A Novel Observed #5 – Voice

The Planning Stage

The Planning Stage

In this, the last post of the planning stage for NT2S&S, I am looking at ‘voice’. This has nothing to do with the recording of the audiobook – it is the novel narrator’s point-of-view. There are a number of different options available:

  • First Person: the Falco novels by Lindsey Davis are written as the memoirs of Marcus Didius Falco, as though he is speaking throughout: ‘When the girl came rushing up the steps, I decided she was wearing far too many clothes.‘ (opening sentence from The Silver Pigs). This is the narrator telling us about him/herself.
  • Second Person: in this voice, the narrator appears to be speaking directly to the reader, with the reader as the main character. There are not many examples of this, but one is Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas by Tom Robbins: ‘The day the stock market falls out of bed and breaks its back is the worst day of your life. Or so you think.‘ (opening of the book)
  • Third Person: this is where the narrator is telling us about a character who is neither the narrator nor the reader. Pick us almost any novel, and you’ll find this perspective – it’s by far the most common. And usually the narrator is privy only the thoughts, feelings, desires, motives etc. of the main character at the time, for example: ‘The night before he went to London, Richard Mayhew was not enjoying himself.‘ (opening of Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman)
  • Omniscient: I am currently reading JK Rowling‘s The Cuckoo’s Calling and, while it is predominantly concerned with the character of Cormoran Strike, the reader is given insight into the thoughts and feelings of other characters as we journey through the book. This is the omniscient voice, where, like God, the narrator knows what everyone thinks and feels, their motives and desires.

In addition, each of these can have multiple points-of-view so that the reader can jump from one character’s perspective to another’s. George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (one of my favourite novels) is written from the single, third-person perspective of  Winston Smith, though there is a large cast of other characters. On the other hand, Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels are also written in the third-person, but each section is written from the perspective of a different character.

Not only that, but there is the tense to consider: past, present or future. Past is the usual choice, such as, ‘The house stood on a slight rise just on the edge of the village. It stood on its own and looked out over a broad spread of West Country farmland.‘ (opening of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams). Present tense is less common, but a great example is Suzanne CollinsHunger Games trilogy: ‘When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold.‘ (opening of The Hunger Games). As for future tense, I can’t think go of any novels that use it, though I guess there must be at least one… Maybe?

I make that a possible 24 choices, if you include the second person, multiple perspective, future tense! (‘You will, of course. And so will you.’)

Which one to choose?

Straight off the bat, we can discard the second person perspective, as that wouldn’t fit our original concept nor our characters. Also, I think I’ll avoid the future tense for now. The big quandary is – do we go with first person (present tense) or third person (past tense)? And do we take Sebastian’s perspective only, or would it help the narrative if we took the perspective of others as well, such as Neil and Emma?

After consideration, I’ve decided to confine the narrative to Sebastian’s perspective only. In this way, we can discover everything about the village and its inhabitants as he does, through his eyes, being surprised when he’s surprised, intrigued when he’s intrigued and so on.

However, I’m still stuck on the viewpoint… I think what I’ll do is write the first chapter in both third and first person voice and see which people prefer.

Finally, though I like the idea that a novel is only as long as it needs to be, I suspect it’s nonsense. It’s more likely that a novel is simply as long as it ends up being. Typically, novels fall in the 80-120,o00 word count, so it’d be good to aim somewhere in there. I always overshoot in the first draft – Montgomery’s Trouble in the Underworld was over 66,000 in the first draft (aim 40,000) and another I recently ghostwrote for someone came in at over 100,000 (aim 70,000) – but I’d like to aim for around the 100,000 mark for the first draft. You’ll note that I’ve added a progress meter to the sidebar with this as the aim.

Now all I need to do is to start writing that first draft…