Tuesday, June 23, 2015

A voice that needs to speak

I've just started reading Marlon James's A Brief History of Seven Killings, and have had a little epiphany:

In fiction, voice is everything.

OK, time for the walkback. It's not everything. You need complex characters, a compelling and plausible plot...or, to start out with, maybe you just need a distinctive, interesting voice to tell the story. Maybe the voice can supply a lot of that other stuff, because that's all central to the voice's existence in the first place.

In first person, drawing plot and character from voice is relatively easy, because a character is telling a story about something that happened to--or, perhaps better, because of--her or him. However, in a lot of novels, especially those told in third person omniscient, we often don't sense that an actual character is telling the story. Still, there's a presence behind the words, which is somehow a version of the author herself: the author filtered through language, or constituted in language, perhaps. And, when you're writing this way, it's well worth thinking about what's driving this persona's choices--along with "What does she want to say?," ask yourself: "Why and how does she want to say it?"

The voice doesn't have to be just one person's, either. As in James's novel, different storytellers can pass the baton from chapter to chapter. This can be difficult to pull off, as every voice has to be distinctive (I think we've all read novels in which supposedly different narrators oddly seem to share the same quirky sensibilities). On the plus side, this technique allows you to look at events from several perspectives--not a new concept, but often an effective one, especially if you, the writer, are feeling stuck partway through your novel. You also can give your reader access to information that a single first-person or close-third narrator wouldn't have.

My point is, maybe it's worth thinking of your work not so much as a story that needs to be told, but as a voice that needs to speak.

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