You know the trick of stealing a square of chocolate, invisibly, from a bar? Which is a tasty way of explaining how I recently cut nearly 10% of a novel, without changing a single thing about story - plot, character-in-action, dialogue, description - which actually mattered. The effect was like taking off a veil and earmuffs and plunging back into the story: everything was exactly the same, just infinitely more vivid. So, what got cut? Or, rather, what particular things got interrogated fiercely about how necessary they were, or weren't?
More speech tags than you need, where you could just used physical action and proper layout to keep the reader straight. Which isn't to say that a well-placed he said in the middle of a line of dialogue, though not necessary in strict fact, doesn't sometimes shape the rhythm better. It may also provide just the right pause-of-thinking for the significance - the drama of character-in-action - to flower in the reader's consciousness. Your decision.
More varieties of thought tag than you need. These are all part of what Janet Burroway, following John Gardner, calls "filtering", and though I don't think that's the best name for it, it is an absolutely crucial concept, so do follow that link to the best explanation I know, by Leslie Leigh, and then come back here. And once you understand what filtering is, what might you do about it? We, the computer generation should be thankful: I did, one by one, a search for seemed, wondered, realised, remembered and thought - you'll have your own particular equivalents - and considered each one carefully. Yes, about 70% of them went, like filleting out the veins of fat in a piece of meat. But 30% of them stayed. Why?
Explaining the mechanical links. Get in late and get out early, say the thriller writers. Bus journeys, bullock-cart-harnessing, arrivals, routes ... You'd be surprised how un-bothered readers are by how your MC got home from the far side of Hong Kong (or Mars) at three in the morning: or, indeed, by how she got there in the first place. (Although you probably need to know, because we'll intuit if it's simply impossible, even if we don't stop to work it out.) More broadly, fiction is narrative, not just a series of juxtaposed scenes. You don't always want to end on the Eastenders' ringing doof-doof-doof (the writer's equivalent being *-*-*) after the last dramatic line of the scene. We don't need to get characters on and off an open stage, as Shakespeare does, but the stage blackout, the film-maker's jump-cut, can become a cheap high. Besides, sometimes part of making the story and setting and characters-in-action fully alive is to get us moving through their world: the hammered tin on that bullock harness is sharp, and in the really cold weather your fingers freeze to it. Don't assume, in other words, that helicoptering us straight into the crisis moment and out again is the best way to keep us involved.
Explaining what's about to happen. I love a bit of foreshadowing, as my post on the opening of Dick Francis's Straight shows: as a reader I want to sense the storyteller's hand. It's all about explicitly making the promise, as Pixar's Andrew Stanton puts it, that this story will be worth my time. But it needs rationing, and handling: is your Tell that the picnic was (will be, for the reader) a disaster, before you Show us, actually a fantastic promise of excitements to come, as Dick Francis's is? Or is it a bit of scaffolding you should take down: throat-clearing or note-making of your own to get yourself into the scene? Or is it simply a plot-spoiler?
Explaining what is happening. As real-life characters-in-action we think - make sense, remember, understand, analyse, worry, look ahead - while also acting, but that doesn't mean that it should necessarily go in the narrative. If your narrator or your viewpoint character mentally comments/explains/worries about everything as we go along, it can enfeeble the forward drive of character-in-action. On the other hand, understanding is part of what makes us then act, and fiction is not drama: it's the pre-eminent way for humans to get under the skin and inside the head of other people. So don't, please, shy away from entering your character's consciousness and conveying their thinking to the reader, nor from letting your storyteller explain things sometimes. Just think hard about when you should, and how to do it. We're talking psychic distance again, in other words.
Explaining what has happened. Just as my poetry student realised what so many poets know - that all her draft poems were improved by having the last two lines cut - so with stories. You can have a highly dramatic scene, but how much of the mental and emotional fall-out, run-out, follow through, should we have? How much does the MC need to work out - or do we need to see being worked out? Thinking really does matter, especially the sudden, epiphanic, reversally-type understanding that will drive the next part of the plot. But, as with thinking/understanding mid-scene, if every time we've survived a crisis we then have its origins and implications for the future thought through and explained - handed to the reader on a plate - it has an enfeebling effect on the narrative drive. In other words, if plotting is all about playing Fortunately-Unfortunately, then don't, every time, make it a game of Fortunately-Unfortunately-ButSorted.
And you know what I realised as I was working? All these points can be grouped together as "too much explaining": explaining slightly more than the typical reader needs. So, when you do your Search, and say, "Does the story need this?" what you're really saying is "Does the reader need this?" In need I would include not simply mere plot-mechanics, but also emotional, affective needs to live in the story, and the need for the sound and rhythms of the words to work on us as much as the sense. In my case, I found I do about 10% more explaining than I - as my own representative reader - actually need. Pass me the paring knife...
Beat this, as the opening for a thriller:
I inherited my brother's life. Inherited his desk, his business, his gadgets, his enemies, his horses and his mistress. I inherited my brother's life, and it nearly killed me.
