Point of View And Voice

By John Gilstrap

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:

Option One:

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.

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About John Gilstrap

John Gilstrap is the New York Times bestselling author of Lethal Game, Blue Fire, Stealth Attack, Crimson Phoenix, Hellfire, Total Mayhem, Scorpion Strike, Final Target, Friendly Fire, Nick of Time, Against All Enemies, End Game, Soft Targets, High Treason, Damage Control, Threat Warning, Hostage Zero, No Mercy, Nathan’s Run, At All Costs, Even Steven, Scott Free and Six Minutes to Freedom. Four of his books have been purchased or optioned for the Big Screen. In addition, John has written four screenplays for Hollywood, adapting the works of Nelson DeMille, Norman McLean and Thomas Harris. A frequent speaker at literary events, John also teaches seminars on suspense writing techniques at a wide variety of venues, from local libraries to The Smithsonian Institution. Outside of his writing life, John is a renowned safety expert with extensive knowledge of explosives, weapons systems, hazardous materials, and fire behavior. John lives in the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia.

9 thoughts on “Point of View And Voice

  1. Good reminders here, Brother G. Another exercise for newer writers is to take a passage of strong first person (e.g., Raymond Chandler) and translate it into 3d. It’s tricky to learn how to write 3d narration, but crucial to get to that next level of excellence.

    Congrats on Grave #14! Where has the time gone…

  2. Congrats on release week!
    Well said, Mr. Gilstrap. As a firm believer in deep POV, I try to make sure everything on the page is coming from within the character. While authors have their own voices–nobody would mistake Janet Evanovich for Michael Connelly even if they were telling the same story–it’s all about how the character perceives the situation.

    My current character’s an interior designer. She’s going to look at the house she’s in differently from the PI she’s with. Which is probably why I had so much trouble with a read from a well-known and successful author whose female character was in a house and knew the manufacturer of every piece of furniture in it, plus how much each piece cost. There was nothing I saw in her background that gave her that skill set. To me, it was authorial research on the page and did nothing to advance the plot. Critics, however, seem to love the character. Me? I stopped after book 1 in the series.

  3. As a voracious reader, I can say the voice is the secret sauce that brings me back to certain authors. We’ve all read a book that’s technically competent—even good—but something about the overall voice didn’t excite us to want to read the author’s entire backlist.

  4. Congratulations, John, on #14. That’s exciting.

    And thanks for your post. The metaphor of weaving the tapestry is a great way to remember the story elements and voice!

    And now I look forward to reading Lethal Game and seeing how the master does it.

  5. John, read the sample and couldn’t resist. Congratulations on #14.

    Voice is kind of like great art. I don’t know what it is but I recognize it when I see it. Thanks for the two contrasting examples that demonstrate the vivid difference in attitude toward the same scene and situation.

    Any book tours planned in Montana?

  6. Congratulations, John, on Lethal Game. Book #14 in the series!

    What a great analogy. I shivered a little when I read it because I wrote an article titled “Threads in the Writing Tapestry” which posted today on Edie Melson’s blog, “The Write Conversation.”

    It’s a different approach than yours, but what a strange coincidence.

  7. Option 3: Bob pushed the creaky door open, nearly being knocked back into the vehicle by the heat as it pounced on him like a ravenous dust devil made of flame instead of dust, a flame demon as it were, a furnace faerie, a flaming faggot of fire in all of its original intent and definition, scorching his flesh as if he’d just sat on the the cracked vinyl seats of a 1978 Mercury Zephyr wearing only a European swim thong, the scent of burnt hairs on the back of his thighs preemptively wafting into his nostrils, the noxious odor burning his sinus preemptively, making him wish he’d imagined himself wearing pants.
    The desiccated ground crackled under his steps, making a sound like the dry rasp that had been stuck in his memory since the time he’d been in his Aunt Meredith’s attic and used her Egyptian themed mannequin as a stepping stool not realizing Aunt Meredith had kept her late husband Herbert’s actual mummified remains up there cuz she was too cheap to pay for a cemetery plot. It was easy to imagine how Ol’ Herbie had gotten into such a crispy state when the land scape looked like some giant Rock Troll had vomited a bunch of half-digested pennies across the land scape leaving both the red-brown slime of penny-puke along with the generally acrid perfume of copper and digestive juices across the land.
    In other words, it was Wednesday.

    • Oh Mr. Basil, I see you put a word in there twice, the same one more than once. I know how you hate being repetitive, like saying the thing again and again, repeating yerself by repeating things, saying it again and again, repetitively.

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