Voice Direction

I spent a long time trying to come up with a snappy phrase for the literary concept I want to discuss. My first idea was to call it Point Of Observation, as a corollary to Point Of View, then I realized that the initials would be POO and I know the readership of the blog too well to try to discuss the POO of a story here.

After thrashing around for a bit I ended up with Voice Direction, or VD. This way the jokes will at least be sexual rather than scalogical in nature.

This post is a kind of sort of followup to my recent post on the invisible character. To recap that here, Voice in fiction is determined by both the Narrator (who is speaking), and what I called the Listener (to whom the Narrator relates the tale.)

The relationship between the “invisible characters” of Narrator and Listener forms what I am calling the Voice Direction.

Sometimes the Narrator (and less often in modern fiction the Listener) is specified. Most (but not all) fiction told in the first person is told by someone who is introduced to the reader. Usually this is done right away. One counterexample that comes to mind is Frederik Pohl’s Man Plus, which is told in first person plural (“We saw this, we noticed that”) and it’s not until the very end that the reader discovers who “we” are.

Usually, though, a 1st person narrator is identified for the reader as a particular character in the story. It may not be the main character from a narrative standpoint–Dr. Watson and Nick Carraway come to mind–but is still someone who was there during the action and is relating events directly witnessed.

First person narration affords the best opportunity for writers to develop the Listener as a character and also, in my opinion, suffer most when the Listener is inconsistent in the reader’s mind.

The Narrator in third person stories is generally not identified as a specific individual in modern fiction, but sometimes an author will construct a storyteller persona. Washington Irving’s imaginary author “Diedrich Knickerbocker”, “Lemony Snicket” of A Series Of Unfortunate Events, Norman Spinrad’s conceit of Hitler as SF author in The Iron Dream.

Whether or not the 3rd person narrator has a named identity, there should be a sense of “who is telling the story”. The subject of Narrator’s voice has been dealt with extensively in many places, however, and hear I am talking about the Listener.

I would broadly characterize Listeners in fiction as Intimate, Casual, Official, and Distant.

Intimate: The narrator is speaking to someone with whom she or he has a shared history. 1st Person Intimate stories are full of phrases like “you know how Dr. Infestation is” and “it was just like the thing with giant sloths, only this time I didn’t have a flamethrower” that imply that the listener is part of the close environment in which the story takes place. Sometimes the Listener is referred to by name (particularly in epistletory novels such as Dracula) but there is always a sense of reading some private correspondence between close friends.

3rd Person Intimate is less common, but shows up fairly often in quirky humor, such as Douglas Adams Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy.

On the plus side, Intimate narration draws the reader into the action and the world where it takes place. As a negative, delivering needed information to the reader can be awkward and lead to stilted sounding “As you know, Dr. Frankenstein” digressions.

Casual: This is probably the most common narrative voice in fiction. The Narrator is speaking to a Listener who is assumed to be familiar with the world in which the action takes place in a general sense, but not with the details of the Narrator’s life. As with most elements of literary criticism, these designations are points on a continuum rather than discrete steps.

For example, if the action takes place on a college campus the writer may choose to assume that the Listener is familiar with academic politics in general or may pause to explain the intricacies of departmental infighting. Either way would fit in the category of Casual. What is important that the narrator’s assumption of a shared knowledge base with the Listener remain consistent.

Too little information can confuse the reader. Too much can slow the story to a crawl. Vacillating between the two–infodumping in one place, skimming past needed details in another–can make a story completely unreadable.

3rd Person Casual comes closest to making both Narrator and  Listener truly “invisible”. It’s perhaps the most common voice in modern fiction, and gives rise to the idea that 3rd person writing means that “no one is telling the story”, which in turn leads to prose that is flat and unengaging.

Official voice is a bit of a special case. The conceit is that the story is an official document of some sort, a police report, a military briefing, a business memo. The conventions of the voice allow for more Casual–and even Intimate–phrasing than would be allowed in a genuine Official document, but the general tone of the story should be in keeping with the conceit. This voice, whether 3rd or 1st person, gives the story an immediacy and air of verisimilitude. Michael Crichton’s work is a good example of this voice.

Distant voice is when the Narrator and the Listener come from drastically different backgrounds.  It is important to stress that I am talking about the Narrator and Listener, not the relationship between either and the world in which the story is set.  A fantastic tale can be set in a world very alien to the one that the author and reader inhabit, but if the Narrator and Listener share a milieu, then it doesn’t qualify as Distant in my nomenclature.

A Distant narrator takes nothing for granted. Obviously this can only be approximated–the story has to written in a presumed common language, and some common ground must be assumed to describe anything. But the conceit of the voice is that the narrator is talking to someone from a completely different world.

