Monday, May 5, 2008

Style and narrator disconnects

I’ve made this mistake in my own work, and I saw it again in a story I was critiquing. It’s not a difficult mistake to make, either.

Let’s say you have a simple, down-to-earth character. She’s not stupid, but she’s not very educated either. Her name is Jane and she’s looking for a local dignitary who’s gone missing.

“The Mayor stayed here? In such a place? I don’t believe it.”

Taking a pace back, Jane glanced up and let her gaze measure the crumbling façade of the inn. The image of Mayor Cariswell--foppish at the best of times--taking up residence in such a flophouse was incongruous. Yet the trail led there, and logic dictated that if he had indeed sojourned in the inn, it was for the purpose of avoiding anyone even near his own station in life. Ironic that she had tracked him down regardless.

Nothing about the excerpt jumps out as being technically wrong, and yet it doesn’t ring true to me either. If Jane is a plain-spoken, unpretentious character, she may well think logically, but her internal monologue shouldn’t resemble something written for Mr Spock. The sentence structure here is complex, with the polysyllabic words and comments on logic and irony, and that has two effects. First, it gives the narrative a cool, scholarly tone, and second, it prevents the reader from being completely immersed in Jane’s mind. Readers expect a viewpoint character who is a professor of philosophy to express herself in a different way from a viewpoint character who is a member of the Crips. And that goes for the narrative as well.

It’s a difficult habit to break, for me. I tend to be wary of absolutes and dogmatic statements, so my characters will think, There’s probably a hundred bandits in the hills, instead of thinking, There's likely a hundred bandits in the hills or even just, There’s a hundred bandits in the hills. I have to consider this when I edit, and decide whether the characters would qualify their statements – or whether they use the word “probably” as often as I do. Better that I wonder about this than the reader do the same, and detach from my story because of it.


Angela Ackerman said...

Good post. I think this happens because a lot of people confuse style and voice. Style is largely the language used to convey a story, voice is the 'tone' of the story (often the POV character but not always) which infuses a sense of who they are into the writing.

There is some leeway in style, but it cannot veer too far from the age, educational and social upbringing viewpoint of the narrator, or it breaks the reader completely out of the story.

kiwi said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
kiwi said...

Angela, I'm not sure I agree. Both voice and style are products of language choice/selection on the author’s part, I think. Putting style aside, voice, in my view, is the personality of a piece of writing—multiple if there are a number of main characters. It can been grounded, say in a specific character(s), think a first person or limited third person format, or it can be more ethereal, eye of god if you will. And, of course, these are just three points along a very long spectrum. What's important, and Queen nails it in this post I think, is that in every case the writer has to ensure that they present the world through the 'cognitive framework' or social biography of the narrator(s). Slippage here on the part of the writer, and we 9the reader) have a kina’ cognitive dissonance, and yeah, disconnect.

I'd also add to this; that narrative voice should reflect the narrator’s mood, as well as the shifting social contexts she/he will encounter throughout the course of a novel/story. For instance, if a character has just shoveled snow off the driveway, a passage showing that it is beginning to snow again, and which is written through the character's viewpoint, will need to show her chagrin at this turn of events. Shifts in setting are just as important. Queen does this well in the third book of her trilogy when she puts a 'scientist' type in the middle of an 'africana' setting. He is out of his element and it shows, as his educated mind comes into contact with a new environment. The likes of Dickens understood and mastered these sorts of subtle changes with enviable brilliance.

Anonymous said...

Minor nitpick:

"There're a hundred bandits in the hills."

Just so you might want to know; particularly ironic after that "excellense" post.

Angela Ackerman said...

I like how you used the word personality, because I think that's very apt. I believe the two are intimately connected, but for me, how I try to seperate them into different components is to think of Style as the writing structure (the POV that is chosen for writing the story, the sentence structure, the tense used, the sophistication techniques) and Voice as the chosen distinctive personality which flavors the story and has the authority to tell it best.

The voice is shown through the style, but isn't style itself. Just MO. :-)

kiwi said...

Angela, yes, I see what your saying. Oh, and lucidly put! Particularly like this:

Voice as the chosen distinctive personality which flavors the story and has the authority to tell it best.

Angela Ackerman said...

Glad I was a bit clearer that time. I sometimes have a hard time transfering what I'm thinking into words--it does not bode well as a writer, lol.

Marian Perera said...

Good point about the distinction between style and voice, angela. I'll keep that in mind.

lccorp2 : Nice catch. :)