The Writing Rookie #6: The Voices in My Head

For the complete list of columns in this series, .

Think about what passes through your mind when you’re reading a story. Do you see pictures illustrating the various scenes? A movie, perhaps?

Most people have a largely visual response to written text. Some of us, however, are more auditorily inclined. In my case, when I read a story – or pretty much anything else for that matter – I hear a voice mentally narrating the words on the page. (Reading quickly makes the voice speed up, which may be one reason why I find skimming documents so intellectually draining.)

This auditory tendency has served me well in my professional life. As a writer, I find that my internal voice speaks the words as I’m typing along, providing a sense of tone and rhythm that I think has contributed to my success in composing white papers and articles and such. Regardless of whether what I write actually makes any sense, it generally sounds good.

It also helps with editing – either my own work or someone else’s. I can often tell when something needs fixing because my internal voice stumbles in reading it. And then when I’m done, I reread it in order to make sure that it flows smoothly.

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This tendency affects my story-reading in other ways as well.

When I read stories, my attention automatically zooms in on the dialogue. In fact, I’ve subconsciously trained myself – so I’ve found to my chagrin – simply to skip over long descriptive paragraphs. Reading The Lord of the Rings out loud to my family has revealed to me that there are pieces of this book – which I’ve read 20 times or more, and about which I wrote my master’s thesis – that are really not all that familiar to me. My brain hits description, and wham – it skims past, only to alight once more only when something more interesting happens. In short, reading stories – for me – really is all about hearing voices in my head.

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Back when I was starting my novel, one of the first things I had to decide was whether to write it in first person or third person. Despite the advice that I’ve heard about from people like Orson Scott Card saying that writers should avoid first person, that was the direction I was initially leaning. After all, a lot of the novels I admire most have been written in first person: Chaim Potok’s The Chosen, Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, Roger Zelazny’s Isle of the Dead. A quick scan of YA novels suggested to me that it’s more common than not in that genre (which isn’t the genre I’m writing in, exactly, but almost).

To be fair, I don’t really know Orson Scott Card’s reasons for advocating against first person narrative because I’ve never read his book on writing where (I think) he elaborates on those reasons. Still, thinking about it on my own I couldn’t really see any reason not to do so.

In order to decide the question, I wound up writing several different versions of the first couple of scenes in my novel, including some in first person and some in third person. I then waited a few days and reread them – and prevailed on one of my most patient readers (my brother-in-law) to read them and tell me which worked best for him. To my surprise, he and I both preferred the third-person narrative.

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Third person narrative is the storyteller’s workhorse. In this case, I’ve settled on third-person-limited-omniscience: my narrator sees everything that’s going on inside the POV character’s head, including actual thoughts at times, but nothing that the character doesn’t see or know.

This can be trickier than one thinks. A statement like “Paul frowned” works perfectly well if it’s from Chad’s point of view, looking at his friend Paul. But would Paul notice if he’s the one who’s frowning? Maybe. How about for “Paul’s jaw tightened” or “Paul’s eyes narrowed”? And yeah, there are ways around that (“Paul realized he’d been clenching his teeth when his jaw started to ache”), but they’re often awkward or simply not worth the verbal space they require. Trying to stay within one’s point of view involves this nasty little gremlin sitting on your shoulder constantly asking, “Would he really notice this?” Kind of like the anti-Jiminy Cricket.

And then there’s always the problem of how to incorporate information that your point of view character isn’t around to acquire. This can be particularly important if you’re following plot threads that don’t necessarily include your main character.

In the case of my story, my two central characters are teenage boys, both Mormon, who happen to be best friends. Paul is gay (or rather, same-sex attracted, but that’s really too long to keep writing each time, so I’ll just say “gay” hereafter). He’s the central character around whom the plot revolves. But the story as I originally envisioned it was at least as much about his friend Chad and his reaction to finding out that his best friend is gay (which happens at the beginning of the story).