I've given micro-attention to a short piece of prose before, in An Education in Writing. And I've talked before, in Running With Wolf Hall, about what's going on when you read a whole book that sets you alight. And then the other day I wanted to have a think about how to build thrillers, and for the first time in many years I plucked a Dick Francis off my shelf, and read it. And another, and another, and another, in three days. (This one is Straight, since you ask.) I find them that addictive, although of course when you read a such a writer back to back, you do start to be more aware of the skeleton they share than the individuality which Francis tries to bring to those skeletons. Which of course was the point of my reading: to find what it is which they all have in common.
But, actually, that opening line is an education in writing in itself. Most particularly, it's an education in Telling, in the technical sense. This is information, not an evocation to draw us into a particular place and atmosphere. New writers so often believe that the only way to engage the reader is to admit us to the inside of someone's emotional life, but we can't yet care about the character, and you could argue that it's three sentences of total plot spoiler. And yet it's highly effective. So, how and why?
1) Francis always writes with a character as an internal narrator: his main character is both the main actor in the story and the teller of the story. This bit is very much the character as narrator, but a narrator with an urgent story to tell. He is, implicitly, saying, "Listen! Something terrifying happened to me!"
2) It's far-out in psychic distance, informing us neutrally about certain facts, not evoking them through a subjective consciousness. But the nouns - life, gadgets, enemies, horses, mistress - are potent ones, and so are the only two verbs - inherited, killed - so things are vivid: it's Showing, in the sense of being things which easily come alive in our minds.
3) Those potent words act like sweets, luring us in to want to know more. There's all the difference in the world between this, and what I see a lot of in writing which is hoping to "intrigue" by withholding information. The latter doesn't intrigue, all it does is frustrate the reader, especially at the beginning of the book where we don't have much invested in the main character. Why should we bother to read on, when you're not giving us anything which makes us want to find out more?
4) The words lure us in, but they don't give much away except that the narrator did, actually, survive. (But then we knew that, because he's telling the story.) They rub up together, creating friction and, above all, the instability that is crucial at the beginning of a story: this combination of things is not going to stay peacefully the same for a moment.
5) It doesn't just make us expect the physical action of gadgets and horses: the image of inheriting your brother's life and mistress is ready-packed with emotional instability. (So are horses, for some of us.) There's a story here ... One of the things Francis is so good at is creating an emotional arc which forms and resolves in among and through the thriller arc. It's not the most sophisticated analysis of love and sexual relationships you've ever read, any more than the moral universe of his work has the profound complexity of George Eliot, but both are always there, there's just enough moral and emotional complexity (he's good on friendship, too) to keep the likes of me happy, and they always work together.
6) The voice of the narrative - essentially the same in all Francis's books - is there from the start. We know where we are: direct, practical, adrenalin-inducing, and feeling rather more (brother-life-mistress) than he's ever going to give away in detail.
7) The rhythm and balance of the sentences is spot on. Although it reads completely naturally - no one would call this fancy prose - in fact it conforms to some of the most classic rhetorical forms by exploiting our pattern-making human brains: building in threes (three is the fewest number that makes a patter), with the repetition making the things that are different stand out. Short phrase, longer phrase, we expect the third to be longer still: "I inherited ... Inherited ... ... ... I inherited ... and it nearly killed me." Bang.
8) It's living proof of the fact that it is not incorrect to have a comma before an "and". In English punctuation, it would have been incorrect to have a comma (an "Oxford comma") after "horses", although American punctuation loves Oxford commas. But the comma before "and it nearly killed me" is very properly separating off that final clause. It's not compulsory, since both clauses are quite short and it wouldn't be confusing to have them run straight on. But the slight lift that the comma gives after "I inherited my brother's life" is crucial, reinforcing the repetition of the Inherited phrase, and then going in for the kill. As I was discussing in Don't Plot, Just Play Fortunately-Unfortunately, it's the sort of sentence that asks for an EastEnders-style drum after it - doof, doof, doof - which says "Wow! That was a surprise! And now what's going to happen?"
9) If you read the book (or most of his others) you'll find that the last paragraph captures and evokes the first and, again, the repetition evokes what has changed: if you want to know what's going on with that, you could read John Yorke's Into the Woods.
And after that lot, what are you waiting for?
A writer friend has said that her book-length manuscript has arrived on the page with scarcely any chapters at all: should she put them in? Terry Pratchett doesn't, says another writer. A fellow workshopper was really bothered by how my novel (The Mathematics of Love, since you ask) had several parts to shape a bigger architecture, but not an equal number of chapters in each. One highly successful writer of light women's fiction doesn't put the chapters in till she's written the whole thing, because only then does she know where they should be. Whereas I plan in chapters right from the beginning, like a skyscraper lift-shaft, built round the crane, and round which all else is built, and Scrivener makes that easy. But it also makes the write-it-all-out-and-decide-later method easy.
So what's going on? The question of when (and if) you put a chapter break is really one about what chapters are for, in a novel. There is a rhythm and shape to our experience of a novel - as I was exploring here - and chapters are central to it. And to some extent most of these also apply to the bigger breaks into parts, and the smaller breaks - asterisked, or just double-line-spaced - within a chapter. So these are some of the ways that a break might help to shape that experience: some reasons for whether and where to put one:
1) the reader needs a break - a reason to turn the light off or stop and get up. If Poe's definition of a short story is one that the reader can read "as a sitting", then a long story - a novel - must be one which is too long to be read at a sitting. Though you could always take the book with you, to the bathroom ...
