A Theory on Voice

To tell a story well, you have to find the right “voice” for the job. Definitions of “voice,” though, tend to reduce it to a subjective, familiar point of view with attitude. I find that too limiting. Most story telling requires modulating voice on a spectrum from detached and discursive to neutral to internalized and emotional. How a story’s voice sounds on any given line, and the words it uses, are determined partly by the personality of the character, but even more by where on the spectrum its duty lies.

Tartt DonnaFLANEUR: a French word defined as the “stroller,” that came to be known in literary circles as the “loafer,” the flaneur is a story telling “voice” that is not coming from a character. It is instead a detached noticing consciousness that “strolls” through the time and place of the story looking left and looking right and reporting dispassionately what is observed. But the “flaneur” is not to be mistaken for the modernist camera-eye observer. The flaneur will comment with attitude that might sound like the narrator of a documentary, or might sound like the author on a good day, or might just sound like a wised-up character. Often the flaneur-voice will appear mixed with a neutral or familiar voice so that it does not seem to stroll away from the story. For example, on p. 5 of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, we encounter: “I had seen almost nothing of the city and yet the room itself, in its bleak, drafty, sunscrubbed beauty, gave a keen sense of Northern Europe, a model of the Netherlands in miniature: whitewash and Protestant probity, co-mingled with deep-dyed luxury…” Is this the voice of a sick young man who is a veritable prisoner in a hotel room in a city he’s never before visited? No, this literary sensibility is a flaneur voice, necessary for gaining the panoramic view of things. A flaneur voice needn’t sound so detached from the character. This is from Charles Baxter’s short story, “Loyalty,” collected in There’s Something I want You to Do: “Most of the time, if you tell someone his transmission is shot… you see anger directed against the automobile. Or against fate. Or against God for having had a hand in bum transmissions. Or against me for serving as the messenger. The anger is pointless. Life does us no favors. We have to manage with what we have.” Yes, we hear the character’s voice mixed in there, but we also hear a flanuer tying the story to the larger course of human events.

BAxter CharlesOBJECTIVE OBSERVATION: the bulk of narrating gets done by a fairly neutral sounding voice whose job is to deliver the nuts and bolts information. From the same Baxter story, we encounter: “My mother is immune to surprise. Those two are conversing quite lucidly on various topics: the weather, and then recipes they once shared, and treatments for the common cold (zinc lozenges). Astrid returns to the salmon. Will there be enough for everyone? Yes, if the portions are small. I instruct Lucy to set the table, which she does…” It’s not strictly neutral, it retains a touch of attitude, but this is the business voice, the get-the-work-done voice that does the biggest part of narrating generally, in most stories.

FREE INDIRECT DISCOURSE: this refers to the internal workings of a point of view character’s mind and will usually sound full of attitude and will use words attributed to the limited character. FID is not the same as internal monologue, which is simply narration tagged as thought, as in: They were driving really fast, she mused. But if a rejoinder were added: Too fast. Not okay, that is pure thought-reaction, or FID, and should sound like the character herself when pressured by story events.  Again, from the same Baxter story: “So what? I was crazy the way young men often are… Like I say, I’ve got no complaints.” Or this from “Victory Lap,” a George Saunders story: “Oh, god! What was he doing, what was he doing? Jesus, shit, the directives he was violating!”

052405 saunders3DN        cny    photo by dennis nett Syracuse University professor George Saunders at his home. Saunders has interest from Hollywood in a short story called "CivilWarLand in Bad Decline" 2005

052405 saunders3DN cny photo by dennis nett
Syracuse University professor George Saunders at his home. Saunders has interest from Hollywood in a short story called “CivilWarLand in Bad Decline”

Sometimes the flaneur voice and FID voice mix side by side in order to hold the reader close to the character even as we hear a wiser voice reaching for the wider view, as in Baxter’s: “She’s wreckage. It’s as simple as that. We have these obligations to our human ruins.”

Next time someone tells you to plant more voice in your story, ask them what variety they feel is missing. FID? More of that emotive stuff? OO? More cranky narrating? Flaneur? More wised up language that would have your kids blushing with embarrassment if such words had been spoken aloud?



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