13. Voices


You are, of course. You choose what story to tell, which incidents matter, which scenes to show, which events to tell about.  It is out of your mind that all the invention comes, all the characters, all the background details, all the ideas.

But when it comes time to speak the words of the story, whose voice will the reader hear?

It is never exactly your own voice. The very fact that you’re writing down the words rather than speaking them will make the style more formal.  The fact that you write more slowly than you speak, that you can see your words as you put them down, changes the way you produce and control your language.  It’s another voice.

Also, the fact that you can’t see the audience’s response requires you to be more precise and calculating in your written language – in speech, when you can look at your audience and judge whether or not they understand you, such precision isn’t necessary. Even if you “write” by dictating into a tape recorder, it will not be your normal speech patterns, but rather your more regulated “dictation dialect.” You’ve made this distinction many times – you instantly recognize the difference between natural extemporaneous speech, memorized speech, and speech that is being read.

It isn’t just the difference between writing and speaking, though. You have many voices.  You have one voice you use with your parents; another you use with your siblings.  You might have a company voice.  Most people have a separate telephone voice – professional secretaries and receptionists almost always do.  If you have children, you doubtless have not one but two, probably three voices – the stern reproving voice, the affectionate approving voice, and the baby talk you used when they were little, which still drifts back when they’re hurt and you’re comforting them.  You have a voice for service people and clerks, and another voice for public speaking.

Of course, your larynx produces the sound for all these oral voices. But the sound is only a small part of a “voice” – at least the kind of voice I’m talking about.  Each of your voices has its own vocabulary.  They overlap, but less than you might suppose.  Each has its own sentence structure, its own level of diction.  One might be slangy, another formal, another relaxed; in one voice you might have some blue language available, while another voice never produces those words.

This came home to me when I was a teenager. One summer I worked as an actor in a summer theatre, where the language among the company could have made sailors blush; I was as colourful as any of them.  Yet I lived at home, where such language simply wasn’t used.  So clear was the difference in the two voices that I didn’t even have to think about not using certain words where my parents could hear them.  I never caught myself about to use the wrong words at home, because those words just weren’t available in my “home” voice.

Does that sound like a split personality? Perhaps the function of our brain that lets us develop these different “voices” is the very function that drives multiple personalities – it seems likely enough.  But the truth is that normal people all have at least a few different voices they can turn on at will.  Most of the time you  aren’t aware of the difference – you  use these voices by habit.  When others change voices, you probably hear only the sound differences – a whining child, perhaps, or a friend trying to sweet-talk you, or a would-be date turning you down gently.  At such times it’s hard to be analytical – but if you don’t already know what I mean by “voices,” listen to other people move from relationship to relationship during the day, and notice how their vocabulary and syntax change for different tasks.  They become slightly different in most cases, radically different in some.

You don’t think about these differences when you use a different voice.  You just change mindset – usually unconsciously – and slip into the pattern of speech habitual for that relationship.

I grew up out west, but now live in the South – in the Piedmont region of North Carolina, where the southern accent is fairly mild. Still, when I’m with southerners with good, solid accents, I catch myself talking the way they do – not just making my vowels like theirs, but also using their figures of speech, even making up southern-style metaphors and similes from time to time.  “I’m as depressed as a chipmunk in a cat’s mouth.”  “He went home so fast he slammed the door before he opened it.”  “It was raining so hard that if you looked up with a smile, you’d drown.”  I don’t think about it – I get busy talking and my brain just kicks in with the right voice.

When it comes to telling a story, far more choices open up to you. You can use voices in writing that you never use in speech.  I’m not just talking about regional dialects, either, though the cadences of Brooklyn, Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, Houston, New Orleans, or the San Fernando Valley can bring colour and life to the telling of a story.  There’s also attitude – cynical, flippant, wondering, cold, nostalgic.  And level – crude, slangy, informal, formal, elevated, magisterial.

In fact, there are so many possibilities that I find that when I’m at the keyboard telling a story, it’s almost as if I’m acting. I’m “in character,” improvising the performance of my story using words and syntax that one of the characters in my tale might use.

