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Posts tagged ‘POV’

Escaping into Fantasy: Thoughts on Transportive Fiction


I’ve got a confession to make: I read for escape.

I don’t just read to learn, or to shape my moral compass, or to consider the deeper truths of life. If any of that happens, I’m ecstatic. I love to think, and I’m thrilled to have to have my horizons broadened. But literature can only achieve such effects when it has engaged the reader on an intellectual, emotional, and physiological level.

There is a difference between being engaged with a story, and being transported by it. Engagement need not be visceral: it can be distanced, nuanced, and cerebral in nature. Escape is transformative, in the sense that for a time I am taken out of my day-to-day concerns and focused entirely on the story and its characters. A story that engages me might hold and maintain my interest. A story that allows me to escape will not let me put it down.

That type of engagement – when we temporarily check out of our day-to-day existence and inhabit a fictional world (whether it is fantastic or not) – opens us up to whatever deeper truths we may find in the written work. And (on a superficial but no less important level) it makes the experience enjoyable. But what makes that kind of escape possible? What makes some stories a means of escape?

The Difference Between Escape and Engagement

When I read, I find that there is a fundamental difference between engagement with the story, and escape. It is not, however, a difference in kind, but rather in degree. I can be engaged with a story, interested in seeing the characters’ fates, curious as to how the plot resolves, etc. without divorcing myself from my everyday reality.

Plenty of good books generate engagement. Many of the Russian classics (Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, etc.) and more modern SF writers like Greg Egan, Gregory Benford, or Kim Stanley Robinson engage me. But I find that they do so on a very cerebral level, and that as I read their stories I remain fully aware of my surroundings, my reactions to their text, and what I have cooking on the stove.

To be clear, this is in no way a criticism of the quality of their stories.

However, I find that their focus on intellectual exploration of “high concepts” keeps me intellectually focused on the topics they explore. It grounds me, in a way that stories which allow me to escape do not. Other SF writers – like John Scalzi, Peter Watts, Samuel Delany, Ursula K. Le Guin, and early David Brin – do manage to provide me with an imaginative escape that goes beyond “mere” engagement.

But your mileage may vary. It is entirely possible that a different reader might have an inverse of my experience, and there is nothing wrong in that. It merely suggests that different readers have different tastes, and respond differently to different stimuli.

I believe that stories have certain building blocks, certain broad conceptual components, that are all inter-related and which together affect the reader. The balance between these components will vary from story to story, and certain configurations will produce escape, while other configurations will produce engagement. The configurations that work for a particular reader will be different from those that work for anyone else. And the configuration that works for me today may well be different from one that will work two years from now.

And while the configuration of components that drives escape may vary, I think the list of components is pretty solid.

Character: The Root of All Tension

I like to believe that everything flows from character. The character drives the plot, not the other way around. And yet, character is also one of the trickiest components because it percolates through all of the others: voice, world-building, concept, etc.

As a human being, I have a certain degree of empathy for other members of my species, and so I am naturally interested in understanding a new character whenever I meet one. I respect depth even more than affability, and the degree to which I can understand or engage with a character is a high indicator of the story’s ability to grant me escape.

China Miéville’s Perdido Street Station opens with a prologue, written in first person, from an (initially unidentified) narrator. This prologue fails to develop much in the way of character, although it does establish a tone and begin the process of world-building (see below). But the character who dragged me into the story, who made my escape to New Crobozun possible, makes his appearance in the first chapter: Isaac Dan der Grimnebulin.

Mi&eacue;ville’s descriptions are rich and varied, and they imbue Isaac with a depth of character that is instantly engaging. They make me curious about where Isaac will go and what he will do. They make me care. However, this in and of itself would not have been enough to actually transport me. It might earn my engagement, but it would have done little besides.

Miéville manages to transport me by having his words do double (or triple) duty: while his sentences and paragraphs tell me about the character of Isaac, they are simultaneously contributing to the other components of the story, particularly its world-building.

World-building: What Most Folks Think of as Escape

Because so much speculative fiction deals with secondary worlds or imagined realities, and because the portal fantasy structure has played a major role in genre history, world-building is often associated with the concept of escape. After all, we escape to some place, right? And in speculative fiction, we are specifically escaping to a fictional reality that someone else (the author) has made up.

Effective world-building, however, is not a rattling off of hard-to-spell place names, or of cramming eons worth of mythology down the reader’s gullet. Transportive world-building is all about evoking a reality that is compelling and plausible and real for the reader on a sensory and emotional level.