2) the reader needs a break, a pause, to absorb what's gone before, before they get embroiled in what's about to happen. This could either be what I've taken to calling a Quiet Pause - a moment of reflection and understanding of what the stuff you've just read might mean for what you'll read next. Or it could be a Loud Pause, where the scary implications of the last scene have a moment to flower into full Triffid-hood in your imagination.
3) the writer wants the reader to have sense that time passes or we change setting. It uses the reader's experience of reading-time, in a tiny way, to evoke a sense of time passing in the events in the story.
4) the writer wants to change point-of-view. Since I'm a great believer in and advocate of the moving point of view, you won't get me to agree that this is a good reason - if it's the only reason - to break a chapter. But I do recognise that not everyone is confident in handling a moving point of view, and if you want to play safe by your more narrow-minded editors and teachers, and do it this way, I wouldn't dream of stopping you.
5) the reader doesn't need a break - the last thing they want is a break - but the narrator is whisking them away nonetheless, to show them something else and so prolong agony of waiting to find out What Happened Next ... This is harder to make use of if you have an internal, character-narrator, since the reader's more likely to feel cheated by the character deliberately witholding what happened next, rather than the tension coming about quite naturally from the need to catch up with the action in what stage directions call "another part of the field". It also, on the whole, doesn't work to break a chapter and then have the action pick up again at exactly the same point and place: readers feel that as an artificial cranking-up of the tension - again, a bit of a cheat.
6) it's the end of the scene. Some novels (specially novels by those for whom film is the primary narrative form) essentially have one scene per chapter, like a train made of carriages. The chapter break is the draughty moment between the really big, real-time, full-show big moments of change and, that's also how the train bends round corners and curves up hills.
7) this moment has big significance: it's where the EastEnders drum-roll might come in. Like enjambment in poetry, the last few lines of a chapter gain extra importance as they linger in the air while we turn the page, and because of that, experienced readers tend to read a Loud Pause in even if the actual action isn't all that dramatic. The risk for the writer is that you get addicted to the drama of the drum-roll, and habitually jerk us away to the next scene, and the novel loses its sense of continuous narrative and becomes a collection of abrupt chunks. The quieter, more fluent narrative move out of one stage of the story to the next are harder to write, but sometimes much more effective because they take the reader where you want them to go. And anyway, we're not scriptwriters.
8) the writer needs to show the bigger architecture of the story: not so much "This is where the story pauses" as "This is where the story enters a new phase." This is just about the only time when having a chapter-break in the middle of a scene might make sense, and even be rather effective in exploiting the more experienced reader's awareness: if you want to mark, very clearly that this was the big moment of change.
And that's it. I can't think of any more reasons to put a break into a narrative, but maybe you can - and if so, do please put them in the comments.
Posted at 01:46 PM in Academic Creative Writing, Books and reading, Craft, Drama & Theatre, Genres, Point of view & narrators, Short Stories, Technique, THE DAY TRIP, THE MAP TABLE, The Mathematics of Love, THE ROUND TABLE, THE TIME-AND-SPACE MACHINE, THE TOOLKIT, Writing, You and your writing | Permalink | Comments (16) | TrackBack (0)
One of the things I often have to explain when I'm teaching academic writing is that it's important to define any terms you're working with, because if you don't make it clear how you're using them, then the first time anyone says, "But what about...?", the chain of persuasion, which is your argument, is broken. The thoughtful students look nervous: they know that concepts such as Modernism, or Need, or even The Eighteenth Century (1713-1789? 1660-1815?), are things which people write whole books about, arguing with other whole books. So we talk about working definitions: of the possible sensible, reasonable definitions, which is most useful to you, in persuading your reader that what you're saying is true?
And then there's the idea of the working hypothesis. To work an idea out to the point of discovering if it's true or not, and whether it's useful or not, you have to act (for now) as if it is true. Whether you want to study single-cell animals, or create a dance work, you have to anchor some of your thinking - take some things as givens - so that you can imagine and observe and understand outwards from those anchorages. You must make a reasonable assumption about how a certain kind of animal behaves under certain conditions, so as to decide how to measure that behaviour. You have to decide how many dancers you'll use, before your ideas of space and bodies and budgets can start to develop.
In other words, when you work creatively, you must treat some things as if they're true, knowing perfectly well that they're not the only possible truth, and might not turn out to be true at all. So it's just as well that creative people are, by definition, very good at behaving, for now, as if things were true. But it's part of the paradoxical nature of the writer - the way we are both/and, not either/or - that sometimes we have to decide to stick with a definition and an assumption, and sometimes abandon them and make some new ones.
So how do you chose between stick and twist? When, in other words, do you stop suspending disbelief? Even when two writers are caught at the same point of decision, they may decide differently, and may not ever be sure if that was the "right" decision, even though it made all the difference. They can't now know what would have happened if they'd gone down that other road through the yellow wood. So, here is a handful of working definitions and hypotheses, with a suggestion of why they might help you to develop creatively.
