Keeping the Voices Straight

I love to write dialogue. I’d guess that in 87% of my scenes, I write the dialogue first and fill in the narrative later. So, deciding what my characters say is rarely a challenge, but making sure their voices are distinct and stay true is.

character_speakWriting in both male and female voices is a challenge in itself. Then you have to consider the character’s education, life experience, and regional influences to develop a voice that sounds natural. And you have to repeat that for each of your characters. Ideally, even when your character is not identified by name, the reader shouldn’t have to read very far into a paragraph before realizing who’s speaking or narrating.

In The Brevity of Roses, a few of my characters, for whom English was a second language, didn’t use contractions when they spoke. Because I didn’t want my main character to sound too stilted, as often as possible, I challenged myself to form a natural-sounding sentence without using any words usually contracted in informal writing.  Still, after each draft, I made an editing pass specifically looking for contraction slip ups.

Also, in that novel, two characters were upper-educated poets and because I’d written a good bit of the book in their voices, by the time I got to a third major character who was a young, streetwise woman I found myself slipping back and writing words and phrasing, both in dialogue and narrative, that she wouldn’t have used naturally. I had to edit those out.

In one of my current works in progress, my biggest challenge is staying “in character” as I write the parts from my Jesse’s point of view. He was born into a poor mining family in the West Virginia mountains and left school when he was fifteen to hire on as farm laborer in Kentucky. I don’t want to write his voice in dialect as much as I want to give the flavor of his voice. That flavor is not my own and I catch myself slipping out of character often.

In addition to Jesse, I have several characters who speak with just a touch of country and a couple who are pure “city folks.” One of those is the main female character, Nicole, who happens to be an English teacher. So again, I’ve set myself up for several editing passes just to make sure I’ve kept the characters’ voices “natural.” I accept that challenge.

If you’re a writer, what challenges are you facing in your current work?

Linda

How am I going to tell this story?

povTwo of the decisions a writer has to make are which point of view and tense to use in telling their story. I’ve written short stories in third-person past tense, first past, first present, first past, and once in second present. I’ve written two novels in third-person past and one in first present. What? No third-person present or second-person past stories? Hmmm …

Anyway, I’ve begun work on my next novel, and though I love editing to refine syntax and word choice, I can’t say the same about revision. I love the result, of course, just not the process. So, I’d like to settle on point of view and tense before I write any more, to avoid the chore of changing those two elements in a completed book.

I’ve experimented with a few sentences, adapted from one of the stories, to evaluate which produces the most compelling voice.

1. [First-person present tense]

  • The night touches me with soft kisses, its promises true, devoutly kept. I breathe it in and exhale pain and fear. I rise and enter the house, fumbling for the door lock. I smile at myself. In this place, I have no need to lock anyone out.

2. [Third-person present tense]

  • The night touches her with soft kisses, its promises true, devoutly kept. She breathes it in and exhales pain and fear. She rises and enters the house, fumbling for the door lock. She smiles at herself. In this place, she has no need to lock anyone out.

3. [First-person past tense]

  • The night touched me with soft kisses, its promises true, devoutly kept. I breathed it in and exhaled pain and fear. I rose and entered the house, fumbling for the door lock. I smiled at myself. In that place, she had no need to lock anyone out.

4. [Third-person past tense]

  • The night touched her with soft kisses, its promises true, devoutly kept. She breathed it in and exhaled pain and fear. She rose and entered the house, fumbling for the door lock. She smiled at herself. In that place, she had no need to lock anyone out.

Does one of those stand out to you? I’m favoring first present, but maybe that’s only because I used that for my last novel. But here’s another problem. This novel began life as two short stories, and those stories are told from two different characters’ viewpoints—one in present tense, the other in past.

I believe An Illusion of Trust worked told in first-person present tense, but I wrote it from only one viewpoint. I don’t know if that would hold true using first present for two characters throughout a whole novel. And both viewpoints do have to be in the same tense, right? Right? Shoot. Now, I’m confusing and confounding myself.

Any thoughts you’d like to share on choosing viewpoint and tense?

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What’s the point?

I have a dead zone in my brain. You know, that place where things you try to learn just won’t stick? If the formula for calculating percentages doesn’t dwell in mine, it’s definitely in the neighborhood. (Don’t tell my math teacher son.) Most tasks involving word usage reside in livelier areas, but one that doesn’t is the “point” referred to in the title of this post. That would be, Point-of-View—or POV if you’re into acronyms.

I have a dead zone in my brain. You know, that place where things you try to learn just won’t stick? If the formula for calculating percentages doesn’t dwell in mine, it’s definitely in the neighborhood. (Don’t tell my math teacher son.) Most tasks involving word usage reside in livelier areas, but one that doesn’t is the “point” referred to in the title of this post. That would be, Point-of-View—or POV if you’re into acronyms.