Miéville’s Perdido Street Station does a great job with this, too. His exposition simultaneously informs us as to character, while giving us extensive detail about the world of New Crobuzon. The details provided, however, are slipped in sideways: we are introduced to a Dickensian environment, with over-crowded tenement streets, with grime-encrusted slipways, and with all of the economics such an environment might suggest.

Miéville doesn’t tell us that much of New Crobuzon is reminiscent of a Whitechapel slum. He instead demonstrates this fact by opening his first chapter with the prosaic act of buying groceries. In the space of several paragraphs, he evokes a mood and feel for the environment which will carry through the rest of the novel. In one sentence – where he off-handedly mentions hissing constructs stomping up and down the street – he shifts us into a fantastical mode, where such “constructs” might walk unimpeded.

Taken on its own, this opening would have engaged me pretty quickly. Miéville uses all of the senses to evoke the feel for New Crobuzon. Two passages in particular stand out for me, one olfactory and the other aural:

Below the basket the salls and barrows lay like untidy spillage. The city reeked. But today was market day down in Aspic Hole, and the pungent slick of dung-smell and rot that rolled over New Crobuzon was, in these streets, for these hours, improved with paprika and fresh tomato, hot oil and fish and cinnamon, cured meat, banana and onion.

Between the stalls stomped hissing constructs. Beggars argued in the bowels of deserted buildings. Members of strange races bought peculiar things.

The sensory detail is fine-grained and carefully selected. It creates a mélange of sensation specifically tailored to convey the chaos and layering of scents and sounds that such a bazaar would have. It is verisimilitude, but of the most fantastic variety.

From these “establishing” passages, Miéville introduces us to the character of Isaac, and here his world-building ratchets into high-gear. While simultaneously introducing us to the character’s values, priorities, and personality, he introduces us to some of the fantastic races that live in New Crobuzon, and paints lines of cultural tension into the city.

This is the point where, for me, Perdido Street Station became transportive. The combination of depth of character and simultaneous, evocative world-building transported me into the story’s fictional world.

Pacing & Tension: A Consequence of Character

To establish a fast pace and build tension, the characters need to be well-drawn. However, I find that well-constructed tension can often over-ride weaknesses in world-building. This is a phenomenon I have observed most often in television, particularly in spy shows like Covert Affairs or police procedurals like Castle.

By giving us characters who we invest in, and then by ratcheting up the tension and the pace, the writers can distract us from the implausible or slapdash world-building that permeates the story. This is, I think, a risky technique because it places escalating tension and world-building in opposition. At some point, the implausibility of the world-building might overpower the tension, and throw the reader out of the story. This, I think, is a weakness often found in much of the thriller genre.

But when the world-building and the tension both contribute to and derive from characterization, when all narrative horses are pulling in the same direction, the effect is to heighten the story’s transportive capabilities.

Intellectual and Moral Exploration: High Concept Escape

Intellectual and moral exploration can be highly stimulating, and I do not doubt that for some readers it provides the imaginative escape that I find in character, world-building, and pacing. But for me, I find that the intellectual dimension on its own cannot transport me. But when the intellectual/moral dimension supports and is supported by the characters, tension, and world-building of the story, then the transportive effect is greatly multiplied.

I am reminded of two very different reading experiences: Peter Watts Blindsight and Greg Egan’s The Clockwork Rocket. Both books feature high-concept intellectual conjecture, and both are interesting and engaging on that front alone. However, Blindsight also builds compelling characters who are engaging and stimulating, and whose actions and choices directly reflect on and feed back into the novel’s intellectual considerations.

The Clockwork Rocket, by contrast, fails to develop plausible characters or to develop plausible world-building outside of the novel’s central conceit (see my earlier review here). It remains an engaging and interesting read, but for me, the weakness of its characterization and the shallowness of its world-building prevented it from being transportive.

Point-of-View: The Lens which Mediates the World

The more I think about it, the more I begin to subscribe to the thesis put forth by the Scribblies that “POV Fixes Everything.” In terms of enabling escapist reading, point-of-view is the foundation: it informs and shapes the way in which all other tools are applied in a given work.

If a story’s capacity to transport is determined by its characterization, its world-building, its pacing/tension, and its intellectual conceits, these components all must be communicated through the writing. The words we choose, the sentences we assemble, and the paragraphs we construct are all determined by the point-of-view the story is told through.