I am a writer, so it's worth spending time/money/effort on my writing. You need to define yourself as a writer, at least for now, if you're to put in enough of the 10,000 hours to find out if you are, actually, a writer.
This is a story on a scale which makes sense, because you can't actually know whether it's the right proportions for itself and the right length for your readership till you get there.
My overall way of writing this story will work - because you need to commit to a form, a voice, a structure, if they're going to develop coherently. Trying to fine-re-tune every line or scene, to suit every different scrap of feedback, or information about "what sells" or "what wins prizes", or evidence of what other writers do well, is disastrous for now, when your overall idea of the "how" needs to be calling the shots.
My grammar, vocabulary and syntax are up to the job of a crazy - first draft - because it's more important at this stage to let your overall sense of storytelling run.
I shall be able to get help with them later - so you don't need to fret about them now if that blocks the creative channels of your writing-mind. Which doesn't mean you might not start looking about you for a good writer's circle or forum, of course.
My writing is worth being wasteful. Creative work is inherently wasteful. If you focus on "being efficient" in the crude sense of time spent and acceptable finished article produced, instead of focusing on the best way to get the story out of yourself and onto the page and revised and polished, you're not being efficient, you're just being penny wise and pound foolish.
My narrator is X. You need to know, in order to write any words, which consciousness is conditioning what gets narrated and how: is the narrator you, a version of you, an external narrator who isn't you, (a) character(s) in the novel, a character looking back on the events of the novel?
This part of this scene should be in Y's point of view - because you need to decide what consciousness the setting and events are told through, at this moment of plot and story.
This scene (or whole novel/memoir) starts in the right place - because you have to start it somewhere, in order to start it at all. Even if you're a writing-out-of-order writer, it's worth having some kind of sense of what the reader will first know about your characters and their story.
This scene (or whole novel/memoir) will end where I can sort-of see it ending. Some writers (all right: this writer) have to know where a story will end - in the emotional sense, or the physical sense, or both - before we know where it should start, and before we can have faith that we'll be able to make the decisions as we work through the as-yet unknown middle.
My reader is intelligent. If I Show (evoke) this place/emotional turmoil/action, the reader will do the Telling (explaining, interpreting) for themselves.
My reader will be concentrating. I don't need to shove everything that matter under their nose with a large label saying This Is Important.
My reader will trust me. If I don't explain what happens in the gap of this jump-cut, they'll still believe in what happens next.
My reader will be patient with me. If I bother to narrate something whose reason for being in the story isn't immediately obvious, they will construct their own working hypothesis that it is a necessary part of their experience, and keep reading.
My reader has their ears and other senses open - as well as their eyes and mind, so I can work with sound, rhythm and lyrical writing.
This is what I need to find out for the story I'm imagining - because your imagination can't work and grow a story without being fed with real-world stuff.
This is what I don't need to find out, to tell my story - because it will only be inert data. If readers want facts, they can go and read a book about facts.
I'm only not a good enough writer yet. It's unrealistic to expect yourself never to have deep doubt - or even the three-in-the-morning horrors - about yourself and your work. But that doesn't mean you have to abandon your original working definition of yourself as a writer. You just might need to change the working hypothesis about what kind of writer you are, and where best to put your effort and talents.
I will be published, or find enough of the right readers by another route, so it's worth spending time/money/effort on my writing. We're back where we started: you need to feel that you will be read, if you're to put in enough of the 10,000 hours to find out if you are, actually, a writer.
Of course, the opposite of all of these is also true. Any of these, hung on to for too long, becomes a drag, not an anchor. These are the not-working hypotheses, the un-helpful definitions, the equivalent of the person who refuses to see the evidence of their partner's infidelity, or their job's destructiveness, or the fact that their lack of talent at something precludes a professional career in it. So hanging in the space at the end of each of those working hypotheses and definitions are some further things to think about:
Running down the road, the briefcase slipped from Anna's hand and burst open on the pavement.
After falling in the practice and suffering concussion, British Team officials say she may not compete.
Having been firmly closed and locked, Alice's visit to the pub was fruitless.
Elaborately frilled and tucked, John tossed the quilt onto the bed.
Blue, orange and pink, the dog ate the latest designs.
As a former Mayor of London, I thought it would be great to interview Ken Livingstone.
Over 4000 years old, the Queen enjoyed her walk around the ruins
Once recognized, a writer or editor can easily fix the dangler.
Have you spotted what's going on with these sentences? It isn't the briefcase that ran down the road, and it isn't the British Team Officials who fell in the practice and suffered concussion. It's not Alice's visit to the pub which is locked, John isn't elaborately frilled and tucked, and the dog isn't blue, orange and pink. Ken Livingstone is the only former Mayor of London, (so he must be interviewing himself), the Queen is not 4000 years old, and it's not only recognised writers who can fix danglers.
And that last one's the giveaway. All of these sentences are suffering from what are are called "dangling modifiers". Most of them involve participles (the -ed or -ing form of a verb) but some are adjectives or other descriptive clauses. The result varies from the merely confused and confusing, to the downright comical, and all of them would get you into trouble from a grammar stickler or word-nerd.
