Sunday, August 07, 2005

Narrative Voice

Do you remember that thing all your English professors and writing instructors told you about adverbs and adjectives? I can't even count how many time a fellow writer has told me that I should go through my manuscript and delete all the adjectives and adverbs. I decided today that's bullshit. You want in on my epiphany? Here it is. Adjectives define narrative voice. In the kind of writing I do (mass market, first person) adjectives and adverbs are exactly what give my character a distinctive voice. Sassy ass-kicking verbs can only do so much. An ocassional, well-placed modifier can do a whole lot of character-building. This is not, in any way, an endorsement of Tom Swifting your manuscript into purple prose. Clean prose rules. It has a kind of universalism that will serve it well in the minds of readers decades from now. The problem is that you have to be a very, very skilled writer to make the subject and verb enough, especially for an entire manuscript. You have to find a way to make simple sentence contruction have personality plus. So, what's the harm in some colorful modifiers, I ask? Nothing, damn it. I say all this because I've been thinking a lot about narrative voice. Like, how do you make your "narrator" (especially a third-person one) come alive and have personality in the minds of your readers? First, of course, you have to make your narrator limited third-person, in my opinion. That is to say that your point of view sticks closely to the inner mind of your narrator, even if you're writing with he/she in the text. I know a lot of writers, especially those who have grown-up with T.V. and movies, believe that it's perfectly okay to write with a "camera's eye viewpoint," which they mistakenly think is the same as third-person omniscent. It's not. Third-person omniscent is very old-fashioned, and works best, IMHO, when done in conjunction with a fairy tale or mythical style story. Third-person omniscent is actually a bit of a misnomer, because there is often an unidenified "person" who is telling the story, ala the narrator in a fairy tale. Someone who might actually break the narrative flow with a "gentle reader" comment, or, as in the case of a modern master (mistress) of this style, Eleanor Arnason, the narrator give a command to the reader or poses a question to them -- something like, "Imagine a red cloth over a tall oblesik!" (Which is not something Arnason wrote, but not unlike something she might.) Thus, even in omniscent third-person a good writer will imbue a sense of personality in the narration. For a limited third-person narrator, I feel this job is best done by allowing the character who is the point of view to express their internal opinions about their environment or people they meet in what is essentially the exposition. So instead of just saying "The auditorium was big" you might write, "Harrold felt small when he walked into the auditorium. The ceiling vaulted above him like a cathedral. Even though he'd travelled thousands of light years to reach the council chamber, he wondered if he could make his speech, after all." Instead of simply reporting the dimensions of the room, you make it all about Harrold and his experiences with the space. Granted, I gave myself more sentences to do that in the second version, but that's only because I was instantly more engaged in the second version and wanted to, even in my only silly example, find out more about Harrold and why he felt the way he did. I didn't go overboard with my adjectives or adverbs, but I did gleefully use them. But, in the end of the day, all of this comes down to personal style. A person could be more faithful to the "reporting" style of writing, and simply chose more expressive adjectives and adverbs. You could write, "The room extended into the stratosphere." Which is likely hyperbole (although in SF/F you can never be sure), and my English composition professor would give me a hard time for that, I suppose. I guess the point of this mini-rant is that a person should take writing advice/rules with a grain of salt. It's good to practice clean prose, but you shouldn't let that keep you from writing with verve. Maybe sometimes it *is* best to say, "She was really, really, wickedly, wildly happy" instead of telling yourself you can't because adjectives are evil.


Jeff said...

I'm with you on this one. I've never quite understand that adage about removing adjectives and adverbs. True, one can go overboard with them. But...

I've come to believe that the key to good writing is good internal dialogue, writing that brings us inside the heads of characters and reveals what they are all about.

One thing I *really* don't like about sheefee writing when it's not very good is that it tends to be pure, straightforward, linear description.

This happens.
Then this happens.
Then this happens.
Lather, rinse, repeat, ad nauseum.

I like it when there are breaks so we can see and hear the characters react to what is happening. And certainly a good way to do that effectively is to use the right adjectives and adverbs.

Paul said...

I think that the whole "get rid of adverbs and adjectives" school of thought is not meant as a directive to flense them entirely from what one writes (I imagine it'd be pretty hard to find a serious work of prose that had none at all), but rather as a strong reminder not to rely on them too heavily. By using them sparingly--in the right places rather than all possible places--they become more powerful.

I'm currently reading Gordon Dickson's Soldier, Ask Not. The voice he's using, or rather the character behind that voice, is a complicated one. The narrator isn't terribly likeable, at least in my mind. He's become very like one of the group of people he's trying to destroy, and is blind to that fact. Doing that in first person is a gutsy choice, and I think Dickson succeeds very well indeed.