“Voice” and “Point of View”
There are two ways in which the term “voice” is most often used in relation to writing. The one that concerns us at present is the one that refers to the way in which a given story is told: that includes the mechanical aspects of “first person” and “third person” narration, the degree of omniscience granted to a third person narration and the manner or tone in which these voices address the readers of your story.
How we tell our stories is often more important than what we tell. It’s like a movie director trying to figure out the best angles to shoot a scene: will it work better with a close up? A long shot? A couple of reverse angles? Which of these will display what’s really important in the scene and not call attention to itself?
Fortunately (or not), we don’t have to worry ourselves over camera angles and cross-cutting. All we have to work with are words.
What we do have to worry ourselves over are two relationships that are all important to us as writers: the first is to our readers and the second is to our characters – the people we write about.
Sometimes starting a story is as easy as taking out a pen or powering up the computer and getting to work. I think I have days like that only once every leap year. More often, I tend to struggle to find the best place to sit (figuratively speaking) and observe the events in my story.
I could do it with a first person voice, inventing a character who tells us what’s happening or what has happened. The first person could be the protagonist of the story, but he or she could also be someone situated close to the events of the story, someone who is involved but not necessarily the center of attention. Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby is such a narrator, as is Ishmael in Moby Dick.
With few exceptions, however, first person narrations are indirectly stories about the narrator. Even when they are out of the action, the story often turns out to be about their changes in perception, their gaining of knowledge … or their lack of it.
The problem with a first person narration is that it is practically limited. The first person narrator is a participant in the story – is one of the figures on the canvas you’re painting in words, and as such cannot know any more about what’s happening in the story than what he or she can perceive. You can’t use the first person narrator to look into other characters’ minds, or to tell us anything he or she couldn’t ordinarily know.
A third person narration is what you might want to use if you need to look into several characters’ inner motivations, or view events in several places where one person can’t naturally be. Third person gives you a chance to move around more within a story. The “narrator” has more immediate knowledge, even omniscience, though total omniscience can be a very messy thing – if you have a chance to know everything about what happens, it’s sometimes difficult to determine what to leave out of the story.
Many authors devise a narrative voice that’s called “third person limited” – they impose some boundaries for what they can tell us in the story. A third person voice can be very objective, and show us no more than a camera shows us: “The room was messy and dark. The desk, near the window, was stacked high with big manila envelopes.” – that’s very objective.
Less objective: “Raymond had no time to clean his room and he hated to see it in the light. There was just too much work to do, too many manuscripts to return.” This version describes nothing, but implies the messiness of the room. What it does tell us that the other example doesn’t is why the room is messy, and how Raymond feels about it.
Even less objective: “Raymond looked at his desk and wished he could just dump all the envelopes in the trash. It’s getting me nowhere, he thought.” This version allows us to hear (or read) the words Raymond is thinking. We can get right inside his head, something we couldn’t do with first person narration (unless the character whose head we’ve gotten into is Raymond himself).
This is taking third person narration very close, but it can also be pulled back: “There was a man in the dark room, pacing around his desk and scratching his head.” – the previous versions describe the scene as if we’re in the room with Raymond. This one is written as if we’re looking into his room from out in the hallway, or from the room next door.
Third person voice can also be editorial: “Raymond was stymied again, pacing around his desk, but then people like Raymond usually are: weak-willed, self-loathing, unhappy people.”
Third person voices can be adjusted a number of ways to suit the needs of a story. In some cases you’ll use combinations of voices to write a story. In many cases, the first point of view you use to write the story will not be the best one. It might help to write the scene several times, writing it in different ways, until you find the one that works best.
Then there’s that other relationship you need to take account of: between yourself and your reader.
So far, I’ve mentioned nothing about second person narration, because in some ways it resembles first person and in some ways it resembles third person. Second person writing is like writing a letter: you are directly addressing a specific “someone.”
Some stories are written as letters, copying the letter form. Other stories have utilized the second person by imitating someone telling you a story (Isaac Babel and Ring Lardner come to mind immediately; Babel wrote a story imitating a man telling a story to fellow passenger on a train, with the reader standing in for the fellow passenger; Lardner wrote a story from the point of view of a barber, telling a customer a story, with the reader standing in for the customer).
There is a sense, though, in which all good stories utilize a kind of second person voice: you, the writer, are writing a letter (in the form of a story) to the reader.
In some of my undergraduate writing classes we used to do an exercise where we preface a passage of writing (any sort of passage) with the salutation “Dear” and pick out one specific person in the class to address the passage to. When one person was directly addressed, the writing seemed to take on a different tone. The words hadn’t changed, but now they seemed more urgent, and everyone listened a little more attentively.
Radio personalities often say that when they’re in a studio, talking to an audience they can’t see, they try to imagine one person, one listener, and talk specifically to that one person. Writers often do the same thing. Sometimes they imagine a specific person (John Updike said he wrote for a young man in Kansas, who stumbles upon one of his books in a library), sometimes they have no idea what their “reader” looks like, but they “speak” to him anyway.
It’s a way for writers to remind themselves that they are writing to someone, not simply telling the stories to themselves. It’s a good thing for all writers to remember. There are objects, places, relationships and many other things we can see clearly in our stories because we see them in our mind’s eye. But our readers may not see those same things as clearly because we haven’t put them in our words, we haven’t told the reader that it was a sunny day, that Christine was Ivan’s sister, that the spiral staircase made it possible for Bill to see who Kate was talking to even from the first floor. We often forget that when we’re putting the words down – that the words are ultimately directed to an audience, a readership, who are not familiar with the story and won’t be familiar with it until we tell them.
Back in the days when we used typewriters, I used to call it “talking out past the typewriter.” If you’re working with your head down, staring at the page, the person across the room will only hear your words as mumbles. If you raise your head and talk out past the typewriter, to the person on the other side of the room, you’ll be heard clearly.
You’ve got to write like you talk – not into the page but out past the page, at the reader.
That’s using your voice.
As an exercise, imagine a very simple scene, like a man throwing a brick through a window, or a couple having a fight in front of restaurant, two women at a party discussing a mutual friend . . . something like that. Imagine the scene – see it in your mind’s eye – and then write it from several different points of view. For example, you can write the scene between the two women at the party as a first person narration by one woman, then as first person by the other woman. You could also write it from the first person perspective of someone sitting across from them. You can write it in a stark, objective manner, in third person, or tell us all sorts of things from the backgrounds of both women. You can write it as if it’s a scene recorded in the biography of a famous person. You can even write it as if it were an anthropological study – as if you were the Jane Goodall of party conversations.
Don’t change any of the particulars – it’s always the same scene. But notice how each time you change the point of view from which you’re viewing the events it changes the way the event is perceived.
The French writer Raymond Queneau did the same thing with a book called Exercises in Style and came up with about a hundred and fifty ways of viewing the same scene, changing the point of view from where the scene is seen and changing the kind of voice he used to describe the scene.
THIS JUST IN:
SATORI IN 2008: It occurred to me the other day that when I write letters or e-mails to certain people – to certain friends – I write better. I can’t say why but I do. It could be that the person I’m writing to is smarter, or attuned to my sense of humor, or is someone I feel comfortable with, or someone I want to impress. Or all of the above. What strikes me, though, is that it’s possible to improve our writing by choosing the right nameless, unknown reader to which we direct our stories. Kurt Vonnegut used to say that he wrote all his stories and novels because he thought they would entertain his sister Allie.