The trouble starts when the writer feels the need to vary a sentence's structure away from the fundamental English syntax of subject + main verb + object: The archaeologist stared at the idol. Normally, this "main clause" is followed by "modifiers" - any extra things you want to say about it - in what's sometimes called a dependent clause, because it depends on having a main clause to hang on to: The archaeologist stared at the idol, which was twenty foot high and made entirely of granite.
But you might want to shift things round, so we get the modifying stuff first as an introductory chunk, and then the main part of the sentence. Fine - variety's a good thing. But there's an important and basic rule that when you have an introductory chunk before the main clause of a sentence then that introductory bit must be modifying the grammatical subject of the main clause. So you need to be careful, because you can so easily get nonsense: Twenty foot high and made entirely of granite, the archaeologist stared at the idol. That's an archaeologist even Harrison Ford might be scared of. Unpicking it, we can see that Twenty foot high and made entirely of granite, is about the idol, but the subject of the main clause the archaeologist stared at the idol is the archaeologist.
So why are these idiotic constructions so common? You might be trying to vary the construction of your sentences because reading aloud, say, has shown up that they're all a bit samey. Or you might be trying to "front-load" them: to get the exciting bit in at the start. This is something that journalists are actually taught to do, but it's a dangerous game if you don't know what you're doing. If the only interesting bit in a dull story about the Queen is the fact that the ruins are very old, the temptation is to front-load the sentence - but look what happened! Many of us might spot that idiocy and re-jig, but this one is subtler:
After falling in the practice and suffering concussion, British Team officials say she may not compete
is a genuine BBC example from the Sochi Olympics. It's got in a muddle because the journalist has front-loaded the sentence with the most dramatic thing: the fall and the concussion. In strict fact, the most important bit is She may not compete, and After falling in the practice and suffering concussion, she may not compete would make perfect sense, because the main clause of the sentence is she may not compete, and the modifier falling etc., is about her.
But, in trying to fit in the third part of the story - that it's the team officials who have decided this - the writer has walked into a trap, because the subject + main verb of the sentence has changed to team officials say . So the introductory falling... suffering now apply to them. Must be tough, being a team official!
Someone - I wish I could remember who, but it was a distinguished journalist, maybe even Alistair Cooke - said that you can sum up the entire 20th Century history of the fourth estate in the shift from sentences like Inspector Lestrade is investigating the murder of Joe Bloggs, a local pimp and father of three, towards front-loaded sentences such as The murder of local pimp and father of three Joe Bloggs is being investigated by Inspector Lestrade. Which is all very well, even if it does lead to sentences with a great lump of stuff between subject (the murder) and main verb (is being investigated) the beginning, and then a clunky, passive-voiced main clause. But in your determination to get the drama in at the beginning, it's all to easy to realise too late that you've said - and printed - something like this: A local pimp and father of three, Inspector Lestrade is investigating the murder of Joe Bloggs. But if you do say that, Mr Lestrade will be whizzing a libel suit your way before you can say "robert maxwell".
Sometimes less is less and more is more.
Sometimes telling a story demands Telling, not Showing.
Sometimes only an external narrator will do.
Sometimes only far-out psychic distance will do.
Sometimes point-of-view needs changing frequently.
Sometimes present tense is less immediate and more stilted.
Sometimes first person is more distanced and less evocative.
Sometimes third person can go more deeply into a character.
Sometimes only an adjective or three, and an adverb or three, will do.
Sometimes long sentences are more fast-moving, more direct, more dramatic than short sentences
Sometimes only a passive voice verb will do, and a hatful of was, had, am, is, have and are.
Sometimes punctuation is right when it's true to how something would be said, and wrong when it's accurate to what it says.
Sometimes being right means being incorrect: sometimes infinitives need splitting and so do phrasal verbs; sometimes prepositions should go at the end; sometimes a sentence should be grammatically incomplete.
A twist is only a twist; it won't turn a badly-made story into a well-made story.
An epiphany is only an epiphany: it won't turn a dull character into an interesting character.
A death is only a death: it won't turn an unsatisfying story into a satisfying story.
An unreliable narrator is only an unreliable narrator: they won't turn an off-the-peg story into a profound statement of human subjectivity or self-deception or anything else.
Lots of physical story is no compensation for lack of emotional story. Lots of emotional story is no compensation for lack of physical story.
Filling a story with ugliness and misery doesn't automatically make it good, true or profound; filling a story with beauty and happiness doesn't automatically make it bad, false or trite.
Sometimes the opposite of all of these is also true.
if a thing's worth doing, it's worth doing badly. Sometimes all that matters is that you do it.
First of all a big
HAPPY NEW YEAR
to all the readers of This Itch of Writing. May your resolutions be resolved, your writerly shadow never grow less, and your infinitives split precisely how you want them to be.
And since New Year has a way of prompting thoughts about the work-in-progress, or the work-not-yet-in-progress, here are some of mine, for that happy little window when the last family person has gone but the first work colleague hasn't yet arrived, and you can actually get some writing done.