On a superficial level, the point-of-view determines which details get noticed (read: communicated to the reader), which values get explicitly communicated and which get implied, and which sensory details are presented. At first blush, this might seem to be the same as characterization, but point-of-view and character are not necessarily identical. They may be congruent in a work with limited POVs, but they need not be: the narrator always exists, even if a story is told in close or distant third person.

A story’s point-of-view – which may be distinct from its characters – informs the voice through which it is told. This affects the prose, in terms of its style and lyricism. It affects the way sentences are constructed, and while prose alone cannot transport me, it does constitute the grease that lubricates the story’s engine.

The more I think about it, the more convinced I become that the stories which allow me to escape, those that transport me into a fantastic environment divorced from my quotidien concerns, have one over-arching characteristic in common: every component – their characterization, their world-building, their management of pacing, and their underlying intellectual concepts – are all unified according to the point-of-view(s) through which the story gets told.

What do you think? Which factors – or which configuration of factors – drives your escape into the stories you love?

Some Thoughts on How POV Works


NOTE: I apologize for posting this a little bit late, but I’m in Hanoi at the moment on business, and I’m swamped with meetings. I hope you will forgive both my tardiness and editorial clumsiness in exchange for some pictures of beautiful Hanoi (click on them to enlarge).

I haven’t written much about point-of-view before, probably because I find it so intrinsically wedded to voice that separating the two has always seemed pointless. But on the (long) flight to Hanoi, I read a couple Daniel Silva books (The Kill Artist and The Unlikely Spy) and his use of an omniscient narrator and shifting POV within individual chapters leapt out at me, and made me reconsider my somewhat flippant attitude.

People like to use metaphors to describe point-of-view: it’s where the camera sits, it’s the lens through which we see the story, etc. While such metaphors do have some descriptive value, I don’t think they’re actually useful for talking about how POV fulfills its function, which at its heart is to engage the reader and lock their attention on the story. Voice serves the same purpose (which is probably why the two concepts are so closely wedded in my mind), but POV can accomplish some goals that voice alone cannot.

The Selectivity of Fictional Description

All fiction is a description of made-up events taking place in fictional environments which the reader constructs in their imagination. When we write, we suggest the elements and images and actions that we want our readers to imagine. While we will never know what they really see in their mind’s eye, if we fail to plant some consistent images in the reader’s mind then we won’t have a story. Point-of-view is the tool through which we select the relevant facts.

Consider the story of Cinderella: if you strip away the stylistic elements, if you strip away the voice, if you strip away the characters, what you are left with is a collection of (fictional) facts which nevertheless have a point of view.

Fact: a young girl has a stepmother and some stepsisters. Fact: the stepsisters and the stepmother make the young girl work very hard. Fact: the young girl is unhappy. Fact: she wants to go to the prince’s ball, but her stepmother and sisters won’t let her. Fact: she goes anyway. And so on.

That brief set of facts, presented clinically and with no more panache than a grocery list, nevertheless has a point-of-view that is inherently sympathetic to Cinderella. It ignores the concerns of Cinderella’s stepmother or stepsisters. It ignores the concerns of the prince – at least, those which do not relate to Cinderella. It ignores the state of the kingdom’s economy, the country across the bay, or the weather. Those concerns are irrelevant to the story being told – and it is point-of-view that communicates which facts are relevant.

Subversion of known stories is almost always predicated on a shift in their point of view. The story of Cinderella might be a told from a perspective sympathetic to one of the stepsisters (as in Gregory Maguire’s Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister), or the stepmother, or the prince, or a palace servant. The tentpole events of the story might remain the same (the cleaning, the ball, the search, etc.) but the details through which the events are described – which in effect comprise the story’s content – would be totally different.

Subversion of narrative conventions likewise relies on a shift in POV. For example, the “gritty” fantasies of Glen Cook, Steven Erikson, Joe Abercrombie, etc. subvert the tropes of heroic high fantasy by shifting their POV to the grunts in the mud on the front lines. But POV is more subtle than merely switching the focus of the reader’s sympathy.

The Relationship Between POV, Facts, Tension, and Theme

The facts of a story, and the point-of-view which selects those facts, are used to either give the reader the information necessary to understand the events of the story, or to draw the reader’s attention to the author’s thematic intent.

