Voice and Structure: A Planner’s Perspective

dreamstime_xs_18453842 (1)I’m currently working on a novel called Dreamer’s Wood, first installment in the Blackthorn & Grim series, and my deadline is getting uncomfortably close. Indeed, the story is so much in my head at present that I really had no choice but to write about it for this month’s post.

Dreamer’s Wood, a historical fantasy/mystery for adult readers, is designed around contrasts in voice. Three major characters–Blackthorn, the disillusioned healer; Grim, her taciturn sidekick; Oran, the dreamer prince–take turns narrating chapters in first person. This framework allows emotional intensity to build between the main protagonists and provides good contrast within the narrative. It should allow the reader to get very close to the three central players. First person suits a character-based story, and although Dreamer’s Wood has a plot line that includes a double mystery and a fairy tale element, its real heart is the emotional development of these characters.

I started the project really believing in the triple first person narrative. The three characters came to life with their different voices, and the writing really raced along. I’ve done this sort of thing before. In another novel, for instance, I alternated first person, past tense sections for the female protagonist with first person, present tense sections for the male protagonist, who was suffering from memory loss. I thought that approach served the story well. But this time around, with the major part of the novel written, I’ve started having a few doubts. Am I becoming hung-up on the chosen format? Am I letting the structure overwhelm the storytelling? Are my control freak tendencies getting the better of me?

I hope not, as I simply don’t have time for a major structural rewrite before the deadline–my efforts will mainly be focused on getting the novel finished. But I am loosening the structure to ensure I maintain tension, pace and flow. The changes of narrator should enhance, rather than detract from, the unfolding of the story, otherwise why write the book that way? I’m taking note of the following:

  1. Chapters need not all be of similar length. More important is consistency of voice.

    It’s fine for Grim’s chapters to be briefer as he has less education than the other two protagonists, uses short or incomplete sentences and always speaks plainly. His style is great for action scenes. Grim is ‘in the moment’ and uses present tense.
    Oran is of noble birth and privileged background, and he’s also something of a poet and dreamer. He uses longer, more complex sentences and a broader, more ornate vocabulary than the other two.  My challenge is to rein in his philosophical musings and flights of imagination while keeping him in character. Oran’s chapters tend to be the longest.
    Blackthorn bears crippling emotional scars and is eaten up by anger. The overarching series story deals with her hard journey to personal redemption. The challenge with her voice is maintaining the blazing intensity that marks her first appearance in the story. Blackthorn and Oran both narrate in past tense.

    A task for the final edit will be ensuring the consistency of each voice throughout the book; I’ll be looking at vocabulary, sentence structure, quirks of expression and so forth.

  2. Chapters need not be narrated in a fixed order. I found that at certain points I wanted to deviate from the 123,123 chapter pattern I had set up at the start. The narrator who is next in the line-up may well not be the best one to tell that part of the story. Good storytelling always comes before adherence to a plan! There are places in the book where one or other character ‘skips’ a chapter. That’s fine, though I need to be sure that overall each of the three gets adequate page time.
  3. Keep series structure in mind as well as one-book structure. Blackthorn and Grim will be narrators in every book of the series. Oran is a narrator for this novel only. I need to remember that his personal journey shapes Dreamer’s Wood. That could mean I give him some leeway when he wants to grab more page space. And curb my desire to slap him and tell him to grow up.
  4. Look at why I find one character’s chapters easier to write than the others. Experience tells me those chapters will be the best ones. You know how sometimes the writing seems to flow almost despite you, and you realise a couple of hours have passed and you’ve written a few thousand words without even thinking about it? Those are always the good bits. Anything that is a painstaking slog to write probably isn’t your greatest work. In my final revision I’ll most likely find the slow bits are too long, repetitive and/or lacking in intensity. They’ll be first on the chopping block.

I’ve found the changes of voice in this novel both a challenge and a delight to write. They’ve helped keep me focused on the project and at the same time provided me with great surprises along the way. I’m hoping very much that my editor and my readers will like the end result.

