Ninja Writers Academy: Voice

Ninja Writer Academy is a weekly series. Every Saturday morning, I post a lesson here. You can do the work, then come share it on our Facebook group. I’ll be on Facebook on Sunday for Office Hours so we can discuss the lesson, or anything else writing related. If you’d like to join the Academy and get an email on Saturday with a link to the lesson, plus notification when Office Hours start, Click Here.

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The Who’s Telling This Story Assignment

Ninja Writers AcademyThe Who's Telling This Story Assignment

I know we’ve talked about point of view and tense before, but I want to spend some time today talking about how those things contribute to voice.

Tense and point of view give your reader a sense of who is telling your story and from what distance.

For instance, a story told from an omniscient point of view (this is someone outside of the story relating it to the reader, a god-like narrator who has access to any character’s thoughts and experiences) in the past tense from a point in time far removed from the events tells the story with a wide lens, from a far distance. It’s like sitting around a campfire and being told a story.

A story told in the first person, present tense has a much narrower lens, right? It’s like the narrator (who is the protagonist, usually) dragging you through the events of the story with them, as they are happening.

So, take The Book Thief. It’s told from the omniscient point of view of death from a distance of decades after the events of the story.  It does feel like you met death one day and he’s all–hey, let me tell you this story about this girl. It’s moving and it draws you in, and it’s powerful. There’s lots of space for reflection, because there is so much space between the story that’s being told and when it’s being told.

Then take The Hunger Games, which is told in first person, present tense. It’s so immediate that the reader barely has space to breathe. You feel it right down to your toes when Prim’s name is called at the very end of chapter one and when Katniss yells “I volunteer as tribute!” you’re right there with her.

This week, I’d like you to take a look at your Work-in-Progress and think about the tense and point-of-view of your story, and think about whether or not it reflects the voice you want to employ to tell your story. If you’re not sure, play around, change the tense for a scene or two. Come on over and share a piece of your writing that really shows off your voice.

My Turn

My work in progress is called The Undergrounders and is a Robin Hood retelling set in modern Las Vegas. It’s told from a third person point of view, alternating between the point of view of Rob and Mattie (my Robin and Marion characters.) It’s told in the past tense, from a distance of a few months after the events of the story–so fairly close.

Here’s a scene from Mattie’s point of view, the way it is now in my manuscript:

Mattie eased her father’s bedroom door closed, holding the knob until it latched into place. She resolved, for the hundredth time in the last several weeks, to make him go to a doctor.

She wished she could remember better the last time he’d lost himself this way. She was only six when her mother died. Back then it felt like she’d lost both of her parents.

She knew now that he’d become addicted to the opiates that controlled the pain from his back injury, and that while he struggled with his addiction, Jack took care of them both.

Jack Huntington saved them by moving them into a villa at The Nott and moving with Robin into the villa next door. He’d always been Mattie’s hero. He brought her dad back to her. And now they were both gone.

She couldn’t decide if what was happening to Frank now was a relapse into his addiction, or something else. She didn’t know which to hope for. He could recover again, if he’d relapsed. At least it would be the devil they knew. If he was sick—she shook her head, unable to even follow that thought through.

Every time he slept, she had a surge of hope that he’d wake up and be her dad again. Her real dad, not this alien who had taken over his body.

She was afraid of what the doctor would find wrong with him. It could be something terrible—even worse than addiction. A brain tumor or cancer or some freak mental illness.

Here’s the same scene, re-written so that it’s told in the present tense from the first person point of view:

I ease my father’s bedroom door closed, holding the knob until it latches into place. I resolve, for the hundredth time in the last several weeks, to make him go to a doctor.

I wish I can remember better the last time he lost himself this way. I was only six when my mother died. Back then it felt like I’d lost both of my parents.

I know now that he became addicted to the opiates that controlled the pain from his back injury, and that while he struggled with his addiction, Jack took care of both of us.

Jack Huntington saved us by moving us into a villa at The Nott and moving with Robin into the villa next door. He has always been my hero. He brought my dad back to me. And now they are both gone.

I can’t decide if what is happening to Frank now is a relapse into his addiction, or something else. I don’t know which to hope for. He can recover again, if he’s relapsed. At least it would be the devil we know. If he is sick—I shake my head, unable to even follow that thought through.

Every time he sleeps, I have a surge of hope that he’ll wake up and be my dad again. My real dad, not this alien who has taken over his body.

I’m afraid of what the doctor will find wrong with him. It might be something terrible—even worse than addiction. A brain tumor or cancer or some freak mental illness.

Can you see the difference in voice between the two scenes? With two point of view characters, I probably won’t use a first person point of view in my final draft. (I’ve seen that done, but I have never liked it.) I’m not sure if I’d like third person, present tense either for this story. I like having some space for reflection.

Your Turn

Here’s your homework this weekend, Ninja!

Are you in this week? Leave a comment here and let me know. Ninja Writers are ALL about the big A word: Accountability. Post here that you’re going to be part of the Academy this week, then do it, Ninja.

Pick a scene from your work in progress and play around with the tense and point of view. Is it portraying the voice you want it to? 

Come by Facebook and share your scene, both ways. Office hours are at noon PST tomorrow (Sunday.) See you there!

Please share this post on Facebook, Twitter, or Pinterest, and spread the word about the Ninja Academy.

If you haven’t joined the Academy yet, you can click here to do that. It’s totally free–when you sign up, I’ll send you a link

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