No aspect of writing fiction is more mysterious than creating a unique voice for the narrator. We often begin by imitating a voice that we love–Huck Finn, Holden Caulfield, or any of the voices dreamed up by Jonathan Safran Foer, Nicole Kraus, or Gary Shteyngart. Or we try to write the way that someone we know talks. As we fail, the elusive voice becomes like a magic trick that we should know how to perform but have forgotten. So what do we do?
One writer who consistently creates compelling narrators is Joe R. Lansdale. His new novel, The Thicket (to be released September 10) is set in East Texas at the turn of the century and narrated in a voice that catches your eye before the first sentence is over. The writer Ron Carlson said that The Thicket is ”told in a voice so alluring and deadpan that it makes you smile and then look around to see who saw you smile.” You can read a preview of the first chapter here.
How the Story Works
First sentences are notoriously difficult to write. Stephen King recently claimed that he cannot write a novel until he’s gotten the first sentence right, and that sometimes doing so takes years. So it’s interesting to see how Lansdale approaches the first sentence of his novel. Notice how quickly he establishes the narrator’s voice:
“I didn’t suspect the day Grandfather came out and got me and my sister, Lula, and hauled us off toward the ferry that I’d soon end up with worse things happening than had already come upon us or that I’d take up with a gun-shooting dwarf, the son of a slave, and a big angry hog, let alone find true love and kill someone, but that’s exactly how it was.”
In that sentence, Lansdale falls back on a tried-and-true strategy. If you don’t know how to start a story, just tell the reader what will happen. It may sound simplistic, but this face-value approach is key to establishing the narrator’s voice for two reasons:
- We learn that the narrator is a tell-it-like-it-is kind of guy. He’s not going to play around with us. If you’re trying to develop a character, it’s useful to have a couple of hard-and-fast personality traits to rely upon.
- Because the statement is so factual, Lansdale has the luxury of playing with the words. He doesn’t have to worry about finding something interesting to say; he just needs to let the narrator find an interesting way to say a basic thing. This is exactly the strategy used here by Mark Twain in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (notice how it’s stating basic information):
“The Widow Douglas she took me for her son, and allowed she would sivilize me; but it was rough living in the house all the time, considering how dismal regular and decent the widow was in all her ways; and so when I couldn’t stand it no longer I lit out.”
A final point to consider: It’s easy to fall into the trap of believing that great voices are highly elaborate or deeply folksy, but the phrasings that make them memorable are often subtle. Lansdale’s three-part phrase “gun-shooting dwarf, the son of a slave, and a big angry hog” simply adds a few eye-catching adjectives. (This is another reason you shouldn’t abide by all “rules for writers.” Adjectives, when used well, can make a story sparkle.)
The Writing Exercise
Let’s create a voice, using Joe Lansdale’s The Thicket as a model:
- Using a story you’ve been working on, write a new first sentence(s). State outright, in the first person, what will happen. Use your plainest language. You’re giving yourself a frame to hang the narration on.
- Think about your narrator. Would he or she make such a up-front statement? If not, what parts would the narrator want to hide or soften? How would the simple statements be rephrased in order to make the narrator more comfortable? Make those changes.
- If the narrator had a captive audience, how would he/she change the remaining phrases in order to make them more interesting? In other words, what is the narrator’s storytelling voice? Because that is what narrators are doing: telling a story. Pick two or three words or phrases and make some simple changes: add adjectives, replace nouns with different nouns, or cut words to create surprising juxtapositions (“true love and kill someone”).
Play with your sentence(s) and see what you get. If you’re having fun, it’s a good sign.