In Daniel Silva’s The Kill Artist, switching POVs between different characters informs the reader of facts unknown to other characters. This is a classic Hitchcockian technique for building tension: we might know about the trap awaiting our protagonist around the corner, but because they do not, the level of tension (and our engagement with the story) increases. Will our hero survive? Tune in next time!

On a thematic level, Silva uses POV shifts to give the reader a clearer picture of characters’ emotional states, which thematically serves to establish a certain degree of moral equivalence. Because these POV shifts occur within chapters and without clear textual markers, they introduce a greater narrative distance into the text which in turn contributes to a concomitant slowing of the story’s pace (quite frankly John Le Carré achieves a similar thematic and emotional effect less clumsily with less frequent POV shifts).

And while Silva relies on shifting the perspective of characters to draw the reader’s attention to his artistic goals, POV can use other devices as well. For example, one can imagine a retelling of Cinderella that maintains its focus on Cinderella’s concerns, that adheres to the tentpole events of the story, that is even told in a voice similar to the Charles Perrault story, but which draws the reader’s attention to Cinderella’s poverty, or her stepmother’s desperate desire for upward social mobility, or that otherwise suggests concerns with social class. The POV need not be mobile to achieve these effects: it merely needs to select for different facts or to draw attention to different details.

POV’s Relationship to Character and Voice

Most stories operate on both an external/physical level (character X does Y) and on an internal/emotional level (character X feels Z). On both levels, character is the common factor: when we read, it is the characters who engage and maintain our attention. And POV is the tool through which we tell the reader which characters are deserving of our attention.

I think the distant narrator is a dying breed: almost every narrator I can think of these days is a close narrator, either first-person (it doesn’t get any closer!) or close-third. There are good reasons for this, in particular because such close perspective engages our emotions more rapidly and draws us into the story sooner. But the point of view is the marker by which the reader learns who they should care about.

At the same time, combining POV’s selectivity with its focus on character presents an opportunity to deepen our characterization. POV selectivity is all about choosing and presenting the details that are most relevant to our narrative goals, but the details that we select can tell us a great deal about the character our POV is focusing on. Careful selection of details enables our words to serve double duty: to further the external/physical level of the story, and to deepen the reader’s understanding of the internal/emotional level. The surroundings, emotions, sensory details, etc. that we include express our character’s value system, priorities, attitudes, philosophy, etc. POV, in fact, is one of the strongest characterization tools.

And it is through POV’s relationship to characterization that it meets its natural partner: voice. If POV subtly communicates a story’s character(s), then the way in which that POV communicates – how its paragraphs are constructed, sentences structured, and the words selected – can rapidly offer the reader greater insight into the character. If we forget this fact, if we introduce a disconnect between our POV and the voice, we risk the plausibility of our characters and the cohesion of our entire story.

POV/Voice vs Accessibility/Pace

I’m never entirely sure which matters more to me – POV or voice – or which creates the other. It’s the kind of circular discussion that requires a bottle of whiskey and a late night under the stars, and which never gets resolved. I believe that POV and voice are both inherently in tension with a story’s accessibility and pace.

Shifting POVs may undermine the reader’s ability to invest in any one character (as in Silva’s The Kill Artist), which in turn weakens their ability to invest in the story. A POV which selects dense details for inclusion may overburden the reader with facts irrelevant to the story. A voice which is highly idiosyncratic and difficult to follow may decrease the reader’s willingness to decode and internalize it. And every time we ask the reader to do a bit more mental work, to store additional facts or decipher complex sentences, we slow the story’s pace.

But despite this tension, that doesn’t mean that there’s ever a single “right” way to approach POV: the “right” technique depends on our artistic goals for a particular story, and on the other techniques and structures we employ to achieve those artistic goals. Which while not particularly helpful in a prescriptive sense, hopefully offers some food for further thought.

Narrative Voice as Mind-control: Thoughts on Manipulating Reader Perception


Voice: Purpose, Function, Technique

A Conceptual Framework for Narrative Voice

I’ve always considered voice one of the most important tools when writing alternate history, and over the past couple of weeks I’ve been thinking about how that tool really works (both within and outside the sub-genre).

There are probably as many valid descriptions of voice as there are writers, editors, and critics out there. For my part, I believe that voice has three components: its purpose, its function, and its technique.

