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The voice trick. Are you listening closely?

October 13, 2010

I’ve been exploring the writing voice some more – and I’m still persuaded it’s one of the most important tricks in a writer’s repertoire.  I don’t mean that it’s fraud, but it certainly can make you a magician.

Take a book, any book.

Let’s take The Sleepers Almanac No. 6, a collection of short stories published just now in Melbourne, which happens to be the last book I read.  I’m proud to have one of my own stories in this year’s Almanac, which as usual is the best collection of Australian short stories around (IMHO).

Anyway, I read the book from cover to cover and quickly decided on my two favourite stories in there.  In both cases, although the stories are very different, the characters and plot intrigued me, my reading slowed down because I was enjoying myself so much, and the words kept returning to my memory afterwards.  I just, well, liked them.  (That’s what a reader says.  A writer says, ‘Bastard.  I wish I could write like that.’)

So what are their secrets?  I re-read carefully, and what do you know?  Both stories have strong, clever voices.  I’m talking about the voices of the stories themselves, not of the characters in the stories (which, by the way, are also strong).

It’s the voice that seduces you, holds you and leaves you wanting more, even if you don’t realise it and just think the stories are, you know, good.

1. ‘The Doctor’ – a subtle voice

The story called ‘The Doctor’ is, at first glance, a description of a country doc’s typical day.  Happens to be set in Ireland, modern times.  The doc is called to the local police barracks to give a prisoner, a man caught drunk driving, an alcohol blood test and, while there, gives the sergeant a consultation too.  The doctor then goes home.  The end.

But step closer, lend your ear, and the story is transformed.

It’s not actually a simple description of a life at all.  Instead, it’s a deep view into a complex mind.  The work is set – not in Ireland – but in the doctor’s head, and it’s told – not by any old observer (read, omniscient narrator) – but by the doctor, in his inner voice, as he goes about his business thinking.  And as he’s a highly intelligent, experienced and compassionate guy, what we are given is a rare and privileged insight into human nature. 

How is the transformation achieved?

Here are some of the steps, in the order they occur in the story.

  • First, the title. It’s not ‘The Barracks’ or ‘The Sergeant’s Complaint’, it’s ‘The Doctor’ – and that’s no accident.  A small but good clue.
  • The point of view.  From the opening paragraph, the POV is intimate third-person. (In other words, it’s ‘he said’ rather than ‘I said’, but it’s still told through that character’s head.  I’m going to write a post about POVs soon.)  This POV is scrupulously maintained, but the doctor is a keen observer of humanity so some of his observations look at first like straight description of the action by the author/narrator.  They are, however, the doctor’s own sharp assessment of what’s going on.  Here’s an example: ‘It could be a nativity scene with the three now peering in, and this is not lost on one such as Willie.’  This is not a description of Willie’s thought, but the doctor guessing what Willie, the prisoner, thinks, and he’s spot on because Willie’s next comment is: ‘Here come the wise men.’  So the doctor has guessed right, which shows how insightful he is.
  • Language and tone.  This is the most important bit.  The language and tone of the story mirror the doctor’s personality.  They literally create the doctor for the reader.  His style is embodied in the style of the words.  Here are just a few examples of how it’s done:
The doctor’s personality… …is mirrored by the story’s personality.
Through his work, the doctor knows the secrets of many people in his small community, but it’s clear that he’s not a gossip. A concern that the prisoner might try to kill himself is expressed thus: 

‘ “I took his shoes in case,’ the young guard smiles, holding up his prize like a fish on a line.  “Hardly a need,” says the doctor, though knowing how things are now.’

Nothing more is said about suicide, and the word is never used in the story.

He deals plainly and honestly with his patients, but he’s also kind. Descriptive language is plain and spare, but warm.  Here’s how Willie is described: ‘A big lad, though harmless, all his muscle used to carry his weight.’
He’s sometimes world-weary… Here’s what he sees in the barracks: 

‘Two clocks, five minutes out with each other, keeping parallel worlds in order on opposing walls.  A room that has been added to and taken from so many times that the equation doesn’t balance anymore.’

…but also caring and capable of wonder. About the sergeant: ‘you could drop stones into him the day’s length and never know the depth.  Yet there must be a depth.’
  • And finally, the explanation.  In one small statement right at the end, the purpose of the story is given: ‘He remembers yet again who he is, and how everything he does, even in the smallest of ways, makes him.’ That’s what this story is about – how people are created by their thoughts and their deeds.  And this detailed fragment of a person’s life totally embodies that idea.  Brilliant!

2. ‘Nymphomaniacs’ – a wry voice

Here’s a love affair between an entomologist (scientist of insects) and her lab assistant, whose relationship takes on an insect quality as it progresses.  ‘Nymphomaniacs’ suggests both the sex and insect pupa (‘nympha’) or butterflies (‘nymphalids’).  The story is funny and pacy and has a sting of irony.  It’s told in the third person by an omniscient narrator rather than one of the characters, and POV isn’t used to create a subtle structure as it is in ‘The Doctor’.  Still, it’s the voice that carries the story.

