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Voice as Narrative Lens and Reader Lubricant

While at Readercon a few weeks back, a friend and I had a fascinating discussion about narrative voice, the role it plays in multi-book series, and the effect it has on the reader within and across narrative arcs. I keep coming back to voice here because I think it is perhaps the most powerful tool in a writer’s toolkit. But recently, while reading and re-reading a great many books in other genres (romance and thrillers, in particular) I’ve realized that voice achieves its power and utility by simultaneously fulfilling two very different functions:

Narrative Lens Reader Lubricant
Voice is the lens through which we view the story’s other pieces (e.g. style, structure, plot, setting, theme, characters, etc.). Voice is the lubricant that determines how quickly we invest in what matters to us as readers of a particular story.

What Constitutes Narrative Voice?

To be clear, when I talk about “narrative voice” I actually mean something very technical, at perhaps the most granular level of storytelling: words, sentences, paragraphs. Narrative voice is a way of selecting words and putting them together into sentences, an approach to constructing paragraphs, a “way of speaking” that comes through in the prose.

Lots of writers talk about the “authorial voice” as some quasi-mystical emergent property, and I’m honestly quite uncomfortable with the very concept. At the end of the day, the most basic thing writers have control over is our words. Some authors may choose to write in a consistent narrative voice (it’s often a practical requirement if you’re writing a long-running series), but I believe that should be a choice.

A professional writer should be able to choose the narrative voice to suit a particular story’s creative needs.

For example, compare the narrative voices in Elizabeth Bear’s Dust and Blood and Iron. The same author, excellent storytelling, but two very different narrative voices. Or compare Michael Moorcock’s Elric of Melniboné to his Behold the Man. Despite both novels’ creative effectiveness, their narrative voices are completely different. And that is as it should be, considering their different priorities.

Focusing on Story Priorities

What’s a story really made of? At the most reduced level: those letters, words, and sentences. But for most stories, they aren’t the story’s point: They are merely the substrate through which its points get communicated. Those words and sentences combine to create narrative artifacts like character, plot, setting, theme, etc. and to produce reader reactions like tension, excitement, terror, cognitive dissonance, etc.

But here’s the catch:

The priority given to any narrative element is going to differ between individual stories, and differ even more across genres. When people say that science fiction focuses on “plot over character” or that literary fiction focuses on “character over plot”, they may be making sweeping generalizations as wrong as they are right. But at the same time, those sweeping generalizations give us insight into the narrative conventions which apply to a given genre. And the prioritization of narrative elements is one such convention.

Consider, for a moment, the thriller genre. When it comes to narrative elements, I would say that the thriller genre is downright defined by its focus on/prioritization of pacing and tension. In a similar fashion, the romance genre is defined by its focus on/prioritization of interpersonal relationships and inter-character power dynamics. In much of the literary fiction genre, the aesthetics of the voice itself are often the priority/focus.

And in each case, it is the narrative voice which focuses the reader’s unconscious attention, and sets the stage for the story (through its priorities) to affect the reader.

How does the Narrative Lens Focus?

Narrative voice focuses the reader’s attention through its word choice, sentence structure, and paragraph construction.

The words we use establish a tone, carry emotional connotations, or set off unconscious associations. Whatever the narrative voice mentions imbues the mentioned with authority in a very direct sense: if the narrative voice doesn’t mention something, then when reading we will consider it unimportant (except for where it is important, when over time the voice focuses our attention on what hasn’t been mentioned – see Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground, Nabokov’s Pale Fire, or Wolfe’s Peace).

When we put our words together into clauses and sentences, we give those associations, connotations, and unspoken perceptions direction. We give them a pace, a rhythm, a progression. The consistency of that direction, the timing of its application relative to the story’s events, shapes our perception of the story’s pacing, its tension, its themes, and even its characters.

I’ve written before about the use of simile in noir and hard-boiled crime fiction, and that is precisely the type of vocal focusing which I mean. When used carefully, narrative voice becomes a magnifying glass that intensifies the reader’s focus. However, it doesn’t always intensify that gaze: at times, the narrative voice can become transparent…which itself prioritizes certain facets of the story.

The Use of the Transparent Voice

What do writers like Dan Brown, John Sanford, Daniel Silva, James Paterson (et al), etc. have in common? For one, they all tend to top the bestseller charts writing in the thriller genre. But aesthetically, none of them are known for the quality of their prose. Quite the contrary, in fact: Each has had their prose roundly criticized at one point or another.

