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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?