This can be a difficult voice to maintain, particularly in 3rd person. It works best in short fiction or in brief sections in a longer work–for example a novel about an alien invasion in which a few chapters are written from the POV of the aliens.

The primary use of the Distant voice is to convey to the reader a feeling that the story being told is taking place in an alien world and the Narrator–as an inhabitant of that world–must overcome a gulf of symbol and metaphor in order to tell the story to presumably contemporary Listener.

A Distant voice also creates an emotional distance, which is often a problem in works of Fantasy but that emotional distance can be used deliberately. Having a narrator describe commonplace events in a way that denies a shared experience with the Listener is a technique which Theodore Sturgeon used to chilling effect in novels like Some Of Your Blood and More Than Human.

In conclusion, consistency is the key to voice.  If the Narrator and the Listener are sharing a couple of beers and swapping tales, they can’t suddenly be strangers having an awkward conversation waiting for the elevator without knocking the reader out of the story. Keeping in mind who is talking and who is listening and the circumstances of their conversation–even if you never share that information with the reader–can keep your story’s voice compelling.



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Slice Of Life Fantastic

This month I have been trying something new, a kind of a hybrid of NaNoWriMo and Inktober. Every day I open a new document and just write whatever comes out. The idea is to create something–a scene, a character, a setting, a plot seed–that I can save and expand into a story later on.

It’s been a very freeing exercise. I don’t have to worry about what happens next and keeping this internally consistent, I just write the “good parts” and save the file as soon as it’s not fun anymore.

As a consequence, I find myself drifting into an area that is hard to define. Call it “Slice Of Life Fantastic.”

I am really enjoying writing the ordinary daily lives of people who live in worlds that we would call fantastic. There is something particularly satisfying for me about describing the weird through the eyes of someone to whom it is quotidian.

This isn’t exactly new to me. Someone call my Book Of Lost Doors series (not unkindly, I think) “Lovecraftian Soap Opera”. It was always the scenes where nothing much was happening in terms of Action/Adventure/Excitement that I most enjoyed writing, and also that were, in my opinion, the best written.

The big story elements, battles and betrayals and things going boom, were things that I felt I had to include in order to win readers. (Not that it worked.)

So we’ll see where this goes.

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The Invisible Character

Recently two posts over on The Emporer’s Notepad, one on Deep POV and one on 1st Person Narrators, helped clarify some thoughts of my own.

Fiction is a conversation between people who don’t exist. I’m not talking about quoted dialogue between characters here, but the basic structure of the artform. It is, essentially, a story told by someone who doesn’t exist.

I have written about the issue of “voice” in fiction in terms of the identity of the narrator before, here and here and here.

What Emperor X got me thinking about, though, was that there is another side to the fictive conversation. Voice is determined not simply by who is talking, but by whom is being talked to.

Imagine that you are relating the story of an accident that occured at your workplace. You are going to tell the story very differently to the police, to your boss, to a coworker who was off that day, and to a friend who knows you, but has never been to your work.

Even assuming that you tell the absolute truth in all instances, the way you tell the story, which details you include or leave out, how you describe the actions and personalities of the people involved, the order in which you describe the events, all of these things will be determined by the person listening to the you tell the story.

Hence the “Invisible Character”, the Listener.

Now, the Listener is not the same as the readers of the completed work of fiction in the same way that the Narrator is not the author. The best way to describe the difference is to examine a work in which the Listener is specified.

Lovecrafts’ “At The Mountains Of Madness”, for example, is told in the form of a presentation being given by a survivor of an antarctic expedition to the organizers of a new expedition, in order to convince them not to go. This is laid out in the first few paragraphs.

In many places, for example the inventories of supplies and the technical details of the drilling rig, I can “see” the unsympathetic faces of the Listeners, sitting at a long table, taking notes. (And I can imagine their uncomfortable fidgeting towards the end of the tale, when the Narrator goes over the top and is eventually led away by security, still raving about alien monsters in the frozen south.)

That overarching conceit helps to keep the story grounded, for the most part, and while it is one of Lovecraft’s longest tales, it’s also in my opinion one of the fastest moving and most readable.

Another example is an often used conceit from True Crime Pulps that the story is being told as a statement to the police. (A technique I shameless stole for my own story, “The Silk Of Yesterday’s Gown.”)

Many adventure stories or traveler’s tales are written in a “3rd Person inside 1st Person” voice.

“I was in a bar in Marrakech, killing time while I waited for the mechanics to finish servicing my airplane, when this old man approached me for company. I bought him a drink and he repaid me with the following story. As fantastic as it sounds, the man’s calm demeanor and serious face convinced me it was true, or at least that he believed it totally.

