Tuesday, November 4, 2014
Loud and Clear: Part 2: The Technical Elements of Voice: POV
Last month, I began this series on voice by defining what it is we mean by “writing voice.”
This month, I’m going to begin talking about the technical elements—the writing mechanics—that play a direct role in voice.
Before we get into the specifics, keep in mind that both the type of story you are writing and the intended audience will influence your writing voice.
The voice for a horror story will be very different from the voice for a picture book (or at least I hope it is!). The voice for a nonfiction blog about finance will be very different than the voice for a fashion blog for tweens. The first might be quite formal and professional, while the second will likely be fun, bubbly, and accessible.
As I go through the technical elements of voice, keep these two things in mind: the type of content and your intended reader.
The Technical Elements of Voice
There are five areas I want to touch on in this overview of the writing mechanics that are core to voice.
1. Point of view or POV
3. Grammar and punctuation
4. Syntax (arrangement of words and phrases), sentence structure, rhythm
5. Word choice (specificity, consistency, and staying true to your characters)
Point of View
This post is all about point of view.
Point of view plays a direct role in voice. It’s a key decision because it sets who’s telling your story and from what narrative perspective the reader is experiencing the action of the story.
In a first-person POV, like that of The Hunger Games, the story is told through the eyes of the main character. We see only what Katniss sees, we feel only what Katniss feels. The voice of your story is the voice of your main character. All the words used and the tone employed come from who that main character is. It’s the clearest example of how voice can come from a technical element.
But then there’s third person POV, which runs on a spectrum from very close, similar to first person, to third person objective and omniscient. As you run along this spectrum, you are increasing the distance away from your main character. Making the decision to tell your story in third person means you’ve made a clear choice to put a bit more space between the character and the reader. This is a voice decision.
The Harry Potter series is told in third person limited, staying very close to Harry in all but a few instances.
While not used much, second person, in which the narrator addresses the protagonist as “you,” as if addressing a younger version of him or herself or perhaps as used in a letter or diary format, is another key decision that affects voice. If your character is writing in a diary, essentially talking to him or herself, the voice is going to be very different from the voice that character would use when in conversation with other people.
Once you have your POV, you need to remain consistent in its use. And while every character, main or secondary, in your novel should have his or her own distinct voice, this idea is especially important in books with multiple points of view.
Often in books with multiple points of view, the character’s name is used in the chapter title. Or different fonts are used for each narrator. Those are easy ways to tell the reader which character is narrating the chapter, but if a book is well-written, you shouldn’t need those clues. You should be able to tell which character is narrating simply from the language and style used—from the voice.
Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell is an excellent example of two very strong, distinct POVs in the same work. You know from their voices if it’s Eleanor or Park narrating that chapter. That’s exactly what you want to achieve.
One of the greatest compliments I’ve ever received on my writing was when a beta reader highlighted a line of dialogue and then added a comment in my Word file that said, “That’s so Henry!” about one of the characters in Becoming Jinn. That she could feel so strongly that a single line truly reflected my character means I drew him well, with a distinct voice that was different from all my other characters’ voices. You can bet I studied that line long and hard to see how I did that and to make sure (hope!) I could do it again!
Next month, we’ll move on to tense, grammar and punctuation, and sentence structure.
Lori Goldstein is the author of Becoming Jinn (now available for preorder; Feiwel and Friends/Macmillan, May 12, 2015, sequel, Spring 2016). With a degree in journalism and more than 10 years of experience, Lori is a freelance copyeditor and manuscript consultant for all genres. She focuses on the nitty-gritty, letting writers focus on the writing.
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