre. The voice of a really good romance novel or a noirish detective novel, or a thriller – that’s going to be intimately tied up with genre. Literary fiction is basically only voice. People will sometimes claim it’s about ideas or themes. Bollocks. The ideas in literary fiction are incredibly basic. Intellectually they’re almost worthless. Oh, secrets in families come back to haunt you. Humans are complicated. The story we have of someone isn’t always the whole picture. Great. Well done. I know that already. The appeal isn’t the ideas, it’s how we’re made to live them.
A lot of authors don’t really think about voice, they just write in what they imagine to be the default, third-person limited style with a fairly workmanlike prose and the occasional semi-fancy simile like a big Moroccan table lamp in a living room otherwise furnished entirely from IKEA.
So I want us to spend the next few days in the lab, running some experiments. Looking at voice, and also, inevitably, because all areas of fiction spill into each other, writing isn’t an aeroplane meal, it’s a big, wholesome, spicy stew – guess who ate stew just before recording – looking at character and conflict, and how either develops and reveals the other. I want to do some connected exercises where you get to play around with some different ideas, develop them, do some proof-of-concept stuff so you can get a better feel for the range of modes available to you.
Don’t worry, I’m not planning on strong-arming you into perpetually writing in some fruity theatrical monologue – you must emote, darling – I just want to establish how broad the territory is. Then, if you decide that, hey, all this story needs is just matter-of-fact, vanilla third-person narration, vanillarration, if you will, you’ll be doing that as a conscious choice, not because you’re just following patterns you’re not aware of.
So I want you to go back to your lists and grab a name from the list of names, and a location from the list of locations. The latter could even be the place you fleshed out in the two column exercise with facts and opinions, but only if you’re particularly drawn to that. So yeah, a character name, and a place for them to be.
Now you can pause the podcast in a second if you want to spend some time finding those and doing that, but I’ll just explain what you’re going to be using them for. Today, in a second, you’re going to write a scene in this location, with the named character as your protagonist. And I’d like you to do it in third-person past tense. So ‘they picked up the pen, he was wearing a grey jumpsuit, no thanks, she said’ etc.
And let’s say this is third-person limited. If you don’t know, a ‘limited’ third-person narrator as opposed to an ‘omniscient’ narrator is a narrator who still talks about the characters in the story as other people ‘she did this, they did that’ but whose knowledge is restricted to what a single viewpoint character knows at this moment in time. So if we’re following a police officer as she enters a house after a call about a disturbance, the narrator might tell the story from her point of view:
‘The door hung open. As she came near, picking her way over the rusted skeletons of lawn mowers and mountain bikes, her nostrils twitched at a waft of sweet, damp air. Something was moving in the room beyond.’
For example. The narrator doesn’t step in to tell us what was moving because she doesn’t know. It tracks her experience, which makes us feel closer to her, we’re more likely to identify with her and it’s usually more interesting because there’s this push-pull of withheld information and revelation, and it more closely mirrors how we as human beings perceive the world.
Now there’s lots of different ways you can slice this, lots of positions you can occupy on a spectrum between omniscient and limited, and lots of really cool effects you can create by ignoring this strategy entirely, but let’s start here, because a lot of the problems I see with people’s novels is an inability to get a grip on writing decent third-person limited narration. In fact I’d go so far as to say it’s a fundamental skill. Even if you never use it in your work.
So you’re going to write a scene with you’re character, in this location, and they are waiting for someone. Think about sensory details, what this person can see, hear, smell, feel, even taste. Give us a paragraph or so of their waiting in this location, give us a sense of their psychological state, then: the person they’re waiting for shows up.
Who is this person? Why is your protagonist waiting for them? Was this meeting arranged? How does either character feel about it? I don’t know. But I would like you to include a bit of dialogue in this scene, please. Someone should say something. It would be nice if there was a verbal exchange. We might not fully understand the relationship between the two character by the time the bell rings but it would be nice if we got some sense of the power dynamic between them. Their relative status.
That’s actually about it. That’s all the restriction I want to give you. Take your named character, put them in a location – if you absolutely hate all the names you’ve got written down, if you abominate every last place in your list of course feel free to make up an appropriate substitute, that’s fine. I only said get them from your list because I don’t want coming up with a name and setting to be the focus of this exercise, they’re just necessary parts. So take your character, describe the scene restricted to their perspective, then introduce this person they’re waiting for.
Right. Thanks for sticking with me this far. Are you ready to have a go?
Fantastic. Three… two… one… go.
And there we have it. So I don’t know how that turned out, what you came up with, if you’re frantically evaluating now thinking oh my goodness that was dreadful or brilliant. What it’s definitely done is put you through your paces for another day. You’re building creative strength and flexibility. You are moving consistently in the right direction.
Ok. Let’s waffle no more. I’m going to hand your ears back to you, please look after them and I’ll chat with you again tomorrow.