One of the challenges of a big writing project is finding a voice for it. I've blogged about what voice is here, but for now, the first question is, of course, is whether the narrator is a character in the story, an internal narrator, or the story is told by an external narrator.
In my post 17 Questions to Ask Your Novel, the first three go a long way to forming how the narrator tells the story, which is what Voice is all about.
Either way, the voice of the narrative will be formed by who the narrator is, and so by your thinking about characterisation-in-action. But even when you have found a voice for the narrative, how do you keep it strong, and consistent, in the long haul? Characters change - change is the motor of storytelling - but how do you make sure that the voice or voices change convincingly, and don't just lapse into the bland default that you've taken such trouble to get away from?
So here are some specific questions to ask yourself about the voice/voices of your story. They apply to narrative but also to dialogue, and to any kind of novel but also to creative non-fiction such as memoir and travel writing. You could use them to focus your ears towards hearing the voices before you start the first draft, but they're equally useful - perhaps more so - diagnostically, later in your work, when you're beset by doubt, or get feedback that the voices aren't working.
Are you worried the voice is slipping or fading, further on in the story, or because you've been revising madly and lost sight of the vocal wood in tackling the plot-trees? You could take a chunk where you feel it's working best, and a chunk where it's working least well, and ask the questions I've just asked above. Wherever you spot a weakening, can you strengthen it? And remember the Christmas rule: green looks greener and red redder when you put them next to each other. So, wherever you spot a contrast in voice - between characters, and between how a character-narrator talks and how they think; between the voice of the narrator and the voice of a character in free indirect style - can you boost that contrast by strengthening both sides? When you've done everything you think it needs, try reading things aloud, to get a bit of distance. Does it still sound consistent, and consistently convincing?
Questions like these can sound alarmingly cold-blooded, but I'd urge you not to be afraid of working this way. Yes, Voice, overall, is one of the archetypal writerly things that you can't, completely, make happen by sheer force of will. But as I was discussing here, it's a mistake to assume that the only good decisions are those which come from that mysterious place we call instinct and intuition. A bit of clear thinking and precise focus can make things clear for your intuition to recognise. And besides, there are always times in your writing life - the depressed moments, the hungover and lack-of-sleep moments - when intuition fails you. But even then, you can always ask practical, technical questions about language and grammar, and - as I was exploring here - so often when you do get practical and technical, you're led back to the strange, instinctive stuff of our imagined worlds.
A writing exercise which the wonderful Debi Alper taught me is to write a two-character scene in first person, from the point of view of Character A (who might be yourself). Then you re-write it, as exactly as you can, from the point of view of Character B. Then you pick one viewpoint, re-write the scene with an external narrator (i.e. in third person), and move point of view once, finding the most effective moment in the scene to shift. Even with veterans, this exercise can be salutary, and in several different ways.
- The Other character becomes pure character-in-action. In the first version you may know almost nothing the Other one, but your intuition or conscious brain still has to work out what they would be doing and saying, which means working out some of what they think and feel. Mind you, when your storytelling imagination is on form and the scene is falling out of your pen, you may genuinely not need or want to dig into in their psyche. Just as the Viewpoint character can't see into the Other character's head, so you as the writer may well not need to either.
- And then you do need to know more, to write the second version. And how big is the gap between these two characters? Not just in how they see the world, but in what they want of the world and each other, and in how they try to get it? It's the gaps between what two different people want, and the differences in how they try to get what they want, that drives your narrative. Sometimes it becomes obvious that there's just not enough gap to cause enough trouble (many writers talk of "conflict", but I don't think that's very helpful). Other times you realise that the response of the Other was convincing seen from the outside, but doesn't make sense once you've understood more of their inside.
- The way the change of viewpoint also usually leads to a change of voice becomes very clear - sometimes for the first time - to many writers. And, since part of learning to write is about learning to be bad, this also one of the exercises where the less developed writers in the room start to get an idea of just how much more they could learn, and what possibilities are opening up for them.
- In the second version of the scene, your new Other character is one who you already know well from the inside. This version, therefore, becomes an exercise in how you get the reader to understand what a character thinks and feels, purely through gestures, tones of voice, words and so on. And is there a gap between what your new viewpoint character understands and thinks and says, and what we as readers see? In that gap tragic, or comic, or ironic?
- Switching into third person is a good way of realising how an external narrator can get just as close into a character's consciousness, if you use free indirect style (and why wouldn't you?). And as well as being able to move outwards to stuff no character knows, you can, arguably, get closest of all: an external narrator can tell the reader about fears, motivations and drives that the characters themselves don't understand or admit to.
- Moving point of view is startling for writers who have always written with an internal, character-narrator, or in third person but locked to a single viewpoint per scene. They realise how point of view isn't just something they'll be smacked on the wrist for "getting wrong", but a powerful and flexible (read: grownup) technique which they really should have in their toolkit. It's also a small, clear exercise in handling such a move.
I've had students say that it's completely changed how they perceive the scene, and the event, and their main character, and the story; I've had students realise they might have picked the wrong protagonist; I've had students cry, as the original antagonist turned out to be bearing the emotional weight of the scene.
