There are few more important decisions to be made when beginning a writing project than who will be telling the story.
From who, comes how: a strong voice can capture a reader within a sentence or two, carry them through the many twists and turns of your plot, make them care what happens, and stay with them long after that final page is turned.
I don’t know about you, but considering this, it’s funny how often I don’t actually make a decision about who will tell the story when I begin, but just start writing and go with whatever comes out, like making a scratch dinner from whatever random stuff I happen to find in the bottom of the fridge.
And it can be a bit like that – the voice you find to tell the story that you create comes from bits and pieces inside you. People you know, things you’ve heard, other books you’ve read, television shows you’ve watched, your own way of thinking and speaking. And sometimes the how gives us the who – sometimes it is through the voice that we discover the rich details of character, rather than vice versa.
Today I’m going to look at a few books that I think are wonderful largely because of the narrative voice that carries the story.
First, I’d like to make a distinction.
I’m thinking of point of view as a way to refer to all the details of who is telling the story, beyond just the question of whether it is told in first person/third person.
When I think about point of view I’m thinking what the position is of the narrator in relation to the story being told. What are their views, fears, biases? What do they know a lot about? What excites them? What do they want and why? Beyond that, how old are they, where did they grow up, what kind of education have they had? What TV shows do they watch, what books do they read? Are they shy? Are they flirtatious?
Of course, this very quickly bleeds into voice, which is the how.
Voice includes the tone and cadence of the narration, whether the story is told through the immediacy of present tense or the flexibility of past tense. It includes the language that is used, what details the narrator pays attention to and what they skip over. It also reflects the narrator’s view of themselves and how that might shape the way they tell their story.
I’m still not entirely sure that this distinction works but it’s what I’m using right now as a tool to help me try to think more clearly about storytelling, and it may be that there’s something in it that is useful for you too.
Voice and point of view are worth studying deeply because so much of the poignancy and potency of storytelling lives in this region of who and how: in the narrative voice.
So here is a short summary of a few of my picks. These are books that I think I should go back to and re-read closely and think about carefully as part of a study of point-of-view and voice in storytelling.
The Adrian Mole Diaries by Sue Townsend.
‘Friday, April 17th. GOOD FRIDAY
Poor Jesus it must have been dead awful for him. I wouldn’t have had the guts to do it myself.’
I have read the Adrian Mole Diaries over and over and over again, and even now when I pick them up and open to a page at random they make me laugh and wince and sigh all at once.
Every single line is so distinctive and familiar, so absolutely definitely Adrian Mole.
The ‘Dear Diary’ conceit is handled perfectly in these books.
Adrian Mole tells the story of his life, love affairs, and his parents on again off again relationship, in tiny, bite sized day-by-day chunks, against the backdrop of Thatcherite England.
The tone of self-consciousness is pitch perfect. He’s writing for himself and for you, the reader, and the dissonance between his own view of himself and the way he wants to be seen, as worldly, cultured and experienced; the naivety of his view of life and relationships; and the sometimes bleak reality of his environment and options, is captured painfully well.
The Knife of Never Letting Go, by Patrick Ness
‘I am Todd Hewitt, I think, closing my eyes and chewing, embarrassed for my Noise now, now that I know she can hear it, now that I know she can think about it.
Think about it in secret.
I am Todd Hewitt. I will be a man in twenty-nine days’ time.
Which is true, I realize, opening my eyes.
Time goes on, even when yer not looking.’
The use of present tense and the rhythm of run-on and chopped up sentences fuel the urgent pace of story-telling in The Knife of Never Letting Go, which begins with a rush and only picks up speed as the book goes on.
The voice of the narrator, Todd Hewitt, carries markers of the difference between his world and the reader’s. His tone is colloquial, his language simple but expressive. All observations are dead-centre from Todd’s viewpoint. There is no question that we are seeing this world and everything that happens through his eyes.
The book explores the problems of what we know and don’t know of other people. Todd’s is a world in which all thoughts can be heard – until he meets a girl, Violet.
The way Ness uses voice to handle the bleeding of one mind into another (Oh Manchee! BEST DOG IN A BOOK EVER!) is one of the things that makes this both a compulsive and profound reading experience.
The Poisonwood Bible, by Barbara Kingsolver
‘Well, Hallelujah and pass the ammunition. Company for dinner! And an eligible bachelor at that, without three wives or even one so far as I know.’
This story is told through multiple first person viewpoints of Ruth May, Rachel, Leah and Adah with the story spanning decades. Each voice is absolutely unmistakable – I recall that as I was reading I knew who was speaking almost within a word or two. The characters are perfectly realised. I don’t know how Kingsolver does this! I will have to re-read and study it more closely and report back! The book carries an incredible emotional punch, largely because of how closely you connect through the voices of the main characters to the story of this family.
I have to stop now because it’s getting late here, but I’d like to finish by saying that if I spent the next decade exploring point of view and voice in fiction, studying books in which it’s done well, listening to people around me telling stories, and experimenting, experimenting, experimenting in my own writing, it would be a decade well spent.