Forgive me as I begin this week’s post with some shameless self-promotion. This is Launch Week for the latest in my Jonathan Grave thriller series (#14!). It’s called Lethal Game, and you should be able to find it at your bookseller of choice. From the Marketing Department:
Hostage rescue expert Jonathan Grave and his fellow special-ops veteran, Boxers, are hunting in Montana when shots ring out, and they realize they’ve become the prey for assassins. In the crosshairs of unseen shooters, cut off from all communication, with the wind at a blood-freezing chill, the nightmare is just beginning. Because Jonathan and Boxers aren’t the only ones under fire. Back in Fisherman’s Cove, Virginia, Jonathan’s Security Solutions team is fighting for their lives too. A vicious onslaught is clearing the way for a much bigger game by eliminating anyone in the way. If Jonathan and Boxers can make it out of the wilderness alive, the real war will begin.
Now we return to our regularly scheduled programming . . .
Full disclosure: I posted a piece very similar to this back in 2017, but the concept of “voice” in fiction is a subject that many new writers struggle to understand, and that is, quite frankly, difficult to teach. It’s a worthy topic to revisit occasionally.
We all learn that the elements of a story are plot, setting and character. If not taught and learned carefully, these can seem like separate elements–separate threads, if you will–but for a story to work, they can’t be treated as such. The elements of story are less a quilt than it is a tapestry, and the subtle weave that combines the elements into something beautiful is the author’s voice, as presented to the reader through the point of view characters
So, rather than thinking of those story elements as separate threads, let’s readjust the whole concept of those elements. Let’s think this way: for a story to fulfill its promise to the reader, it must chronicle compelling characters doing interesting things in interesting ways in interesting settings, all of which is presented in an engaging voice.
Maybe this analogy is clearer. When you go to buy paint at the hardware store and you ask for the color European Autumn Sunshine (or whatever), the guy in the apron starts with a white base and then adds some blue and some red and whatever other colors, and only after its shaken does the color you want appear. Those component colors are your story elements. Your narrative voice is the shaker that gives you the shade you’re looking for.
As an illustration, let’s say that your POV character, Bob, finds himself broken down in the desert. In a descriptive essay, you would write about the colors and the temperature and the wildlife as the entities that they are. But to make that setting part of the story, it’s a mistake to forget about the character. It’s a mistake to leave the action to describe the scene. So, give those elements a ride in the paint shaker:
Bob pushed the car door open and climbed out into the heat. Shielding his eyes, he scanned the horizon. Rock formations glistened in shades of copper, gold and bronze. The vegetation, while sparse, seemed to vibrate with shades of red and blue and yellow. He was stranded in an artist’s paradise but he’d left his oils and brushes in the hotel room.
In this version, while we’re being introduced to the setting, we’re also learning something about Bob. Perhaps he’s a romantic. He’s certainly observant.
Now, consider this:
As Bob opened the door, super heated air hit him with what felt like a physical blow. It took his breath away. The desiccated ground cracked under his feet as he stood, and as he scanned the scrub growth and rocky horizon, he’ slipped a few rungs down on the food chain. No wonder we tested nukes in places like this. How the hell was he going to get out of here?
The setting in these two examples is the same. The action is the same. Both examples advance the story–whatever that may be–exactly the same distance. But the voices–the critical element in pulling off third person POV–are different. Notice that there’s no need to say that Bob #1 is a fan of the desert, or that Bob #2 is not. That’s because the descriptions are all filtered for the reader through the character’s point of view.
In an effective story, every word of every sentence and every sentence of every paragraph should advance not just plot or character or setting, but all of these at the same time.
In my seminars, I ask students to take five or six minutes to describe the place of the class–room, building, campus, town, whatever they choose–and through the description alone, convey the character of the narrator. It’s a worthwhile exercise, especially for writers like me, who works hard to be invisible on the page, leaving all of the storytelling to the characters.