And yet, I contend that that their prose is just fine for their purpose and for their story’s priorities: Their narrative voice is transparent because – in their genre and for their stories – the narrative voice should be transparent. If the narrative voice employed Kazuo Ishiguro-esque metaphorical flourishes or John Le Carré-ish neologism, it would occlude both the pacing and events of the plot…which seem to me to be the focus of their stories. For such stories, a transparent narrative is a feature – not a bug.

However, when we look at ostensibly comparable work by Jeff Lindsay (Darkly Dreaming Dexter) or Michael Connelly (The Black Echo), we find a very different narrative strategy. Such authors use a distinctive narrative voice, applying particular vocal techniques to focus our attention on character at the expense of plot. Their narrative voices are more noticeable, but that is because they use their narrative voice to reveal character.

And still other authors – like J.R.R. Tolkien – use voice to focus the reader’s attention on the world and setting.

Our Love Affair with Narrative Voice

And yet, despite the infinite variety of narrative voices we fall in love with voices. In fact, I would argue that we fall in love with narrative voices long before we fall in love with a particular story, or a particular author’s work. And the relationship there is – to a large degree – causal: The story’s narrative voice is what first grabs us, and aligns our mental state with the story’s priorities.

When well handled, the narrative voice primes us to be affected by the story. In this sense, narrative voice lubricates our experience of story.

Reader Lubricant Going In and Coming Out

When we turn to the first page and begin reading, the narrative voice is our first experience of the story. It is through the narrative voice that we begin to understand the characters, the plot, the setting, the themes, and – by an unspoken and unconscious implication – the priorities of the story. It simultaneously sets our expectations and delivers (in the literal sense) the payoff.

Controlling the speed with which this happens is – I think – one of the hardest tricks to learn. In some genres – notably YA, thrillers, romance – the market prefers for the reader’s engagement in the story to be immediate: First sentence, and go! But in other genres – notably literary fiction – there is more room for a gradual build. The vocal techniques that accomplish each are quite different.

But while voice controls the speed with which we engage with the story, it also affects our propensity for engagement with subsequent stories. In series fiction (particularly in episodic fiction) narrative voice becomes a shorthand for the reader’s mental state.

At the conclusion of Jim Butcher’s Storm Front or Harry Connolly’s Child of Fire, we have associated those respective narrative voices with a set of narrative priorities, an emotional way of feeling. That association then becomes almost Pavlovian in nature: When we pick up Fool Moon or Game of Cages, we recognize the narrative voice and it immediately puts us in a frame-of-mind reminiscent of the previous books.

Figuring Voice Out

I’m still working on figuring narrative voice out. I suspect that I’ll be figuring it out my entire life. It’s somewhat galling for me – as a writer – to have such difficulty finding the words to articulate what I’ve learned about. It’s simultaneously an abstract concept and a very concrete object, and somewhere between those two poles lies the nebulous reality of narrative voice. But with all of the cross-genre reading I’ve been doing over the past couple of years, I have – however – learned one incontrovertible fact:

The best way to understand narrative voice is to read widely, read analytically, across as many different genres as possible. Because narrative voice – and the priorities it focuses our attention on, and the speed with which it engages us – is itself a genre convention.

The Convergence of Utopia and Science Fiction

A couple of weeks ago – amidst all of the craziness involved with packing, moving, and unpacking – I managed to take a weekend and go up to Readercon in Burlington, MA. I’d been to Readercon two (more accurately, one and a half) times before, and every time, I find the panels thought-provoking (and the conversations between panels, at the bar, and at the parties hilarious and often thought-provoking, but that’s a whole ‘nother blog post).

Readercon This year’s Readercon featured a theme that’s been on my mind of late: utopia. There were three or four program items dedicated to the subject, and I managed to get to almost all of them. While the discussions were all very interesting, I felt that they had danced around two ancillary questions which form the heart of my interest in the subject: What are the drivers of utopian thought? And what makes utopian fiction effective?

Where Does Utopia Come From?

Utopian fiction has a long history, but it’s become increasingly thin-on-the-ground (or the bookshelves) of late. Why? This is the kind of question we can come at from many angles, but to really do an effective job answering it, I think we need to understand how utopian fiction comes about. And here, I’m going to speculate widely, generally, and with any luck reasonably.