Have you experimented with voice in your work? Have you used changes of voice as part of your narrative structure? How did it work for you?

Photo credit © Gea Strucks | Dreamstime.com




About Juliet Marillier

Juliet Marillier has written nineteen novels for adults and young adults as well as a collection of short fiction. Her works of historical fantasy have been published around the world, and have won numerous awards. Juliet's new novel, Tower of Thorns, will be published in October/November 2015. Tower of Thorns is the second book in the Blackthorn & Grim series of historical fantasy/mysteries for adult readers. The first Blackthorn & Grim novel, Dreamer's Pool, is available from Roc US and Pan Macmillan Australia.


  1. says

    Good stuff, Juliet. I’ve definitely used different voices. It is funny how some of them really come easily, and others don’t. And I like your observations about structure–too many people get straight-jacketed by trying to make things symmetrical and even.

  2. Denise Willson says

    Great post, Juliet.

    My current novel is first person present tense, for intensity, and written from the POV of two main characters. They have equal billing, but not in pattern, and both are always focused on the main character.

    This is different than my previous series, A Keeper’s Truth, which was told from one POV. This time around, I discovered that a second character’s view, looking through to the main character, is even more fun to write. The filtered glasses offer a unique perspective, from an external source, and brings the protagonist to life in a way I couldn’t have done through only her eyes.

    This is the fun stuff; getting to experiment! Love to hear you sound like you’re enjoying the process, Juliet.

    Denise Willson
    Author of A Keeper’s Truth

    • says

      Thanks, Denise. Your work in progress sounds like something I’d enjoy reading.

      I love writing in first person present tense, so pacy and immediate, but some readers don’t like it. I guess it depends on the story and the character. Jenny Downham’s novel Before I Die is a great example of first person present tense done very effectively and used for a good reason (the narrator is a teenage girl with terminal cancer.) Sounds a bit gloomy but it’s a great read and a perceptive treatment of a very difficult subject.

  3. says

    Yes, you are a control freak. And your readers will thank you.

    The important thing is that you have and maintain consistency – or institute a change deliberately – and that everything you do be done on purpose.

    I think readers can cope with just about anything as long as they don’t get confused by the author.

    I even stuck with the lack of proper punctuation in ‘All the Pretty Horses’ – at least long enough to read the story. I didn’t like it, but I didn’t get confused.

    This includes the author being in control about the story arcs, and the consistency of the beginning with the ending, and characters, and, well, everything.

    That’s the writer’s JOB. The reader invests a few chapters worth of her time in learning the system, but after that the story should come in without hitches if the writer is in control. And woe is you if you set up one system, and then yank the reader around. IMHO.

    Your choices sound fascinating.


  4. Scott McGlasson says

    This is huge for me and I’m glad to see someone that actually knows what they’re doing go at it like you are.

    This is my first attempt at a novel and I’m doing the almost exactly the same 123, 123, although almost the entire MS is 3rd-person limited.

    It’s post-apoc sci-fi and instead of the three different voices like you’re doing (which is very interesting on it’s own), they fit into more archetype slots; civilian survivor, military survivor, alien. The three have distinctly different story arcs and all start geographically far from each other. As their physical stories play out, they end up closer and closer together, their storylines starting to twist into a coherent braid.

    In the third act, though, I felt the need to break the rhythm of the 123, 123 and through in a 4 and just a bit later a 5, then it’s back to 123, 123. I needed that to happen to flesh out parts of the story that, at least in the beginning, don’t involve any of the 3 main prots AND I thought that throwing a curve ball at the reader after I’d gotten them used to a pattern would be just what the doctor ordered right before the climax and resolution that they, hopefully, don’t see coming.

    • says

      That sounds like a big challenge, Scott. It should be fantastic if you can pull it off.