And then there’s Chad’s father, who also happens to be Paul’s bishop. And Chad’s mother, who isn’t entirely happy with how much time her husband is spending at church and work and basically everywhere except at home. And Paul’s mother, who is divorced and who grew up pretty much inactive and was reactivated only when they moved into that ward when Paul was 8 and really has no idea how to help her gay son.

My solution for showing all these characters and their conflicts and plotlines was to recruit them as point of view characters as well. I wound up telling the story from the point of view of six different characters – seven, if you count the short three-paragraph bit from Janice Taylor’s point of view that snuck in around the end of chapter 17. That seems a bit extravagant, even to me.

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Trying to get the voice right for multiple point of view characters is a pain.

Part of the problem is that several of my main characters are, well, teenagers. Teenage boys, to be specific. They don’t want to talk about serious stuff. You know how your teenage children sit and stare at you expressionlessly when you try to get them to talk about their emotions, or plans for the future, or how they feel about the Church? Teenage characters in the novel you’re writing treat you as an author pretty much the same way.

One of the things I admire most about Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine is the way he succeeds in capturing the voice of 10- and 12-year-old boys, if those boys just happened to have the tongue of a poet. The way the kids in his story talk isn’t realistic. But it fools you into thinking that it is.

Many are the quarter-hours I’ve spent staring at my computer screen, wondering how to get my characters to say what I want them to say in a way that actually sounds natural to them. It’s probably where I’ve put the greatest amount of my effort – and also where I’ve gotten the greatest number of comments from my readers, on everything from whether teenagers nowadays are saying “fag” or “faggot” to whether Paul’s mother would actually use the word “appalling” to describe the boy who outs her son to the school. It’s not just dialogue per se, but dialogue plus internal thoughts plus indirectly reported thoughts plus even the language that surrounds a particular character. You really don’t want to use adult language (no, not that kind of “adult” language) when you’re writing a scene from a teenager’s point of view, even if it’s just precisely the right adjective otherwise.

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My story – by a carefully calculated statistic that I just made up while typing this post – is about 50% dialogue. And a lot of the rest is spent inside my characters’ heads, which is a lot like dialogue except that you don’t need tags to keep track of who’s talking.

I’ve actually finished my first draft at this point. (Don’t worry, there are more of these Writing Rookie columns to come.) Rereading scenes from my story, I find that I like my characters. Even the ones who aren’t Mormon and don’t entirely get my main characters’ Mormon ethos. Although possibly not the characters who – but that would be telling, wouldn’t it?

Back during my first post in this series, I wrote: “Part of what I’ve always liked about literature is the feeling of truly getting to know the people I’m reading about. Characters are my friends.” Frustrations aside (and my, I have whined about plenty of them in this series, haven’t I?), writing has proven to be a lot like that except even more so. Launching my book out into the world of readers to see whether it’s any good, I can only hope that the voices which speak so vividly and memorably inside my own head will find an audience out there as well.

10 thoughts on “The Writing Rookie #6: The Voices in My Head”

  1. .

    Re: third-person limited

    I have, for years, been inquisitorial about staying in the pov character’s head. Anything that could be taken as a pov violation I eliminate, or heavily mark if it’s someone else’s work.

    But lately I’ve been trying to loosen my standards. I’ve less and less convinced that being strict on this rule is necessarily necessary. For some stories, sure, yes, absolutely — but not for all. And I’m trying to experiment with when and how and where and why and to expand my pov vocabulary. I see too much success in the rules being broken to feel like I still need to be such a stickler.

  2. I’ve never been sure how much of OSC’s privileging of third person limited omniscience is support for the readerly/aesthetic merits of it and how much is a reaction against the other “more literary” pov options.

  3. Oh, and my life is constant monologue and dialogue and chorus of various voices in my head. But don’t tell anybody.

  4. Looking at my own post, I realize that “Although possibly not” at the end of the next-to-last paragraph should (for clarity) read: “Although possible not the characters who – but that would be telling, wouldn’t it?”