This makes sense when I’m using a first-person narrator. The narrative voice has to sound like the first-person narrator; if it doesn’t, it’s a flaw in the author’s technique.

But I find myself “in character” even when I’m using third person, even when the narrator isn’t a specific person at all. I usually write in a voice similar to the voice of the viewpoint character, even though that character is not the narrator.  In reading other writers’ work, I find that, as often as not, they do the same thing.

The only clear exceptions are those authors who have a pronounced habitual style, so they use the same voice in all their stories. To a degree, of course, every author will have stylistic patterns that show up in every tale.  The characters will always have some overtones of the author’s own style of speech.  We can’t escape completely from our own underlying voices even when we try.  But usually the narrative voice is not exactly identical to the author’s natural speech – we always put on a voice of one sort or another when we tell a tale.

The underlying voice that repeats from one story to the next is your natural style. This Chapter isn’t about style.  So I’m only going to deal with aspects of voice that change from character to character, from book to book.

When you actually set out to write down your story, you have a lot of choices to make – narrator, point-of-view character, tense, level of penetration, rhetorical stance. In the next few Chapters I’ll deal with the strengths and weaknesses of all these choices, so you can decide which one is best for each story you write, and how to carry out the choice you made.


So now we come back to the question: Whose voice will the reader hear?

You probably already know the difference between first person and third person, but just in case you got shortchanged in high school, I’m going to review all the “persons” here with a simple chart:

  Singular Plural
First Person I go We go
Second Person You go (thou goest) You go (y’all go)
Third Person He goes, she goes They go


If this feels like a grammar lesson, that’s because it is.

However, most stories you read – almost all of them, in fact, including news stories, history, and science – will be written in either first person or third person.

First person is used for the eyewitness account, the story in which I tell you what I saw and did, what happened to me:

I gave up trying to figure out what Deena was up to and concentrated on getting drunk. Deep drunk, as fast as possible.  After all, I had a long drive home, and if I wasn’t drunk I’d probably get so bored I’d fall asleep at the wheel.  But somewhere along in there the bartender got my car keys and the next morning I woke up in my apartment with a hangover, a note telling me where my keys were, and nobody in bed beside me.

Third person is when the narrator was not present as a character; instead, the narrator tells you what happened to other people:

Pete finally gave up trying to figure out what Deena was up to and concentrated on getting drunk. Deep drunk, as fast as possible.  The way he figured, he had a long drive home, and if he wasn’t drunk he’d probably get so bored he’d fall asleep at the wheel.  But the bartender was earning his money that night.  He got Pete’s car keys, took a twenty out of his wallet, and sent him home in a cab.  In exchange for the twenty, the driver hauled Pete up the stairs and left him a note on his pillow to tell him which bar his car keys were in.  Pete woke up next morning with his arm reaching out for Deena.  He found the note instead.

Notice that the two paragraphs both tell essentially the same story. But as I got into writing the second version, a simple translation of the first-person account just wouldn’t do the job.  In first person you can only write what the narrator saw when he was there; in Pete’s case, that means when he was there and conscious.  In the third-person narration, the narrator could go on observing even when Pete wasn’t too alert.  Also, I allowed the third-person narrator to express an attitude: “The bartender was earning his money that night.” Now, you might take that as expressing Pete’s attitude, or you might not.  But in the first-person narration, Pete’s is the only possible attitude.

Your decision whether to use first person or third person is not so much a grammatical choice as a narrative strategy. If you want the narrator to be a character who takes part in the events of the story, you’ll use first person.  If you either want the narrator to be a character who did not take part in the events, or want the narrator not to be identified as a character at all, you’ll use third person.

Even though you’ve chosen one overall “person” for the tale, you’ll still have bits in many other “persons.” For instance, in a third-person narration, one character might tell a story to another, and that tale-within-a-tale could be in first person:

“I just went to the store,” she said. “At night.  Late.  I was juggling the car keys and the grocery bag and this guy came up.  Really weird.  He didn’t do another, but he scared me to death.”

Or, in a first-person narration, the narrator might tell about something that someone else did:

She told me the story, but I couldn’t figure out why she was still so upset. She said she went to the store that night and this stranger got to her as she was fumbling with the car keys and a heavy bag of groceries.  Didn’t do anything to her, but he was weird, and she was scared to death.  But why was it still bothering her a week later?