      An alternative for you would be to put in a couple of ‘other POV’ chapters earlier in the book. That could help prevent the sudden appearance of the 4 and 5 chapters late in the piece from jolting your reader out of the narrative. On the other hand, if you want to shock the reader at that point, what you suggest might be very effective. I guess the main thing is to keep the 4s and 5s integral to the book, so they are not too obviously there to get you out of a plotting difficulty. Good luck with the novel, it sounds great!

  5. says

    When I was writing one of my romantic suspense novels, I had a terrible time “letting go” of the alternating POV scenes. Then I woke up and realized it wasn’t a ‘rule’ and as long as readers knew whose POV the scene was in, it was more important to have the scene work for the story. In my current WIP, the heroine doesn’t even show up until chapter 4, and her first POV scene is in chapter 5.

  6. says

    Thank you for sharing your thought processes on this. I especially enjoyed reading whether the 123, 123 rhythm should be broken. You asked if we’ve ever experimented with voice. My first novel, Nandana’s Mark, was an experiment in voice:) (Hopefully I learned something!) I wrote it three times from beginning to end. First in omniscient third, kind of Tolkienesque. It was all right, but didn’t feel like fit into contemporary literature. Then I rewrote the entire novel from Melusine’s POV, first person. The series is a spin of her 14th century French fairytale. It was an improvement, but it still wasn’t right. I finally settled on multi-POV tight third, with the middle sister as the main character. Because I wanted the family drama that I created as my imagined reason for a mother cursing her daughters, I gave the three sisters and father’s POV. I also gave three other characters a POV chapter. The three characters who spur the mcs growth throughout the series. I wouldn’t ever right a book with that many POVS again, lol. And some readers just don’t like it:) But through the entire process, I felt like I learned a lot about POV and I love multi-POV novels myself… Long answer, sorry, but I’m kind of passionate about POV:) Love Love Love Daughters of the Forest and reading this post reminds me I need to read some more of your books! Than!

  7. says

    This is a wonderful post at a time when I’m editing my novel which is written also from my three main character’s perspectives, but in third person. I was tempted to change to first person, but after mulling over it at a writer’s conference in York, England a month ago, I decided it wasn’t where I felt the character’s voices could best reveal themselves.

    I wish you the best in meeting your deadline.

  8. Cal Rogers says

    In my current novel, I use both voice and time as tools to tell my story. My grown-up protagonist’s POV (first person, present tense) is always in present-day linear storytime. I occasionally jump forward in time to the main antagonist’s POV (third person, past tense), who is trying to catch the protagonist in a lie. The protagonist is an unreliable narrator telling his cover story to avoid being caught by the antagonist (think Kevin Spacey’s character in The Usual Suspects). I periodically flash back to my young protagonist’s POV (first person, stream of consciousness, minimal punctuation) to show how he arrived at this place in his life. I use different POVs to withhold information from the reader, and different voices so the reader always knows whose POV the story is in. I jump back and forward in time to control when in the story information is revealed. The trick is orchestrating all of this, so that exactly the information I want revealed in the story happens at precisely the right time in the story, to create the maximum amount of tension throughout the story.

      • Cal Rogers says

        In Right Brain/Left Brain tests I always score right in the middle. I use my left brain first to “engineer” the story: what’s going to happen when and from whose POV, what each character in the story needs to know—or not know—at any given time. For this I use a 30 to 50-page outline, broken down by act, chapter and scene to track what happens next in the manuscript, and an Excel spreadsheet to track when everything happens in time. Once I have all that, I turn my right brain loose to write the scenes. Since my stodgy left brain has already figured out what happens next, my fun loving right brain never gets stuck not knowing what to write (writer’s block). My right brain has a mind of its own, though, and is constantly deviating from the plan. And since he is the boss of this little project, my left brain has no choice but to revise the plan to accommodate him. Probably a longer answer than you wanted, but there it is.

  9. says


    Wow, what am amazing look inside the late-stage writing of a novel. I’m impressed with how well you capture the moment, the issues, the time pressure and your doubts.