    (You always catch something after you’ve published it…)

  5. Pssst, Jonathan. This is the Web — you can make minor corrections. And you can even make major corrections if you note them.

  6. Everything occurs on the movie screen of my mind. Everything. I just write down what I see.

    I despise third person omniscient, but I believe it’s because it was trained out of me at an early novel-writing age as “head hopping” aka the Unforgivable Sin. I don’t think there’s anything inherently WRONG with the “Meanwhile, back at the ranch…” method of storytelling, but now it will jerk me out of a story faster than anything.

    As a reader, I don’t necessarily differentiate between first and third (limited omniscient) person because I’m a visual reader. The rhythm of the words gives me a soundtrack to the movie in my head.

    As a writer, I use first and third person for very different things. One of my current projects is a mixed first and third person (female protag in first; male in third). It keeps me as close to her as can be and thus, her issues are much, much slower to reveal themselves because she’s in denial. It’s tight camera work.

    If you’ll indulge me a moment (from this work):

    Neither of us had spoken more than perhaps twenty words each since I’d opened the door and he’d asked me to dance. He’d known something was wrong and opened his mouth to ask, but I’d shaken my head, unable to give it voice. He simply took out a handkerchief and dabbed at my cheeks as if I had been crying, which I hadn’t been.

    His third person POV allows me to be somewhat removed from him AND her, widens the camera angle and clues the reader into a more informed (wider) viewpoint. Doing that scene in HIS POV would have (IMO) lessened the impact of the way she denies her vulnerability.

    Thus far, beta readers have liked the juxtaposition and really, I don’t think I could do it any other way.

    But in any case, whichever way I choose to transcribe the movie in my head, it’s still a movie and the rhythm of the words is the soundtrack.

    In the last year or so, I’ve gotten more leery of people who say you SHOULD write X way or you SHOULD write Y way. I subscribed to that for many years and I’m sure I missed a lot of good stories that way.

    I regret that.

  7. Absolutely. I’m quite leery of critical comments that start by referencing back to some general theory about the way that stories “should” work, as opposed to zeroing in on the specifics of how a particular story does or doesn’t work.

  8. I almost always write third-person limited. One reason is it’s the easiest for me. I do have a couple published exceptions.

    My most recently published story (“And Dream Such Dreams” in OTHERWORDLY MAINE) has three POVs:

    “¢ Standard third-person limited (POV character: Gen. Joshua Chamberlain)

    “¢ “Diary” first-person limited (POV character: John Hay)

    “¢ “Inner monolog” first-person limited (POV character: Abraham Lincoln).

    Hay’s diary and Lincoln’s inner monolog alternate scences. Chamberlain’s straight third person POV serves as bookends — first and last scenes.

    I didn’t start with the idea of three differnent types of POVs in the story. It’s just that ended up what the story called for. I needed facts & events put in the story that wouldn’t be known to a single character. Since John Hay is just an observer of the history taking place, it seemed to work best “distancing” his first person voice in a staid diary form. This also had the happy benefit of making Lincoln’s inner monologs even more intimate.

    My “Gunther Likes To Dig” (Asimov’s) used a bookend of “folk tale style” omniscient third person to frame the standard third-person body inside. Again, that’s what the story calls for.

    I needed to get into the head of Gunther, but first person was too close and would reveal too much. Third person omniscient worked much better, and gave a fairy tale feel to the passages.

    Now that I think about it, distance and intimacy were the deciding factor in both published exceptions to my usual third-person limited standard.

    Everything else I’ve had published (I think)is third-person limited.

    — Lee Allred

  9. Interesting example, Lee.

    Third person omniscient is tricky, but I like the effect when it’s done well. Like most lazy literary fiction writers, I rely way too much on a first person limited POV.

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