And now I've got a new way of thinking about all this. Back in August, I spent a week teaching a course on Historical Fiction at Lumb Bank, the Yorkshire centre of the Arvon Foundation. My fellow tutor was Manda (M C) Scott, and one of the many brilliant things she said (quoting someone, I think, but I'm afraid I can't remember who) was this: "Every character is the hero of his own story."
In a novel, we all know, the main character/s are our hero/es: this is their story. But the Others? Even in fairy tales antagonists have some rudimentary motivations for getting in the way: misers want gold, older brothers are jealous of Dad's favourite son. And yet even if your project is rather more emotionally nuanced than Snow White, it's still easy to think of the other characters purely in terms of their relationship to your MC. But if you think about the story that these characters tell themselves, it might be very different. Your MC isn't their MC: they are the centre of their own story. Your MC is only part of it. And then there are all those lesser and minor characters - the best friend, the boss, the hat-check girl. What's their story? What kind of hero are they? What - if you want to use the Hollywood cliché - is this hero's journey?
And another thought: most people, most of the time, are trying to behave in accordance with their values: their idea of how they'd like their story to go. They may not manage it - particularly if their values and their feelings are at odds. They may be prevented from behaving as they'd wish ... or at least they may tell themselves or others that they are. You or I might disapprove of the values that underpin what they do, but those values still have some kind of central coherence for them. And much of what your Other characters do to your MC is, in a sense, directed by that wider sense of themselves and their story. What would a story built round them be like? How does that affect your hero's story? How does that affect your project?
Free Indirect Discourse is the original term, being a direct translation from the French discours indirect libre, but that doesn't get you much further. And least helpful of all is Free Indirect Speech, because most of the time we don't use the term for stuff which was said aloud. (Does it make more sense in French, given that they don't routinely use speech marks in fiction? A question for another day.) But we're stuck with the name, and it's not really as vague and alarming as it suggests: quite likely you've been doing it all along - you just didn't know it has a name. But in case it's all new to you, let's start at the beginning.
Think of your characters speaking: if you want to convey the actual words that someone said, without quoting them directly, then you use what's called reported speech:
If you have an external, knowledgeable narrator, and a narrative in third person, then the shift of tense and person is obvious: John said, "I don't believe you," becomes John said he didn't believe her. Don't becomes didn't, I becomes he and you becomes she.
If you have an internal, character-narrator, and a narrative in first person, it works just the same: "You can't leave me like this, alone on Rockall!" I yelled becomes I yelled that she couldn't leave me like that, alone on Rockall! The shift of tense and person is just the same: in the dialogue can't becomes couldn't, and you becomes she.
What Jane Austen realised, for which we should all be profoundly grateful and, unquestionably, put her on the £10 note, was that you can do the same with thoughts: reported thought rather than directly quoted thought, if you like. Just as with speech, the clue is that the tenses fit with the normal narrative tense, but the voice is the character's. So, if your straightforward narrative with directly-quoted thoughts and speech was this:
Emily was one of those people who hated confronting liars. She put down her coffee and thought, he's a bastard! He's obviously lying! She picked up her coffee again. "How sweet of you to be so honest."
then free indirect style integrates thoughts and speech into the narrative:
Emily was one of those people who hated confronting liars. She put down her coffee. He was a bastard! He was obviously lying. She picked up her coffee again and said how sweet it was of John to be so honest.
Notice how, once we're in free indirect style, we lose the need for a "she ... thought". The fact that we're in Emily's point of view, and these words are in Emily's voice, is enough for us read it as a direct representation of her thought. And because the tense and person remain the same as that of the narrative, there's no abrupt jump from narrator' consciousness to Emily's consciousness; instead there's a slide from the voice of the narrator dominating the narrative, towards the voice of the character dominating it, depending on where we are in psychic distance.
Notice, too, how smoothly we move from the narrator's voice - telling us about Emily's dislike of confronting liars - into the narrator telling us about a physical action of Emily's, which gets us closer in psychic distance. We're then nicely placed to slip inside Emily's head with the reported thought of "he was a bastard".
On the other hand there are moments when the fact that we can slide (not jump) between voices means the reader needs a little help. In the directly quoted version, readers are used to associating an action with a bit of speech, without the need for a speech tag. We know that her saying "it's sweet of you" doesn't just run on from the thought because it comes after "she picked up her coffee". In the free indirect style version we probably do need the "she... said", to make sure we don't read "how sweet it was" as more thought following on from "he was lying", but as something said aloud. Leave it out, and you're in Wolf Hall territory: as I was saying here, it's wonderful, but some readers will find it too confusing to follow the story easily.
But I do see why Mantel took the fluidity of free indirect style to that extreme, such is the joy of how you can move freely from the narrator's consciousness into a character's, by using voices as part of the narrative, without having to explain it all, or expand things to the "real-time" of full dialogue. There's more on this in Blow by Blow; for now, just consider a version of the scrap from that post, as a reason to learn to use free indirect style:
"How long can you stay?" I asked.
She slung her jacket over the back of a chair. "My bus doesn't go till six."