Utopian thought (and the fiction which explores it) is a consequence of humanity’s tendency towards systemic thought.

Our minds are pattern-matching machines: From the moment of birth (and possibly even before) our brains are assembling a complex collection of cause/effect responses. If I drop my Cheerios on the floor, mommy gets upset. If I pull the dog’s tail, the dog runs away. When we assemble a bunch of those cause/effect responses – and when we chain them together and interrelate them – an incredibly complex system emerges.

We interact with the world around us – with physical objects, with individuals, with organizations, with groups, and even with ourselves – based upon expectations borne of that complicated system. While the individual action might be simple (turn up the thermostat so that the room becomes warmer), it is predicated upon a complex set of imputed underlying (and inter-related) systems. So what does this have to do with utopia?

Utopian thought comes from an awareness (however flawed) of the systems shaping society. It stems from a philosophical tradition in which one can comfortably place Plato, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Engels, Marx, Rand, and just about any individual who has ever had a political opinion. Utopian thought is a systemic “what if game: If we adjust the systems that shape our society, how will our society change?

This may seem like a simplistic characterization of utopian thought, and to some extent, that’s a fair criticism. But despite its simplicity, it remains precise. And that precision is what makes it helpful for exploring utopian thought’s evolution through the centuries, its relationship to science fiction, and its structural portrayal within fiction.

Our Changing Understanding of Societal Systems

Utopian thought is always grounded in the philosophical zeitgeist of its time. As our understanding of the systems underlying our society changes, so too do the structures and systems depicted in our utopias.

Utopias – like science fiction – are as much commentaries on their present as they are prescriptions for the future.

When Plato described his Republic, or when More’s traveler came upon his island, they were writing in their time and for their time. Their “ideal” societies were built upon their understanding of the systems underlying their contemporary society. Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward and William Morris’ News from Nowhere are both rooted in the social, economic, and cultural debates of the rapidly-industrializing 19th century. Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, Robert A. Heinlein’s The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, Ivan Yefremov’s Andromeda, and Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed cannot easily be divorced from the political and economic debates of the mid-20th. Joanna Russ’ The Female Man and Samuel Delany’s Trouble on Triton are products of the culturally tumultuous 1960-70’s.

Utopian works rely on a philosophical context shared between reader and author. To remove a utopian work from the philosophical context of its time is to reduce it to quaint over-simplicity (an easy critique to offer when looking backwards) or abstruse incomprehensibility (a hypothesized critique when looking forwards – I suspect Plato might have had difficulty grokking Trouble on Triton, for example).

This relationship between utopian thought and the philosophy of its day is, I think, the reason why we have seen relatively little utopian fiction since the 1980s. Before the ’80s, political philosophy, economics, and even psychology were often founded on reductionist principles (i.e. if we can break each system down into its elemental components, we can understand how those systems function). The past thirty years, however, have witnessed the burgeoning popularity of anti-reductionist “systems thought”, “complexity theory”, and “holistic approaches”.

Berlin Wall Tumbles To over-simplify: before the 1980s, it was reasonable for any one philosopher to articulate a “complete” political, social, or economic philosophy. Yes, that articulated philosophy would be flawed and overly simplistic (see Plato, Rand, Heinlein, Yefremov, etc.). But the practical applications (and limitations) of such articulations could be observed in the wild: Soviet Communism in the Eastern bloc, Maoist Communism in China, American Capitalist Democracy in the United States, and mildly-Socialist democracy of varying strains across much of Europe. But then the world changed in the 1980s: Soviet Communism unraveled, and Western society realized that our reductionist models had missed something (or many things).

Since the ‘80s, in every field of social science (including economics, history, sociology, psychology, etc.) we have come to embrace the idea of complex and irreducible systems. This has progressed in line with the increasing specialization of our education systems. For example, the average (educated!) person on the street is unlikely to be able to explain how money supply or the quantity theory of money works. And even amongst economists there is much debate about how various systems affect and shape the money supply, and how that money supply in turn affects and shapes society at large.

I’ve heard time and again folks say that the world has gotten more complex. That’s not true: The world has always been this complicated. But our awareness of the world’s complexity has increased substantially in the last century. As a result, we have shifted from a society which believed it could explain the world to a society which now recognizes its own inability to do so. As a result, our what-if scenarios (reliant as they are upon a shared understanding between reader and author) have grown more tentative.

That makes the creative challenge of producing effective utopian fiction harder. The audience comes to the text already predisposed to reject our utopia.

