Sunday, April 27, 2008

The Storyteller's First and Best Tool: Voice

I have a question about voice. Every time I hear an agent or editor raving about a 'stand out' voice, the book is written in first person. Can a third person narrative have that elusive unique and compelling voice that we always hear about? Do you have any examples of books written in third person that had a voice that really grabbed you?

Tons! But it's not fair to load the list with Newbery winners.
How about:

Skippyjon Jones

Every morning, Skippyjon Jones woke up with the birds.

And this did not please his mother at all.

"Get yourself down here right now, Mr. Kitten Britches," ordered Mama Junebug Jones.

"No self-respecting cat ever slept with a flock of birds," she scolded. "Or ate worms, or flew, or did his laundry in Mrs. Doohiggy's birdbath."

Ivy and Bean

It all began because Bean was playing a trick on her older sister.

Bean's older sister was named Nancy. She was eleven. Nancy thought Bean was a pain and a pest. Bean thought Nancy was a booger-head.

The Wee Free Men

She unhooked the largest frying pan, the one that could cook breakfast for half a dozen people all at once, and took some candies from the jar on the dresser and put them in an old paper bag. Then, to Wentworth's sullen bewilderment, she took him by a sticky hand and headed back down toward the stream.

Things still looked very normal down there, but she was not going to let that fool her. All the trout had fled, and the birds weren't singing.

She found a place on the riverbank with the right-sized bush. Then she found a stone and hammered a piece of wood into the ground as hard as she could, close to the edge of the water, and tied the bag of sweets to it. Tiffany was the kind of child who always carried a piece of string.

"Candy, Wentworth," she shouted.

She gripped the frying pan and stepped smartly behind the bush.

Wentworth trotted over to the sweets and tried to pick up the bag. It wouldn't move.

"I wanna go-a toy-lut!" he yelled, because it was a threat that usually worked. His fat fingers scrabbled at the knots.

Tiffany watched the water carefully. Was it getting darker? Was it getting greener? Was that just waterweed down there? Were those bubbles just a trout, laughing?

No.

She ran out of her hiding place with the frying pan swinging like a bat. The screaming monster, leaping out of the water, met the frying pan coming the other way with a clang.

It was a good clang, with the oiyoiyoioioioioioinnnnnggggggg that is the mark of a clang well done.

The creature hung there for a moment, few teeth and bits of green weed splashing into the water, then slid down slowly and sank with some massive bubbles.

The water cleared and was once again the same old river, shallow and icy cold and floored with pebbles.

"Wanna wanna sweeties!" screamed Wentworth, who never noticed anything else in the presence of sweets.

Tiffany undid the string and gave them to him. He ate them far too quickly, as he always did with sweets. She waited until he was sick, then went back home in a thoughtful state of mind.


Voice is certainly most noticeable when it's a unique-sounding 1st-person voice, but good voice is to be had in lots of places. It's about suiting your word choices and pacing to the story you're telling. A perfect match adds depth and texture and nuance to the text; it tells you something about the characters you're reading about and the story being told.

15 comments:

Anonymous said...

I'm so glad you mentioned Wee Free Men! Terry Pratchett is one of my favorite authors. I had read his books for adults awhile before I discovered his children's books.

Adrienne said...

Lemony Snicket is a good example, but a bit of a cheat seeing as he is also a character in the book. I think Douglas Adams has a wonderful voice, and Hitchhiker's Guide is written in third person.

In fact, I tend to enjoy a unique voice more when it is third person, than first. I'm not quite sure why.

Andrea Beaty said...

Crivens! Great choice for voice!

working illustrator said...

Not kids' books, but White Teeth by Zadie Smith and anything by George Saunders have to rank pretty high on the Memorable Voice list.

lynnekelly2000 said...

Oooh! I have a great example of a book that nails the voice and is written in 3rd person: An Abundance of Katherines by John Green (same author of Looking for Alaska). That's one where I felt from the first page like I knew the characters. Here's a snippet of what I read last night; it shows the main character Colin's response after someone tells him what the factory in her town produces. Colin is a 17 year old child prodigy, so seems to know everything about everything, but is still naive about real-life stuff:

"Right, but what gets made there" he asked.
"You'll laugh."
"I won't laugh."
"Swear not to laugh," she said.
"I swear."
"It's a textile mill. These days we mostly make, uh, tampon strings."
Colin did not laugh. Instead, he thought, Tampons have strings? Why? Of all the major human mysteries--God, the nature of the universe, etc., he knew the least about tampons. To Colin, tampons were a bit like grizzly bears: he was aware of their existence, but he'd never seen one in the wild, and didn't really care to.

(That part about not having seen one "in the wild" is what really makes it for me.)

SamRiddleburger said...

I'm in the midst of "Absolute Zero" by Helen Cresswell, 2nd of The Bagthorpe Saga which has a spot-on, near-Wodehousian comic voice that turns every bit of slapstick into an epic disaster.

And to beat the Bleak House drum as I love to do: Dickens uses two voices, a first-person innocent and a third-person cynic and they are as distinct as day and night and both marvelous.

Editorial Anonymous said...

How I love the Bagthorpe Saga. Was it seven books, or eight? Sadly out of print in this country.

Anonymous said...

At the risk of my favorite being a cliche, how about:

The night Max wore his wolf suit and made mischief of one kind and another his mother called him wild thing and Max said "I'll eat you up." So he was sent to bed without eating anything.

ChrisEldin said...

Two of my favorite 'voices' are from Katherine Paterson and Jerry Spinelli. You can just pick up a book and automatically know it's them.

Jo said...

Wonderful examples and a very appropriate post for me to read this morning. You've answered my questions! Thank you so much!

ae said...

ChrisEldin, Don't you love that??

When automatically know it is them.

Christy Lenzi said...

My 13yo recently checked out Wee Free Men from the library for the *third* time, just to read her favorite parts again and ended up rereading the whole thing and then buying it on Amazon with her allowance. Hecka good voice, I'd say.

Heidi said...

A great post! More needs to be written about voice, I think. It's one of the most important thing about writing, and yet it is probably the most ignored.

These are really great examples, and very helpful.(My daughter LOVES Ivy and Bean... your example shows how one word can change a story from a boring third person to a fun, playful book!)

magolla said...

My daughter just brought home Skippyjon Jones. Talk about timing.

Anonymous said...

I've noticed that I'll remember good 3rd person POV later as 1st person POV.