"Good. I'll put the kettle on."
We sorted out the business of coffee - when had she gone decaff-only? - and I waited until the kettle had boiled and the dog been let out into the garden before I said, "Did you get my letter?"
Notice how free indirect style works just as well with a narrator who is also a character, and is therefore narrating in first person: when had she gone? is the free indirect version of the direct thought when did she go?. But notice, also, how much less scope there is to work this way if your narrative is already in present tense. How do does the reader know when the character-narrator is transmitting the charactor-actor's thought, if you don't have the shift into the past tense? This is one of David Jauss's reasons for finding present tense, as a narrative tense, very limiting, which he explores in On Writing Fiction, and I've blogged about the pros and cons of past and present tense here.
Another plus of free indirect style is that with luck you can fight off your editor's demands that directly quoted thoughts have to go in italics, by shifting into reporting them. In the days when a character's thoughts were often put in " ", it was more obvious whether the thought was directly quoted, or being reported. But nowadays on the whole only things said aloud get " "s, and I think the italics thing comes from nervousness that without some kind of marker readers won't get that this is the character's thought. But that's daft: readers have had decades of experience at picking up the cues, and as long as you write it right, they're quite capable of reading it as you want them to without having to stop and work it out. As far as I'm concerned, putting thoughts into italics is an unnecessary doubling-up of effects: the lazy or insecure writer's/publisher's way of keeping the reader on track. I want italics for other things more difficult to differentiate, and if you use free indirect style, you don't need them for thoughts: you can have all the voice and energy of the character's thought, but as part of the run of the narrative.
And, of course, if you're working with a knowledgeable narrator, to whom you've given privileged access into more than one head, then using free indirect style helps you to slide smoothly out of one point of view and into another. If standard realist narrative with directly quoted thought is like this:
Andy Pandy looked at the bears with an indulgent eye. I don't like seeing bears all growly and cross, he thought. But I do like seeing them when they're jolly and I can play with them. He jumped down into the pit.
and the free indirect version is this:
Andy Pandy looked at the bears with an indulgent eye. He didn't like seeing bears all growly and cross, but he did like seeing them when they were all jolly and he could play with them. He jumped down into the pit.
Then how do you move of point of view? Just go via the narrator, and make the most of the different voice-y-ness of the narrator and the different characters:
Andy Pandy looked at the bears with an indulgent eye. He didn't like seeing bears all growly and cross, but he did like seeing them when they were all jolly and he could play with them. He jumped down into the pit, oblivious to Nanny Jilly's cries. She, by contrast, didn't trust the bears an inch. They were dirty, and greedy, and not at all the kind of playmates a nicely-brought-up boy-doll should have. And if Mrs Pandy ever asked her about it, that's what she'd say.
And if your narrator is also a character? As ever, it's clearest if you think of your narrator as looking at themselves as a character from a little distance.
When I was a boy, before the unfortunate incident in which Nanny Jilly had her head torn off by a grizzly, I looked at bears with an indulgent eye, as all little boy-dolls do. I didn't like seeing bears all growly and cross, but I did like seeing them when they were jolly and I could play with them. Nanny Jilly disapproved, of course; she thought they were dirty and greedy, and told my mother so.
And notice how lightly the sense of Nanny Jilly's voice is touched in, just using "dirty and greedy" in what's otherwise adult-Andy's narrative voice. That's another joy of free indirect style: how you don't have to either Show/Evoke a directly quoted thought to us, or stick to the narrator Telling/Informing us about the thought. You can choose how strong the colouring is and how long it goes on for. Free indirect style can help to make your Telling Show-y.
Free Indirect Style isn't just a basic narrative technique, of course, it's also central to the business of storytelling in prose or poetry, and it's one of the biggest advantages we have over the playwrights and scriptwriters. Is it Austen’s or Emma’s voice that declares that "Mr Knightley must marry no one but herself!"? The answer isn’t quite "both": this isn't two people speaking in unison. The subjective voice and consciousness of Emma, and Austen’s voice and consciousness as the knowledgeable storyteller, have both moved into the gap that usually separates character from narrator. "We inhabit both omniscience and partiality at once," James Wood puts it in How Fiction Works, and, if only intuitively, the reader does feel this double-consciousness. But the merging of two perceptions into a single expression reinforces their actual difference: each is more vividly itself.
What's more, the bigger the gap between the narrator's voice and point of view, and a character's voice and point of view, the more irony becomes a part of the storytelling, because irony depends on us holding two different understandings of a single statement, and feeling the gap between them. I won't go on here, but if you know Emma, you'll know that lots of characters, as well as the narrator, talk about how ghastly Mrs Elton is. By contrast, Mr Woodhouse's selfishness is never spoken of explicitly. His solipsism and blinkeredness is ultimately just as big a threat to people's happiness, especially Emma's, but Austen conveys it purely by quoting and reporting his voice and actions, colouring the narrative without commenting on it. Nor is he ever challenged in the story: the other characters just tacitly circumvent or avoid the obstacle that is Mr Woodhouse, and so how the story is told is integrated with what the story is telling. And all with a few changes of tense, and person.