Voice

The seven point plot structure definition of fiction writing starts out with a character, in a setting, with a problem. And you can have different points of view as you go. How does the reader get to see the scene? First Person is inside the character’s head, listening to “I.” Third Person Distant lets you watch the scene as if from the audience of a play, or on television. You can see everything that happens, but are never privy to what the character is thinking.

I generally prefer to write in what is called Third Person Close. You, the reader, are outside watching, but also occasionally get to dip into the head of one character enough that you can listen to their thoughts. In a complicated piece, you might have different points of view, and be able to listen to all of them. (Only one per scene, please, unless you are REALLY freaking good at your craft.)

This is on my mind today because this week I re-read Dash Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon. It is a really good book, but I can make easy comparisons to the movie because it is always in Third Person Distant. You can see Spade working, but you never know what he is thinking, only what he says. For the reader, you are absolutely watching the action on a screen, and never get any closer than arm’s length. Think movie, in book form.

I found it somewhere disappointing. This was the first time I have re-read that book since I got serious about my own writing and began to study my craft. I would have made different choices, were I writing that story. But I have the advantage of hindsight, and nearly a century of other people building up the craft of fiction to something far greater than it was then.

Hammett wrote this like a screenplay. I have written those, so I notice and appreciate the difference. Screenplays are almost always Third Person Distant. You must show action and speak words for the audience to “know” something. (There are very few places where a narration effect works. Use them amazingly sparingly, and to set up some complicated money shot.)

In The Maltese Falcon, the story works because nobody knows what is going on behind the facades. You see the faces and hear the words, but all of the characters are duplicitous, and so everything constantly spins and twists until the ending comes upon you as a shock and a surprise.

And it works. I think the movie with Bogart is better, but that was because they took the novel and chopped out the soft spots, and left off the last chapter entirely for one of the best closing lines in the history of cinema.

“The stuff dreams are made of…”

But I found the novel to be a little too much cotton candy. Pretty and tasty, but not the least bit filling.

What is lacked, for me, was Voice.

You have the character, in the setting, with the problem. Spade, in dreary Thirty’s San Francisco, trying to figure out why his partner was killed, what’s the girl’s game, and who can be trusted.

But Spade himself is a cypher.

Hammett pretty much invented the genre of modern, hard-boiled detective. Certainly everyone else is competing with him (and Chandler). Some succeed. Some fail.

Setting is place. Where are you? What does the room look like? What did you have for breakfast?

What I was missing was Voice.

Voice is how the character feels about the setting. “The just-past-over-medium eggs reminded him of Sunday mornings at the old kitchen table back home, in a simpler time. Dad rounding up kids and getting them dressed with Mother running a perfect, little assembly line of food as he and his siblings cycled through, got fed, and waited patiently to go to Church and have their souled saved.”

Not just eggs. Eggs that remind the character of something, whether a good association or a bad one. That take him back to being a child, fussing with siblings, and then getting fed and heading off to Church. Voice.

There is an exercise writers go through occasionally, to practice Voice. Describe the exact same room from the point of view of three characters: One who is happy and excited to be there, one who has been dragged along kicking and screaming, and one who is neutral on everything they see.

You will get three radically different scenes. And this is a good thing. It draws the reader into the world more fully and colors their impressions. The Maltese Falcon kind of fades from my memory after a little bit, because while the characters are all classical archetypes, I’m kept at arm’s length from all of them.

I’m never emotionally invested in any of them.

For that novel, it is necessary. And one of the reasons why I find Chandler more fulfilling. For example, Marlow ending one story putting together a model of a P-38 for the kid. I know how he reacts to all the bad things that have happened up to that point. And that he is trying to do some little thing for a kid he might not otherwise ever see again, just to make the world a better place. Not on a grand scale, but that little corner he can control.

He had Voice.

That is why I like Third Person Close. As a writer, I can show the reader how the character feels about what they see, without long soliloquies. [Seriously, next time you are having a serious conversation on a topic with people you know, pay attention to how many words any one of you says in one stretch, before someone else speaks. Not monologue, but dialogue. (Not counting, of course, That Guy.)]

In a screenplay, we call that effect conversational exposition, where one character needs to spell out a great deal of information. You can always do the info-dump, but that’s clumsy. You have to talk.

In a novel, I do not have that limitation. I can let the reader see what Moirrey thinks about what’s happening around her. And Moirrey has a LOT of Voice, as many of you can attest to. (She has a sizeable role in book four, Goddess of War, which I just completed the first draft. Lots of Voice.) I can show you how someone acts, and then let you see some layer of why.

That’s something I enjoy in what I read, so I try to make it something I practice when I write. I think it makes me a better writer. Hopefully, it give you a better reading experience.

For me, Third Person Close is the most emotionally fulfilling way to craft or consume a story. I will occasionally drop into First Person (Kaleph, for example.)

I don’t generally like Third Distant, because I find it too off-putting. If I have to do something like that, I’m more likely to stay in Third Close, but use a different character as the Point of View, so that you see what they think, rather than the main actor. (In the big scene of The Librarian, I specifically did everything from Suvi’s point of view, while Doyle was trying to decide who to kill. You know her emotional response, and not his, but what you can see of it.)

What is your favorite way to enjoy a story?

1 thought on “Voice

  1. J. D. Brink

    That’s one of my favorite movies and a book on my shelf, though I don’t remember last time I read it. I do remember that the movie was pretty damn close though, like exact lines of dialogue close.
    And I agree that a close third person (in my writing classes it was called “over the shoulder”) is my favorite way to write, because you get some of their thoughts and personality through the voice you use. I am also drawn to first person, but usually when I write a hard-boiled kind of story (of which I have a few).
    I like your thought process here today. 🙂

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