Oh, not everything about POV falls into my dead zone. I understand that it refers to which character tells the story and from what distance. I know the relevant terms: single, dual, multiple, omniscient, limited, unlimited, first, second, third, close. I’m aware of at least some of the advantages and disadvantages of writing in each, and I’ve written in all but one of them. Omniscient.

On second thought, I don’t remember everything I’ve written. I may have used omniscient at some point in my life, but probably by mistake. I’ve been told omniscient viewpoint was more popular in the past, so no doubt I came across it in the classics I’ve read. Today, literary writers most often use it. According to Elizabeth Lyon in Manuscript Makeover, it’s a viewpoint best reserved for use by “gifted” writers.

What I can’t retain is recognition of omniscient viewpoint—or maybe that it exists at all. Unless I’m forewarned, each time I encounter it I mistake it for an error, a POV slip by the author. (Revealing my ignorance today, aren’t I?) So, I go back and read about omniscient viewpoint and study the examples. I understand it. I think I’ll remember this time. Then whoosh, right into that dead zone it slips.

Maybe I’d have to use it in writing to make it stick in my brain. But I don’t want to. I’d probably do it wrong anyway. Lately, I’ve been looking at the characters in my WIP and wondering how long I can stick to my vow to write in single POV this time, but omniscient … nah.

Speak to me: What’s in your dead zone? Do you have any thoughts on omniscient—or any other POV? How’s the weather?

It’s YA and bleak! Why the heck am I writing this story?

I’m writing a story unlike any I’ve written before. It’s sort of YA dystopian. I didn’t ask for this story, I dreamed it. Actually, it was too intense to call a dream, so let’s call it a nightmare—the kind you force yourself to wake from because you’re too afraid to see the end.

I’m writing a story unlike any I’ve written before. It’s sort of YA dystopian. I didn’t ask for this story, I dreamed it. Actually, it was too intense to call a dream, so let’s call it a nightmare—the kind you force yourself to wake from because you’re too afraid to see the end.

Is it that intense on paper? No. At least, not yet. This has been my first attempt at writing without any preliminary writing—no crucial scenes pre-written, no dialogue already recorded. I don’t like writing first drafts. I know in my head where the story is going, but since I haven’t written the climactic scene, it’s driving me nuts not knowing if it’s going to turn out well. Yet, I keep plugging away.

This story has already gone through major changes. I’ve altered the original ending, which I sensed, but didn’t actually see, in my dream. I made that decision because I realized early that this was not a story about a girl; this was a girl’s story. I needed to tell it all from her point of view.

I’m eons way from my teen years. It’s not easy for me to get deep into the mindset of a 15 year-old girl. I have teen-aged granddaughters, so I’m not totally out of that world, but still …

So, yeah. That’s what I’m working on. I’m trying to ignore that inner critic asking me what makes me think I can write this story … or pointing out how much time I’ll have wasted when it fails. Someday I’m going to make her the victim in a violent tale.

Your turn: What sort of challenges do you set for yourself?

Who’s telling your story … and when?

In my last post, I said it was time to write my next book. Some of you may have noticed a post or two in the last few weeks indicating I’d already started that book. If you go back a few months, I talked about another book I’d started. Yeah, I’m having problems making a decision and sticking to it.

In my last post, I said it was time to write my next book. Some of you may have noticed a post or two in the last few weeks indicating I’d already started that book. If you go back a few months, I talked about another book I’d started. Yeah, I’m having problems making a decision and sticking to it.

Last night, I opened one of the books and read the opening. I liked it, but something was off. I felt distanced. So, I closed the file and went to bed. Of course, I couldn’t fall asleep because I kept trying to figure out how to fix the problem. I finally drifted off considering a change in point of view.

Most of the time, I write in close third. That I recall, I’ve never written in second, but for certain pieces, I’ve used first person. This morning, I opened a copy of my new manuscript and started changing the POV to first. After a few paragraphs, I stopped to listen to the reader in my head and discovered she was proposing another change.

Without looking through dozens of files to tally them, I think I’m safe in saying I usually write in past tense, but my inner reader suggested present tense for this novel. I haven’t studied point of view and tense. I mean, I know the differences, but I’ve read only a little about how the various combinations affect the story—or rather the reading of the story.

Fortunately, I hadn’t written very far into the book, so I don’t have to change much. I’m enjoying the challenge, but will the changes work? I don’t know. The short opening scene will probably need to be moved further into the book. Maybe I’ll substitute a new one. I may have to break my vow and seek feedback from a writer friend or two at this early stage.

I hope you’ll share your wisdom on tense and point of view with me. I know I have writing books on the shelf that would help, but I also know if I open them, I’ll be distracted for days. So …

Discuss, please:  Do you have a favorite POV or tense to write in? If so, why do you favor it? Have you ever forced yourself to try a new tense or viewpoint? Is there a certain type story you think works best in first person present tense? Is there a type you’d hate to read in that POV and tense?