The Purpose of Voice: Establishing a Relationship with the Text

The purpose of voice is to establish the reader’s relationship to the text. Different stories, different narrators, call for different relationships. Would Nabokov’s Lolita be as powerful if we weren’t sympathetically engaged with the monstrous Humbert Humbert? Would Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories be as effective if the narration were as coldly dispassionate as the detective himself? Voice – both in narration, and in dialog – establishes how we relate to a story. At its most basic level, it controls the emotional distance with which we perceive it, and is most powerful when wedded to the story’s themes.

Nabokov wants us to view Humbert Humbert up close and personal. The power of his book relies on juxtaposing our the intellectual horror at Humbert Humbert and the visceral engagement his voice engenders. Had Nabokov employed a distancing technique, for example making Humbert’s story epistolary, or telling it from the dispassionate perspective of a court stenographer, it would not have the resonance it does.

John Crowley in Little, Big uses voice to distance us at once from our reality, and the reality of the text. The lyrical, metaphoric voice he employs puts us in a liminal state, somewhere on the borders of what is, what was, and what might be. In this, the voice employed is fundamentally aligned with the book’s themes.

Olaf Stapledon in Last and First Men keeps the reader at arms length, so that we can view the events of his future history dispassionately, as if we were observing them from billions of years removed.

When Michael A. Stackpole employs a voice reminiscent of 17th century colonial texts in At the Queen’s Command it instantly links his book to that time in the reader’s mind.

The relationship created between us and the text is foundational in the act of reading. It sets the context for everything else, determining how we perceive a story’s pacing, how we engage with its characters, and how we identify its themes. In this sense, the purpose of voice transcends any individual sentence, or any paragraph. It is a combination of the voice’s expression in narration, in dialog, even in its epigraphs (shout out to @DDSyrdal for reminding me of this term!). But apart from its broad and abstract purpose, voice has a function within the story which is variable over the length of the text.

The Function of Voice: Manipulating the Reader’s Perception

I often think that it is the writer’s job to manipulate the reader, to take us on an emotional roller-coaster the author has designed. By influencing how we perceive events, settings, and characters, the narrative voice becomes the rail which guides us along the ride. It imparts the twists, falls, and rises. If well-constructed, it shouldn’t be noticeable (unless we’re looking for it). But if it’s shoddily put together, well…I’d rather not consider what happens when a roller-coaster comes off its rail.

Voice’s function can be modulated for specific effect. This is easiest to see in dialog, where each actor has their own voice, more or less distinct from the voices of other characters. Those differences exert a subtle influence on our perception of those characters. Consider the following exchange from George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones:

“Boy,” a voice called out to him. Jon turned.

Tyrion Lannister was sitting on the ledge above the door to the Great Hall, looking for all the world like a gargoyle. The dwarf grinned down at him. “Is that animal a wolf?”

“A direwolf,” Jon said. “His name is Ghost.” He stared up at the little man, his disappointment suddenly forgotten. “What are you doing up there? Why aren’t you at the feast?”

“Too hot, too noisy, and I’d drunk too much wine,” the dwarf told him. “I learned long ago that it is considered rude to vomit on your brother. Might I have a closer look at your wolf?”

From his short, staccato sentences we get the sense that Jon is direct, straightforward. He answers the question asked of him, but by offering little additions he avoids being brusque. He asks direct questions, wanting to know the answers. By contrast, Tyrion Lannister’s dialog is more complicated. His first sentence is broken apart by prose narration, imbuing a meaningful pause that – were the text read aloud – might suggest either humor, or shock. His second sentence, with its precise list and brutally honest self-assessment shows us Tyrion’s precision and self-deprecation. His third sentence gives us further insight into both his sense of humor, and his relationship with his brother.

The entire exchange is used to manipulate us into liking both Tyrion Lannister and Jon Snow, though for different reasons. Even if we cannot articulate it, even if we don’t notice it at the first reading, we respond to Jon’s simple directness. And we appreciate Tyrion’s self-deprecating humor. And Martin achieves this subtle effect just using voice in his characters’ dialog.

Prose narration – descriptions of setting, of action – can similarly affect our perception of and emotional response to the story. Consider two brief passages, each describing the same actions (sorry for the quality of my example sentences – I’m coming up with these on the fly):

Version #1 Version #2
The rain-slick leaves left the tree like snowflakes, gently spinning to melt into the mud. Rain battered the leaves. Glop! Glop! Glop! And down into the mud.

