Archive: August 18th, 2008

MM: Hearing Voices

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Last week, we briefly discussed the different verb “persons,” but this is important in writing and warrants some extra attention.

Because, you see, it comes down to “voice,” and voice is extraordinarily important in narrative.

First Person, when the speaker uses “I”. That is, I, We, Me, Us

So far as narrative goes, you would use this when you are telling a story about your own experiences.  When writing a diary. When telling your spouse about your day. When making a speech.

Where fiction is concerned, you would use First Person when the story is being told by a character, or a specific individual–one who only knows what he or she can know. If you write a story told by, say, the butler, he may certainly know who the murderer is (“I did it.”) but he is not going to be able to tell you what the lead detective is thinking, or when he is going to be caught–because that character could not know those things. When you write in first person, you can describe immediate experiences of a character. (“Toto and I opened the door and couldn’t believe our eyes. Everything was so bright and colorful. We could tell right away we weren’t in Kansas any more.”) You can explain how they feel, what they are thinking, but they can’t know what’s happening in the next room.

Second Person, is all about You

You would use this voice when writing a how-to guide. (“Insert screw A in hole B and tighten.”) You would use this when giving direction or guidance (“You need to go about a mile and then turn left onto Maple Avenue.”) You would use this for an inspirational speech. (“The only one who can change the world is you. You are the hopes of tomorrow.“)

So far as fiction goes, second person narrative is a rare, rare thing outside of dialogue. This is mostly because, well, it’s hard to maintain this “voice” over the entire course of a book. It’s similar to breaking the “fourth wall” in video–when an actor speaks directly to the watching audience–to be most effective, it should be used in very small doses. Remember Ferris Bueller? Matthew Broderick’s character addressed the audience a few times, exchanged knowing glances with the camera from time to time, but throughout most of the movie, he and the other characters were supremely unaware of the audience’s existance. When writing fiction, you can similarly address the reader during a narrative, but maintaining the “You” voice throughout? It’s almost impossible to do it well. That’s not to say it’s never been done, but it’s so rare, it’s like a swimmer winning eight Olympic gold medals in a week. It takes an incredible amount of talent and a perfect concatenation of circumstances for it to work just write … er … right.

Third Person, the gossip’s favorite: He, She, They, Him, Her, Them

Third Person is all about talking about other people. “He did this,” “She did that.” Used for anecdotes. Gossip. Newscasts.

For fiction? Third Person is king. A huge proportion of the fiction you read is written in third person. Spoken, usually, by an omniscient narrator who can tell the entire story from a vast, all-seeing vantage point. “He crept to the doorway and leaned his ear carefully against the wood, straining with every breath to hear the voices on the other side.” In a situation like that, chances are the person is in the room alone–the only one who can know what he is doing (other than himself) is this all-knowing narrator. Really, they are very helpful.

One other note about Voice and Narrator:

Be careful not to get confused while you are writing.

I don’t mean that I think you are going to start mixing up the difference between I, You and Him. What I mean is that sometimes while you’re writing, your voice can “slip.” It’s possible to accidentally switch from one paragraph, one sentence to the next, without meaning to.  If you’ve been paying attention, you’ll see that I’ve switched a few times in this post–I’ve spoken as myself, and I’ve addressed you directly. The difference, though is that this IS a blog post, so I can speak about my own experiences and also give you guidance–using both first and second person, very naturally.

As a rule, you want to be aware of this. Especially if you’re writing fiction. Do you need me to tell you about the time I wrote half of a novel in first person and then somehow switched over to third person for the second half? Going back to make ALL the changes in Voice to make it consistent was NOT fun. Don’t let this happen to you!