“Did you ever hear of the Evelyn B? It was a tramp steamer out of Algiers, bound for South Africa.

“I thought back and said that I did recall. It was lost in a squall at sea and went down with all hands.

“No, the old man corrected me. It wasn’t a squall, and it wasn’t lost with all hands. In fact, he went on, he himself had been on Evelyn B, and he proceeded to tell me the story of what really happened to it…

This kind of setup may seem quaint to modern readers, but it keeps the story focused. It provides the author with a way of determining what details to include and what to leave out.

In my example the Narrator is a sailor, the Listener is an aviator, and so the Narrator is going to describe navigating on the water in a way that highlight the differences between water and air navigation. The reader–who may not know anything about navigation on land or air or sea–will be fed the relevant facts in a way that feels natural, because there is a reason for the Narrator to go over the basics of maps and compasses.

On the other hand, both Narrator and Listener are familiar with coastal Africa, and the Narrator would just say, “We were a day out of Dakar at the point” without going on to add “which is the capital of Senegal, settled by the Portuguese in the 15th Century and taken over by France in 1677…”

Info-dumping, that bugaboo of genre fiction, is in my opinion often a consequence of an author having no clear idea of who the Narrator and the Listener are, and hence no feel for the shared knowledge base of those two invisible characters.  Since the author is speaking to the reader and can’t know what the reader does or does not know, the temptation is to explain everything.

Information regarding a fictional world can be delivered in a naturalistic fashion. In Glen Cook’s Tales Of The Black Company, the narrator is the archivist for a military unit and describing the lay of the land is part of his job. In Michael Shea’s Nifft The Lean the novellas are introduced by a professional cartographer who has a tendency to lecture (but has such a delightful voice that we don’t mind.)

In practical terms, my advice to any authors who are struggling with finding a voice for their stories is to invent a Narrator and Listener character. I’d even go so far as to write up the specifics of where and when and how the story is being told. You don’t have to include it in the finished work, or even let anybody read it. This is just for you. The idea is to go from thinking, “how do I explain or describe this to my readers?” to “how would this Narrator explain or describe this to that Listener?”

Something to think about.

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Excerpt from “Fierce Tales: Savage Lands” (From “Nox Invictus” by Misha Burnett)

Teaser from my story “Nox Invictus” now available in Millhaven’s Fierce Tales: Savage Lands.

Millhaven Press

Captain Marius bade his troops wait at the edge of the forest and went up to the hilltop alone. He moved slowly, scanning everything with a practiced soldier’s eye.

It should have been a good position. The forest was thin, trees starved and twisted from the wretched stony soil and the brutal winds that Marius had been told came with winter in these climes. The hilltop, though, was more than thin, it was bare, weathered rock and dirt so lifeless that it was scarce worthy of the name. The knob stuck up from the surrounding trees like jagged bone forced through a wound.

The Imperials had built a stockade fence from the scrub pines, sharpened poles leaning outward at a slight angle. The trunks didn’t grow straight here, but the poles had been lashed together firmly and the fence had held. The gate was hanging ajar.

There should have been…

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Millhaven Press is looking for 3 more westerns for next year’s anthology…

Millhaven Press

Millhaven Press is looking for five more short stories for an upcoming Western themed anthology due out in late Spring ’19.

What we want: Stories featuring Revenge, Boomtowns, Outlaw Gangs, Posses, Range Wars…essentially, tough people in a tough land.

We also want “Weird Westerns”…Paranormal, Post-Apocalyptic, Alternate History…all are welcome.

There is no closing deadline for submissions, but we only need three more stories and when we have them…we have them.

You keep copyright and all rights associated with the story.  You give Millhaven Press first North American print rights.

  • Stories should be between 2,500-8,000 words (we may accept something shorter than 2,500 words or something longer than 8,000 but it has to be phenomenal).
  • Do not submit a story for reprint.  We are only interested in previously unpublished material (a story published on a personal blog is ok).
  • No simultaneous submissions.  Please do not submit the story to another outlet…

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All Millhaven Press releases available for Kindle

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$.99 Halloween E-Book Sale

Halloween Sale!

Millhaven Press

E-Book for Fierce Tales: Shadow Realms and Home Sweet Home: A Millhaven Anthology are now only $.99 until Halloween.

Dark fantasies and haunted houses abound in these two collections.  Be sure to check them out before the prices return to normal after Halloween.

Get them here:

Fierce Tales: Shadow Realms
Home Sweet Home: A Millhaven Anthology

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