The Relationship between Utopia and Science Fiction

Several paragraphs ago, I offered a reasonably concise description of utopian thought, characterizing it as a systemic “what-if” scenario. If such a what-if game sounds suspiciously like a working definition of science fiction, well, there’s a good reason for that: Every work of utopian writing can be considered a work of science fiction. And the obverse likewise holds: Every work of science fiction can be considered a work of utopian thought.

I can imagine the complaints now: How can works like E.E. “Doc Smith’s Lensmen series, Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot stories, William Gibson’s Neuromancer, Paulo Baciagalupi’s The Windup Girl, Madeleine Ashby’s vN, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, or Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games be credibly called utopian? They have very little in common, it might seem, to works like H.G. Wells’ A Modern Utopia, or Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward.

But those differences are superficial at best: beneath the stories’ plot, underneath their characterization, and independent of their narrative structure lies an underlying question (what if) which is central to the vast majority (though not all) of science fiction. The differences? Those are differences in expression, differences in technique, differences in the method by which the author’s conjectures are explored. From a philosophical perspective, those are differences in aesthetic.

The Changing Aesthetics of Utopia

When I look at the evolution of utopian fiction, I see a path of convergence. By today’s aesthetic standards, the “classics” of utopian fiction can be considered dull at best, and didactic at worst. A “perfect society devoid of conflict makes plotting difficult. A society which assumes the uniformity of the human condition either a priori or as a consequence of society’s perfection makes characterization tough. By the aesthetic standards of the 19th century, the philosophical question of “what if” alone may have been enough to support a novel-length work.

By our aesthetic standards today? We demand more: tension; conflict; drama. We want pathos in addition to our logos. Utopian fiction’s gradual evolution throughout the twentieth century has marked the gradual shift to more emotive expressions: compare the conflict in H.G. Wells’ A Modern Utopia to that of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged and then that to the conflict in Robert A. Heinlein’s The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress. One could plot a timeline of explicitly utopian fiction based upon the reader’s emotional proximity to the characters, and those character’s explicit articulation of philosophical conjecture.

The commercial and aesthetic requirement that fiction must feature conflict and drama stands in tension with that fiction’s ability to examine social, economic, or political philosophy. The closer our gaze is focused on the characters, the more oblique becomes the presentation of philosophical conjecture.

Where the philosophical conjecture is viewed head-on, as in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, or Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games, we are left with a dystopian work (or in Le Guin’s case, a heavily ambiguous one). The conflict stems from the philosophy, and the “perfect” world is shown to the reader to be so flawed as to fail in its stated goal. This is, of course, a valid and powerful technique in both utopian thought and in science fiction. “It will fail” is a reasonable response to the question of “what if”.

However, in works where the utopian philosophy is presented obliquely – implied through what goes unstated or otherwise baked into the world-building – we can still identify fascinating utopian themes. Whether that’s in Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot stories, Madeleine Ashby’s vN, Iain M. Banks’ Culture novels, M. John Harrison’s Nova Swing, or Mira Grant’s Newsflesh trilogy we can identify strains of utopian conjecture and examination. They are explored – typically – between the lines, sometimes closer to the story’s surface and other times buried a little more deeply. It works, however, because it is baked into the story’s underlying world-building using the techniques of the science fiction genre.

Utopian Fiction Looking Forward

Contemporary utopian fiction has fully converged with science fiction, to the point where separating the two has become all but impossible. One can make the argument that this discussion is tautological navel-gazing, or as relevant to contemporary writing as asking how many angels can dance on the period at the end of this sentence. I disagree.

Like any branch of either philosophy or writing, utopian fiction is subject to the pressures of its society. In this case, under aesthetic pressure, utopian fiction has had to embrace narrative conflict. This has happened in parallel with society’s rejection of reductionist socioeconomic philosophies, and this societal acknowledgment of nuance has forced a further narrowing of the narrative’s focus to individuals within a hypothetical society. The surrounding society may be idealized, or have utopian elements, yet the lives of the individuals living within it may still be conflicted. Today’s science fiction and utopian thought have both rejected narratives of simplicity.

The mechanism that enables utopian thought (what-if style conjecture) is the same that enables science fiction’s world-building. If it looks like a duck, and acts like a duck, it stands to reason that it is – in fact – a duck. Can we have science fiction that isn’t utopian? Or can we have a utopia which isn’t science fictional? Given the above, I am hard-pressed to think of examples.