In each case, someone within your tale is telling another story, and that story does not have to be in the same “person” as the overall tale, as long as it’s a “person” that makes sense.

What about second person, or third-person plural, or other possible narrative voices? Well, there’s nothing to stop you from trying.  A student of mine once wrote a very effective short-short story in third-person plural, in which the members of a group of soldiers were never individuated, and only group feelings and responses were explained.  It was strange but powerful; but then, the story was about the fact that the group was so tightly bonded they might as well have been a single individual.

Second-person singular is used only occasionally in fiction – but in other settings, you’ve read it a lot. Every recipe you ever followed was written in second person, using imperative mood, in which the word you is understood but not said: “(You) fold two eggs into batter, beat for two minutes or 200 strokes…” Second person also shows up in a few other places, like the Ten Commandments: “Thou shalt not kill.” These both tell normative stories – stories that you are intended to act out in order to bring them to life.

Remember, though, that the “person” of a story is the consistent pattern of the narration, the way that the main characters are referred to by the narrator.  Just because the author addresses his readers as “you” doesn’t make the story a second-person narrative.  As long as the reader is treated as the reader, and not as a character in the story, direct address to the reader has nothing to do with the narrative voice:

You think you know all about crime, don’t you? You feel smug, you say “I’d be calm” or “I’d beat the crap out of him” – but it all falls apart, I promise you.  When I felt the gun barrel in my back, all I could think was Please don’t kill me I’m not done with living yet.  In other words, I started to whine inside.  I started to wish I had more money to give him, thousands of dollars, just to reward him for letting me live.

That passage was a first-person narrative. The direct address to the reader told a little hypothetical second-person tale about the reader’s supposed attitude, but the story itself was a first-person account.

Most of the time, though, you’ll use either first person or third person, and those are the only two narrative voices we’ll examine at length.


Almost every story you’ll ever read or hear is in past tense. Newspapers, broadcast news, history, science, gossip, and fiction – the overwhelming majority of these storytelling forms use the past tense.  It’s what most audiences expect when they pick up a work of fiction.

There are occasions when present tense is the natural mode. For instance, most of this Chapter is in present tense.  I’m trying to tell you something about the way fiction works, the ongoing process.  I’m not telling you what happened once, I’m telling you what happens repeatedly, and so present tense is mandatory.  How-to books, philosophy, and scientific theories (as opposed to scientific reports on experimental results) are written in the present.  All dramatic literature is written in present tense.

There are also fictional uses for present tense. In the academic/literary genre, present tense narrative has passed from being a daring experiment to being the preferred tense for short stories – or at least the most common.

There are other, much stranger possibilities. I can imagine a story in imperative mood, for instance, as if the readers were receiving directions from someone speaking through radio receivers implanted in their ears.  (Note that, as with a recipe, the imperative mood in a story requires the second person):

Go up the stairs. Pay no attention to the child shivering in the dark corner on the first landing.  Step over the vomit and don’t put any weight on the railing.  Your key fits half the doors in this building; the other half don’t lock.  Open the door with the number 77 on it.  Don’t bother reading the obscenity scrawled under the number – it isn’t in English anyway, and you didn’t do very well in high school Spanish.  You don’t even remember Spanish well enough to tell if the graffito is in Spanish.  There are a lot of Haitians around here; it might be French.

Open the door and go inside. Breathe through your mouth.  This guy’s been dead for a few days, and these rooms get kind of stuffy in the summer.  Open a window.  No, forget that – they’re probably stuck shut, and you don’t have much time.  You’re not the maid here, anyway.  Let the police clean it up, after you call them.  But not yet.  You’ve got a wallet to look for.  Hold your breath and try not to look at what’s happening to his skin.  Don’t try to figure out what he looked like before he got all bloated up.  It doesn’t make any difference if you ever saw this guy alive or not.  Just go through the pockets, that’s right.  Put your hands into the pockets, deep, all the way in, even though the fabric of the pocket lining is so thin, even though his skin under the pocket is soft and taut, like leftover corn meal mush in the fridge, jiggly, holding together but ready to fall apart if you push too hard.

