I posted some time ago about the challenges of voice and structure in my (then) work in progress, a novel called Dreamer’s Pool, first instalment of the Blackthorn & Grim series, which is a historical fantasy/mystery series for adult readers. At that point I was wrestling with the self-imposed limitations of the format – three contrasting first person narrators alternating chapters. I love writing in first person, but I wondered at that point whether my control freak approach was forcing the story into a structure in which it would be hard to maintain and build tension. By building some flexibility into the structure, I did eventually make this work. At least, I hope I did! It’s interesting that one of the major changes requested by my editors was a re-ordering of the chapters to ensure they fell in exact chronological order – not easy or even quite natural when the three narrators are not all present in the same location until well into the story.
Dreamer’s Pool is now off my hands, with an Australian release date of October 1 and the US release in November. I’m hard at work on the second in the series, provisionally entitled The Tower of Bann. The relationship between voice and structure is the same as before: three voices alternating chapters. Two of the voices continue from the first novel: first person past tense for disillusioned healer Blackthorn, first person present tense for her henchman Grim. The third voice is that of a new character, the enigmatic Lady Mella. The mystery element of the series, in which Blackthorn and Grim combine their talents to solve a puzzle in each book, has meant that this character must withhold information in her chapters. How to do this without obvious artifice? How to avoid leaving readers with that annoying feeling of having been tricked?[pullquote]If a plot requires a point of view character to deceive the reader – to be an unreliable narrator – that character’s voice requires careful control. The writer may use this character to lead the reader down a false trail, or conceal something that will later be the turning point of the story.[/pullquote]
Done clumsily, this kind of thing can leave the reader feeling cheated. Done well, as in Gillian Flynn’s chilling Gone Girl, it can be a powerful storytelling device. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler is a novel in which the holding back of information is central to the emotional impact of the story. A suggestion: if you have yet to read the Fowler novel, don’t look at reviews or the jacket blurb beforehand unless you want the major twist revealed in advance.
Lacking the storytelling brilliance of either of these authors, I couldn’t immediately see how best to shape Mella’s voice without obvious artifice. How could I avoid giving readers that annoying feeling of having been tricked?
Here are some approaches I considered.
- Choose a different character as the third narrator?
I had a choice of two possible characters as the third narrator for this novel. Neither could be completely honest with the reader. Mella was the better choice, as her nature and social status allowed me to give her not only a distinct voice, but also an emotional distance from the other main characters, so she’d be less likely to share secrets with them.
- Use loose or omniscient third person to set this character at more of a distance?
Third person was a possible answer, though I didn’t want to set Mella at a distance emotionally; I wanted the reader fully engaged with all three main characters. As a reader I’m increasingly favouring tight third over a looser third. Tight third, like first person, allows the reader to see far more deeply into a character and truly share his or her journey. Looser forms of third can get a bit clunky, especially if the POV hops around all over the place. Whatever I used had to sit well with the first person chapters.
- Keep trying alternatives until you find something that works?
I wrote several drafts of Mella’s opening chapters, trying different voices. First person past tense works well for Blackthorn who, as healer and wise woman, is a natural storyteller, but it was not right for Mella. First person present tense is reserved for live-in-the-moment Grim. I tried writing a chapter entirely in dialogue – less insight into Mella’s thoughts that way – but unsurprisingly that was a failed experiment.
In the current draft, I’m using tight third for Mella’s chapters. Rather than have her deliberately mislead the reader – she has no reason to do so – I’m shaping her narrative in a way that is at the same time true and deceptive. I’ve given her chapters an overtly fairytale feel. I hope it works!
Below is a taste of the voices used for each of the three protagonists:
Mella (the book’s opening):
Rain had swollen the river to a churning mass of grey. The tower wore a soft shroud of mist; though it was past dawn, no cries broke the silence. Perhaps he slept, curled tight on himself, dreaming of a time when he was whole and hale and handsome. Perhaps he knew, even in his sleep, that she still kept watch, her shawl clutched around her against the cold, her gaze fixed on his shuttered window.
But he might have forgotten who she was, who he was, what had befallen them. It had been a long time ago. So long that she had no more tears to shed. So long that one summer blurred into another as the years passed in an endless wait for the next chance, and the next, to put it right. She did not know if he could see her. There were the trees, and the water, and on mornings like this, the mist lying thick between them. Only the top of the tower was visible, with its shuttered window.
Another day. The sun was fighting to break through; here and there the clouds of vapour showed a sickly yellow tinge. Gods, she loathed this place! And yet she loved it. How could she not? How could she want to be anywhere but here?
I sat on the cottage steps, shelling peas and watching as Grim forked fresh straw on to the vegetable patch. Here at the edge of Dreamer’s Wood, dappled shade lay over us; the air held a warm promise of the summer to come. In the near distance green fields spread out, dotted with grazing sheep, and beyond them I glimpsed the long wall that guarded Prince Oran’s holdings at Winterfalls. A perfect day. The kind of day that made a person feel almost … settled. Which was not good. If there was anything I couldn’t afford, it was getting content.
‘Lovely day,’ observed Grim, pausing to wipe the sweat off his brow and to survey his work.
He narrowed his eyes at me. ‘Something wrong?’
A pox on the man, he knew me far too well.
‘What would be wrong?’
‘You tell me.’
‘Seven years of this and I’ll have lost whatever edge I once had,’ I said. ‘I’ll have turned into one of those well-fed countrywomen who pride themselves on making better preserves than their neighbours, and give all their chickens names.’
She’s busy gathering, not easy because she has to find the stuff first, then make sure she doesn’t take too much from one plant. Doesn’t want to kill it. She’s crouched down, picking and muttering to herself. Can’t quite catch the words, but I know it’s a kind of prayer, thanks for letting her take the herb and sorry at the same time. I’ve offered to help but she says no, my job is to keep an eye out for trouble. So that’s what I’m doing when the traveller comes in sight, walking along the road toward the fortress all on his own. Pack on his back, staff in his hand, no weapons I can catch sight of. Wearing a scholar’s robe. Looks harmless, but you never know. He glances over at us, gives me a nod, then catches sight of Blackthorn, who’s on her haunches with her back to him. Fellow freezes on the spot, staring. That’s a surprise. Her and me, we try not to catch the eye. I’m big, she’s got that bright red hair, but we’re not as startling as all that.
‘Man on the road,’ I say, under my breath. ‘Looking at you.’
How do you go about making your decisions on voice? Does voice go along with structure in your writing?
Photo credit: ID 1976330 © Evan66 | Dreamstime.com