    Bravo for not following a 123, 123 pattern in POV rotation. That’s key.

    Holding back on character growth (planned for a later book in the series) is something of which I am wary, having watched many authors starve a series opener. In this case, though, you are following three characters. Good. For the one who changes least, you might ask this: By the end of the first novel, has this character become aware of a big personal issue to face and what has triggered that awareness? Make that anticipation strong. Set the stakes now. That should help, and likely you’re doing it already.

    Some scenes (POV’s) are better than others? Here’s where you can fall back on the solid principles of scene structure: identifying the change, evolving the personal journey in one way, setting the goal and leading toward or away from it, using POV to capture an impression of the place, building in some level of surprise, etc. Even if our hearts are not fully invested in a given character, we can still be gripped by their scenes. (See George R.R. Martin.)

    I love the voice experiment you have underway. What a good challenge to yourself. Looking forward to reading the outcome. Hope the thoughts above are helpful or at least a little reassuring.

  10. Marysia says

    Juliet, as a long-time fan of yours, a closet folklorist, and an aspiring writer myself, I always find your work uplifting and inspiring, and I enjoy reading your blog posts about craft just as much. Your musings on the writing process help me immensely when it comes time to continue writing, as I always have trouble finishing a project. Your new series sounds fascinating and I’m very glad to hear it’s a fantasy/mystery blend. You likely won’t have time to read all of our comments, but if you stop by, I just wanted to assure you that your readers love everything you have to give them. I have read several of your books so far and loved them all. :)


    • says

      Thank you so much, Marysia! With this series I’m tackling several new challenges: older, more imperfect main protagonists; a pair of characters who are central to every book in the series; and that mystery element, which is particularly difficult for me, but I’m attending a workshop on ‘Laying a Clue Trail’ next weekend which should help. At the same time I’m trying to retain whatever the element is that keeps my readers coming back for more. Hope it works!

      • Marysia says

        Older, more imperfect characters sound like a great basis for a story, especially in the fantasy genre which too often features clear-cut distinctions between heroes and villains. As a reader and writer, I’m always drawn first and foremost to the relationships between characters, seeing how they mess up their lives and pick up the pieces again, seeing them live and change and grow. I like the idea of the rotating perspectives as well because I like seeing a multifaceted story through the eyes of several people. You are a master at plotting and characterization, Juliet, and I have every faith in you. :)

        I could benefit from the “Laying a Clue Trail” workshop. I’m experiencing similar POV and unraveling-of-mystery problems with my current novel in progress, which is lacking two final chapters and a rewrite. It’s a feminist romantic fantasy loosely based on Norse folklore, featuring two sisters who both make strategic marriages with very different men. Their paths diverge and converge in unexpected ways after that, with (hopefully) some major surprises for the reader.

        With POV, I think you’re right that sticking too rigidly to structure isn’t always the best way to tell the story. I use 3rd person past tense for both heroines, and I initially wanted to alternate chapters, but this proved impossible since one protagonist has a more active role than the other. Readers may think it’s sloppy plotting, but I don’t think I can’t change it at this point without bogging down the plot.

        The mystery element is a challenge because I’m having trouble getting close to one of the characters who ultimately turns out to be the villain. I want the reader to connect emotionally with him, but I am really struggling because I built the story around the “big reveal.” I suspect he is resentful because I gave him a thankless role, and won’t open up to me.

        I read Son of the Shadows recently and Eamonn really stood out to me as the kind of character I’m trying to capture. I liked and sympathized with Eamonn from the start, and loved seeing the hints of darkness in his personality which eventually took over his reason. More than any other aspect of the book, the deterioration of Eamonn and Liadan’s friendship fascinated me most. Really broke my heart at the end. :)

  11. says

    Thank you Juliet ~

    This post made a great deal of sense to me, especially how you could step back and reason why each voice was valid according to personality.