The voice is light, odd, delicate, unsettling, almost scientific in its specificity – creating something like a fine-legged arthropod viewed under a microscope.

Here are some examples of the tone:

She had a PhD in grasshoppers and he had a BMX.’  The opening sentence.

The woman was early forties, out of kilter, litigious.’  The word ‘litigious’ is the entire description of the woman’s shock and anger at being hit by the boy on his bike and her subsequent desire to get some legal redress.

[The ex-greenkeeper] wore his melanomas like badges of service.’  Lots of pithy metaphors like this.

Marion and her protégé mimicked the pretzel choreography of damselflies, both shadows contorting in their own sick thrall.’  Sex scene.  Use of precise language as if jotting down scientific observations.  Very funny, especially ‘sick thrall’.

While it’s true that privatisation had enlivened [the museum], adding face-painters to the forecourt and bunting to the ceiling…’

Ironic insect-y punning laces the story, eg:

The greenkeeper rubbed his face, waited for the intruder to make the next move.’

The boy was ‘house hopping.’

A colleague was ‘hatching rumours’.

The lunchroom was abuzz with scandal.’

It’s the narrator’s voice in this story, rather than a character’s, and the narrator is always stepping back wryly to show the funny side.

So, what can we learn?

I don’t have any intention of trying to mimic the voices in these stories.  What I do want, however, is to learn how to develop voice in my own stories.  And some general lessons can be drawn:

Voices are specific.

A voice always belongs to someone who is somewhere. The voice in ‘The Doctor’ is subtly but definitely Irish.  Lots of examples, but just think about the intonation in the following question: ‘Would you not go out for a drink with Niall and the rest of them?’  ‘Nymphomaniacs’ is placed carefully in and around the Melbourne Museum.  On the other hand, a story told in generic language with no accent or discernible cultural background beyond English-speaking has no voice – unless it’s meant to be the voice of an ABC newsreader or robot.  This is so important.  Think of the difference between a murder story told to you third-hand by someone who wasn’t there and the same story told to you by the murderer herself at the scene.

But it doesn’t mean the story must be told from a particular POV.

The voice can belong to an omniscient narrator (‘Nymphomaniacs’) and not necessarily to one of the characters (‘The Doctor’), and it doesn’t need to be in first person.  And it certainly doesn’t have to equate to the author’s own voice.  I’ve got no idea what Terry Donnelly and David Astle, the respective authors of these stories, sound like.

It’s as much about what’s not said.

In ‘The Doctor’, the doc’s reticence and delicacy is often shown in his silence.  His disapproval of the sergeant’s triumph over his prisoner is articulated in the following exchange: ‘We have him now,’ says the sergeant coming through.  The doctor doesn’t reply.’ There are double meanings in every bit of dialogue: ‘I was making coffee,’ a guard says, which – in this context – is a thin excuse for why he’s been out of the room schmoozing his love interest instead of focusing on the job.

In ‘Nymphomaniacs’, we’re often not told some crucial aspect of the action and just have to gather it from the consequences, which are told first.  The boy is lying under the table.  We wonder why until, in the next sentence, it’s revealed that it’s due to ‘a fit of back spasms’, so we gather that it’s because of his vigorous sex life.  This tactic gives the story an unsettled, hopping pace.

The voice reflects the story’s character, so it should be suitable.

And this means so much more than choosing apposite metaphors.  Nabokov was amused when publishers suggested he rewrite Lolita in spare American slang instead of the literary language he used.  That just wasn’t the way of his main character, Humbert Humbert.  By the way, I was reminded of Nabokov’s views by this line in ‘Nymphomaniacs’: ‘I long to bestow my name to a brand new entity, just like Leavitt has done, Reinhardt, Nabokov.’  Coincidence?

It’s a tool as important as characterisation and plot.

The voices of ‘The Doctor’ and ‘Nymphomaniacs’ were what got me in.  I’m also thinking here of the book I’m currently reading, Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel.  It’s a long novel told in intimate third person, enthralling even if you care nothing about its subject, 16th Century England.  I had no desire to learn more about Henry VIII before I read this book, but I can hardly put the thing down.  I suspect that the sad, wise, Machiavellian narration had much to do with it winning the Booker prize.

Voice exercises:

  1. Practise writing in first person, even if you change ‘I’ to ‘he’ later.  Avoid the omniscient narrator for a while.
  2. Go through something you’ve written and make sure the metaphors are apt.  (You know the sort of thing.  ‘Pain like a hoof to the head’ for a farmer’s story, ‘hockey stick legs’ for a school girl’s story.)  This is obvious, and you should be doing it anyway!
  3. Think up a list of your main character’s 50 favourite words, even little words like ‘me’ and ‘but’, and try to use each one at least twice in your draft.  More subtle than just using favourite expressions.
  4. Quickly name 3 of your favourite novels or short stories.  Why do you like them?  Anything to do with voice?  Please tell me what stories you picked.
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