Hopefully (if I’ve done my job right) the two example sentences establish an entirely different mood. The first is more laconic, gentler, quieter. While the second is harsher, more abrupt, and louder through the use of onomatopoeia. The events are identical, but the difference in voice puts the reader into a different frame of mind. Voice becomes the tool I use to control the reader’s response to a particular scene, passage, or sentence (even a particular word!). And like any tool, there are a variety of ways in which it can be applied.

Purpose and Function Applied: Techniques for Controlling Voice

The range of control that we choose to exert over voice lies on a spectrum. At one end is banally utilitarian prose – the bland monotone of “Dick and Jane run after the ball.” On the other end we find the inimitable mastery of Nabokov, whose fine-grain manipulation of voice makes its inner workings invisible to the reader. Most of us operate somewhere between these two extremes employing a variety of techniques that are universal:

Perspective as a Window to Voice
Every one of us uses perspective to imbue our story with voice, whether consciously or not. In terms of purpose, the choice between first, close third, omniscient third, or the rare second-person narration has an immediate and major impact on the reader’s relationship to the story.

First person narration – when executed well – earns the reader’s instant engagement precisely through its link to voice. The narrator is a character in the story, with their own perceptions, predilections, and foibles. They have their own way of seeing the world, a tendency to pay attention to certain aspects that others might not notice in the same way. One narrator might comment on people’s appearances. Another might pay closer attention to facial expressions. And just like a character’s personality should affect their speech patterns in dialog, the same affects a first person narrator. For example, in Lisa Yee’s excellent YA novel Millicent Min, Girl Genius the narrator (the titular genius) uses complex sentences, a refined vocabulary and sprinkles in a little Latin every now and again. Her defining characteristic – her intellect – is intrinsic to how the narrator’s voice is portrayed.

In first-person narration, we are generally locked into the narrator’s voice throughout the story. That’s the trade-off we make for building that super-close reader/narrator relationship. Close third-person narration trades a little more distance between the reader and the POV character, in exchange for greater latitude in vocal manipulation. With close-third narration, we can shift POV characters (typically at chapter or section breaks for decent narrative flow) employing different voices for different points of view, as well as make more gradual, subtle shifts in tone and mood within the confines of a scene. This facility to shift vocal strategy is a double-edged sword and must be used judiciously. Do it too often or too fast, and we risk either confusing the reader or putting too much distance between her and the characters. For a great example of this technique employed well, I recommend Tad Williams’ Otherland series.

The relationship between voice and distance is less clear-cut for omniscient third-person perspective. As the most emotionally distant of the perspectives, omniscient third may well suit our thematic or stylistic purposes. However, by requiring a consistent narrative voice throughout, omniscient third loses the vocal flexibility that close third enjoys. There are situations where this trade-off makes sense. For example, J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings requires an omniscient narrator and consistent voice to evoke its linkages to epic storytelling and myth.

Style and Structure as Voice
If we were to ask five writers to write one sentence describing something, we would inevitably get five different sentences. How those sentences are composed – how the writer employs clauses and adverbs and conjunctions and even punctuation – determine what is typically called the author’s “style” and represents one of the most influential aspects of voice.

Pick up any book from the 19th century. You’ll immediately see that the way 19th century authors put their sentences together differs dramatically from contemporary styles. When we say an old classic hasn’t aged well, what we are really saying is that the modern reader’s emotional response as controlled by the story’s voice differs from an original reader’s presumed response. The variegated, many-claused sentences that characterize 18th and 19th century texts have a distancing effect for the modern reader. Bulwer-Lytton is a great example of this at work. In his day, he was one of the most influential, most celebrated writers in the English language. Today, there are awards named after him that celebrate purple prose.

This is not to say that contemporary voices are simpler than their predecessors, or that such simplicity would be a good thing. Many excellent authors – John Crowley, Gene Wolfe, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Jorge Luis Borges, to name a few – write lush, complex sentences. However their structure differs substantially from what came before. For one thing, contemporary authors adhere more strongly to the principle of “show, don’t tell.” Consider the following two sentences selected at random:

Sentence #1: “But they were entirely ignorant of what had passed; and their raptures continued with little intermission to the very day of Lydia’s leaving home.” Jane Austen, Pride And Prejudice, 1813
Sentence #2: “Then an expectant silence, followed by a firmer start, and the station wagon backed warily out into the drive, making two soft and delible marks in the wet leaves.” John Crowley, Little, Big, 1982

Both come from excellent books. I would in fact argue that the Crowley sentence is more structurally complex than the Austen. However, the voices are quite dissimilar: the Austen voice tells us that their raptures continued. It does not show us those raptures, nor does it provide any metaphor or analogy by which we can emotionally connect to them. The voice is – by design – at a remove from the emotional significance of the events. Austen’s voice leaves it to the reader to establish that connection, through the implications of certain facts dropped and hinted at: the “little intermission” and “to the very day”.