    I have experienced (in multiple POV’s in my novel ‘Second Lisa’) how one narrative voice flows, and when one of the others seemed awkward, I realized it was because that character was a poet who expressed herself best in the written rather than the spoken word. As soon as I changed her narrative to diary excerpts her voice flowed.

    For me, it was an ambitious undertaking for a first novel, but I loved following my imagination, and it helped me find my own voice.

    Left-brain rules should never limit creativity, so all the more power to anyone who takes them and goes beyond, led by intuition.

    Thank you, again.

  12. says

    Juliet, the novel I’ve been working on did have an alternating chapter/alternating POV for its three main characters (and some slight time shifting), but it felt forced after the first ten chapters or so. There is a single first-person voice, though the reader is in the head of the character whose chapter it is, whether first or third. I gave up on the chapter/character alternating when the story pushed me otherwise.

    And I was given a helpful nudge by a helpful WUer, Tom Pope, who read the first three chapters and helped me to see that beginning the novel with my first-person character, who is a bit of a blowhard, was kind of off-putting. Rearranging those first three chapters set a different tone for the first arc of the book. Thanks again, Tom!

    • says

      Gut feeling is a good guide to whether something’s working or not. And feedback from wise readers is also valuable. Excellent that you were prepared to go back and rewrite with that major change of voice. I’m sure the ms is much improved and you are much happier.

  13. MA Hudson says

    My WIP only has one POV but I was thinking about putting two in my next book, I just didn’t really know how to go about it. Reading your post gives me more confidence to give it a go.
    Thanks for the insights. Good luck with the deadline.
    Mary Ann

    • says

      I’m glad it was helpful, Mary Ann. While I don’t want to suggest rules, I think the basic POV rule these days is to use only one POV per scene – no head hopping (though some writers still do this).

  14. Sharyn Kopf says

    Thank you for this, Juliet! Loved reading how you handled a less-conventional approach. Actually, I wrote my first novel, releasing early next year, with the triple first-person narrative, in present tense. But it’s contemporary women’s fiction. I wasn’t experimenting or anything, that just seemed the best way to tell the story. And I, too, realized early on I didn’t want to get stuck in a 1-2-3 pattern.

    In fact, since this is the first in a 3-book series, I decided to let one of the three be the focus of each book, so I’ll give the focus character a little more chapter time to tell her story in *her* book.

    Guess we’ll see how it goes next year!

    • says

      I like the idea of making each of these three narrators the focus of her own book, Sharyn. I think present tense suits contemporary fiction well. Looking forward to your novel. :)

  15. says

    How timely. I’m beginning work on a novel with three first person POVs myself. I anticipate some issues as the three voices span 150 years (1860s, 1960s, present) and the earliest character (1860s) dies before the next one is even born. Themes and setting tie everything together, but I worry that 1st person may be too limiting for the 1960s storyline especially. However, 1st person works best for the 1860s and present, especially as I try to give everyone their own voice. I feel like as much as possible I need to maintain a 123 structure so that readers won’t forget about a storyline and because it furthers the themes and places ojbects in the house that become important later. I guess I just have to dive in and muddle through!!

    • says

      Erin, have you read any of Kate Morton’s novels? She does a fabulous job of juggling past and present and maintaining tension and pace within both stories as she goes. Her newest one, The Distant Hours, is particularly good, but The Secret Keeper and The Shifting Fog are also well worth reading. You’ve set yourself a real challenge with three strands. Have you considered making one of them (perhaps the oldest one) a diary or journal? That could work well and might be a little easier for the reader.

      Some other examples you might read: Jodi Picoult’s The Storyteller, which interweaves three stories; Kate Forsyth’s Bitter Greens, ditto. Both very well-crafted novels.

  16. says

    I’m re-working an entire manuscript that had been told in first-person and it’s now being narrated in third-person, from the POV of three characters. I’ve also broken up the 1,2,3-1,2,3 pattern.