Right at the Moment

Any advice for creating a strong narrative voice starts with: “Put your character’s feet on the ground.” That shift marks an important stage in an author’s journey from self to created self. If the distance between mind and pen were calibrated on an arc, you would find at one end the author directing his characters like marionettes and at the other a character speaking to the reader directly. That is, mental solely directed by author as opposed to mental solely directed by character.

For most authors, reaching the latter end of the spectrum remains an aspiration only. An intermediate stage—a scene described closely—can be achieved through craft, however. You just have to lay aside your strings and slip inside the inert puppet below.

For a running example, let’s take a general passage, obviously drawn from research notes: “She was determined to prepare her daughter as her successor in witchcraft. Since the teaching was transmitted orally, the process was laborious. Children like Karen required constant drills.” Who is controlling the narrative? Look above, at the grinning puppet master.

How is the character’s feet put on the ground? Start with one lesson in witchcraft, on one morning. Let’s make Karen the point-of-view character. That assumes a child’s perspective on the proceedings. That includes possible boredom, or joy, or “Yay, I did it!” That’s a little different take than “laborious.”

The lesson could be shown through dialogue, with her mother reciting a spell and the child stumbling to repeat it. A lack of writing implements indicates that the lesson is being given orally.  The mother might make the spell work, delighting both the child and the reader.

Note that when you put yourself inside a scene, the process does not have to be smooth. The mother could become cross with the child. It could be noon, after a long morning of repeating the spell endless times, and Karen is more interested in her upcoming peanut butter and jelly sandwich. In her tuning out her mother, her eye might be caught by the way the sunlight is gleaming off a metal bookend by the window, and in her transported state she makes her own kind of magic happen.

You cannot create action scenes for every part of the narrative, but a novel can consist largely of them. That’s because an author is willing to step aside and let the characters tell the story. How much mental activity you add in a further phase is up to you, but now it is placed in the service of the character.

Exercise: Review the manuscript for any passages that do not have a sharply delineated point of view. One way you can tell is by looking for a time element. When is the passage taking place? If it’s over a stretch of weeks or even years, you should make sure that the character, not you, is running the show.

“Randomness I love. And I still love just a holler right in the middle of an ongoing narrative. Pain or joy, ecstasy.”
—Barry Hannah

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine

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Copyright © 2012 John Paine. All rights reserved.