Crowley’s voice, by contrast, employs evocative imagery to show the reader a prosaic event. His adjectives, and the order in which they are placed all communicate an emotional significance (which may or may not be important). By calling the silence “expectant,” the start “firmer”, and the marks on the leaves “soft and delible”, Crowley anthropomorphizes insensate objects, imbuing them with emotions. The sentence describes no characters, yet we still have an arc that rises from expectation (expectant), to action (firmer), and descends through denouement (soft and delible).

The complexity of sentence structures is of course infinitely varied. However, stealing vocal tricks from other authors is a good idea and can lead to some truly impressive work. In her 1973 essay “From Elfland to Poughkeepsie” Ursula K. Le Guin calls Lord Dunsany “the First Terrible Fate that Awaiteth Unwary Beginners in Fantasy” – specifically because his mastery of voice and style is so inimitable and so frequently imitated. Lots of us fall victim to this trap (I know I’ve been guilty of it!), but this ability to imitate past masters, to emulate their voices and styles, is actually a skill for any writer. It broadens our vocabulary, adding new tools to our toolkit. Archaic voices have a place in fiction, as do Gothic voices, or Lovecraftian voices. Imitation is the finest form of flattery, after all, and a writer’s skill lies in deciding where to use which voice.

For example, The Phoenix Guards is Steven Brust’s homage to Alexandre Dumas’ The Three Musketeers. Of course, Brust’s story is an out-and-out fantasy, with dragons and semi-immortal elf-like people. But his plot structure has clear ties to the d’Artagnan romances and his sentence constructions echo Dumas’ voice flawlessly. Reading The Phoenix Guards today is an experience much like reading The Three Musketeers, and it is precisely because Brust not only built off of Dumas’ plot, but because he adopted Dumas’ vocal methods as well. Had he chosen to emulate only one facet (either the plot, or the sentence structures), the book would have rung off-true: somehow not quite complete.

As I’ve mentioned before, the best writers of alternate history and historical fiction employ such emulation to cement the reader in the time period depicted. Examples can be found in Michael A. Stackpole’s At the Queen’s Command, or Cherie Priest’s Dreadnought (see my reviews here and here).

But we can also have too much of a good thing. For example, in Freedom and Necessity Steven Brust and Emma Bull (otherwise, two masters of vocal technique) pull off their emulation too well. The combined effect of the novel’s epistolary frame and its flawless emulation of 19th century sentence construction create a sense that one is actually reading a genuine 19th century novel…despite the fact that it was written in 1997. Technically, it is a masterpiece of voice. However, I find that it establishes too much distance for the contemporary reader. The reader’s engagement with the events of the story is held at arm’s length, slowing the pace of what would otherwise be an amazing, exciting book.

The Invisible Voice
Voice is the ultimate mind-control, affecting how the story resonates with us, how we feel about the characters, and what we remember when the last page is turned. At its most impressive, it should be invisible. When we notice the voice, its influence on our responses and perceptions is lessened. I can’t think of anybody who has mastered voice more superlatively than Nabokov. His Lolita is the perfect union of purpose, function, and technique. No matter how many times I read the story, I still cannot figure out how Nabokov hooks me. I dream of finding the time to dissect his work word by word, sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph: to take it apart like clockwork and examine its movements and physics. Maybe someday I will. But until then, a more productive use of my time – and one which will probably get me farther – is to just imitate him. I’m sure anything I write won’t even approach the quality of his invisible voice (and I’m even more sure my practices won’t be fit for any editors eyes!), but by tracing over his lines maybe I’ll pick up a thing or two. And then when it’s time to apply those techniques, I’ll have some new and useful tricks up my sleeve.

What about you? How do you approach constructing and managing narrative voice in your own writing? What are some of the best-voiced books you’ve come across? If – like me – you’re looking for good books that use voice in interesting ways, below is the list of authors and books that I’ve mentioned in this post. I strongly recommend you pick up a copy from your local bookstore or library, and enjoy:

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