Take everything out of the pockets, every pocket. You can wash later.  You can shower again and again.  You can scrub your hands until they bleed before you finally feel clean enough to sleep tonight.

Got it all? Then get out of there.

Weird but interesting, right? Still, I don’t think I could put up with a very long story written this way, and for me, at least, there’d have to be some reason within the story for it to be written in imperative mood.  Maybe the story is an accusation or a speculation; maybe the story is a running monologue, the narrator talking to himself.  There’d have to be some justification within the story, some reason why this strange approach was needed, or I’d feel as if the author put me to a lot of extra work just so he could dazzle me with a linguistic special effect.

As long as we’re doing special effects, what about future tense? A story told by a fortune-teller:

You will meet a tall handsome stranger. Oh?  You think that’s a cliché?  Too vague for you?  Too anonymous?  Then let’s see how you like the detailed version.  A tall handsome stranger, but you will pay no attention to him.  He will keep following you around.  You will wonder if he plans some sexual or violent act.  He will give you no sign of it.  I will not tell you, either.  If you want him to go away, you will have to give him the small red folder.  You don’t have that folder yet – it will be given to you by someone you thought was dead. Perhaps it will be given to you by someone who really is dead.  If you give him that folder, he will go away.  Or at least I think he’ll go away.  The vision isn’t clear.

Again, it’s easy to imagine writing in an odd tense, but very hard work to do it – and hard work to read it, too. In reading these two examples, you were constantly aware that there was something strange about the narration.  Strangeness always attracts the audience’s attention, in the story or in its performance; but strangeness in the writing calls attention away from the events of the story.  That alone is usually enough to make a storyteller reject a strange tense.

I gave you these examples just to point out that there really are a lot of options – but almost every time, your story and your audience will be best served by the tense that is so universally used that audiences don’t notice it: the past. Because present tense and first or third person are the conventional choices, they are invisible.    The audience doesn’t notice them.  Therefore they become a channel between the story and the audience.  If the audience does notice the tense or “person,” it is a barrier.

There are many young writers, particularly those with training in college literature classes, who believe that good writing must be unconventional, challenging, strange. This is a natural misconception.  In literature courses we study many stories that were written for another time and place.  The language has changed, as have the literary conventions and expectations of the audience.  Also, the most common method of literature classes is dissection – cutting a story to bits to analyse symbols and discover sources.  We also hear some writers praised because they were revolutionary or experimental, violating the conventions and expectations of their time.  So it’s no surprise if many young storytellers reach the conclusion that great writing is writing that has to be studied, decoded, and analysed, that if a story can be clearly and easily understood, it must be somehow childish, inconsequential, or trite.

This is far from the truth. Most great writers followed all but a few of the conventions of their time.  Most wrote very clearly, in the common language of their time; their goal was to be understood.  Indeed, Dante and Chaucer were each the starting point of a national literature precisely because they refused to write in an arcane language that nobody understood, and instead wrote in the vernacular, so that people could receive their stories and poetry in words they used every day.

In a way, every story you tell is experimental – you have never told that story before, and your audience has never heard you tell it. There are plenty of challenges for the audience in the process of getting used to your voice, to the kind of events and characters you write about.  Even when you write as clearly as you can, many readers will misunderstand you or reject your vision of the world.  So why would you want to make the story even more difficult, so that even readers who would otherwise understand and believe in and care about your story are driven away?

Of course, if your purpose in writing is to be admired, to impress people with your cleverness or skill, then the story itself is only a secondary concern to you, and your writing will be designed to dazzle your readers more than to enlighten them.  But if your purpose in writing is to transform your audience, to give them a clear memory and understanding of truth and important tales, your writing will be not an end in itself, but a tool.  Sometimes, to tell the tale as it must be told, you will have to violate conventions or try out new techniques; sometimes this will make your story more difficult or challenging to read.  But I believe the great writers will always be the ones who have passionate, truthful stories to tell, and who do all they can to help their readers receive them.

A rule of thumb: Choose the simplest, clearest, least noticeable technique that will still accomplish what the story requires.

(c)Marshall Dodgson, 1973.


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