Philosophical travelogues with thin characterization and prescriptive didacticism are passé by today’s standards. But the deep and philosophically relevant questions that utopian fiction has traditionally explored can still be examined. But this creates a two-fold challenge: On the one hand, we must consider the complex systems underlying our fictional societies and the relationships therein, while at the same time considering how those systems will affect individuals within those societies on emotional, functional, and even spiritual levels.

Where those systems fail, it is far easier to shift the story into dystopia, to derive narrative tension from those failures.

A far more difficult trick is to show those systems as functional, while still featuring emotionally resonant narrative tension.

Readercon Harassment Debacle

If you haven’t been following the Readercon Harassment Debacle, you can read all about it:

After the Readercon Board’s failure to adhere to their own published harassment policy, I sent them the following e-mail. I am appalled by their hypocrisy, and would have wished better of the convention that first introduced me to genre cons. If you agree with my conclusions, I urge you to show your support by reaching out to the Readercon Board at

Dear Readercon Board of Directors,

I am a lifelong speculative fiction reader whose first introduction to genre conventions was Readercon 22. I write a weekly science fiction/fantasy blog, and am deeply passionate about books, literature, and critical analysis, so it should come as no surprise to you that I felt at home at your convention. Last year, and again this year, I found an environment full of intelligent, passionate people eager to dive into the same topics that so fascinate me. After my experiences last year, I sang Readercon’s praises to anyone who would listen and was delighted to see half of my Viable Paradise workshop class come to this year’s Readercon. But despite my appreciation for the excellent convention you organize, I am appalled by the hypocrisy inherent in your selective implementation of your “zero-tolerance” harassment policy.

In your handling of Rene Walling’s admitted harassment of Genevieve Valentine, there are three clear facts:

1. You published an official policy of “zero-tolerance” for harassment, provided this policy in writing, and displayed it prominently to everyone attending Readercon. This policy explicitly stated that the consequence of harassment was the permanent suspension of the harasser.

2. Rene Walling physically and verbally harassed and intimidated Genevieve Valentine. Per your own official statement, this is not in dispute.

3. Per your official statement, the Board decided – based on Walling’s avowals of contrition – to only suspend the guilty party for two years, which decision is in obvious contravention of the Board’s own official policy.

Taken together, these three facts are shameful. Yes, the right to enforce policies lies in the Board’s sole discretion, which means that you have the right to apply whatever sanctions you choose in this situation. But you have a fiduciary duty to safeguard as best you can the safety of your convention’s attendees, and your original policy was laudable both for its clarity and for its fulfillment of that duty. But by deviating from your own policy, you have failed in that duty and have undermined the relationship of trust you have painstakingly built with your attendees.

Quite frankly, you screwed up and now have no good options: if you rescind your decision and permanently ban Walling (as you should have done in the first place), it will not undo your breach of trust. If you do nothing and merely publish a revised policy (presumably one that is no longer “zero-tolerance” or so admirably unambiguous) you will further erode already-damaged trust. From your perspective, neither is a good option and both will harm Readercon.

Nevertheless, you should take the first option.

First, you should publicly admit to your mistake and correct it. Yes, it will be painful. Yes, there will be loss of face. But that acknowledgment is the first step in rebuilding the trust you have already destroyed.

Second, you should articulate a transparent process for the implementation of your harassment policy in the future. The Readercon Board in its current configuration is clearly not the right body to implement your harassment policy. You have shown that you are abjectly unable to do the job. My recommendation would be to appoint an independent “safety czar” with full executive privileges for a three year term. This safety czar would be an ombudsman (ombuds-person?) for Readercon attendees, their mission to apply the convention’s harassment policy, and their decisions final and completely independent of the Readercon Board. This second step would only be of value if the Board found an individual of great integrity who would have the trust of the Readercon community – otherwise, this step would be valueless.

If you do not take these two steps, or significant steps materially similar, I expect that you will see Readercon attendance shrink, and its wonderful community skew in ways inimical to the diverse discussions that Readercon promotes. Restoring trust will not happen overnight: it will take years, and it will be difficult. But it should be done anyway.

If you are serious about making Readercon a safe environment for all attendees, then you should act that way. If you do, then I for one may return in the future. Otherwise, I will skip Readercon in favor of other events that do take attendee safety seriously.

Chris Modzelewski


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