Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Narratorial Ventriloquism

I've been a fan of Alice Munro for some time, and in reading her latest short story collection, Too Much Happiness, I picked up on a device she uses that I've also seen from the Great T. (Tolstoy, for those of you who are just joining us.)

Both of these writers tell stories in third person, and they often have a non-main-character narrator telling the story. But, in places, the narration (while still staying in third person) takes on the voice of one of the story's characters.

For example, here is part of a paragraph from Munro's story "Dimensions":

She liked work--it occupied her thoughts to a certain extent and tired her out so that she could sleep at night. She was seldom faced with a really bad mess, though some of the women she worked with could tell stories to make your hair curl.

I think some of this may be up to interpretation, but for me, most of this bit is told in a fairly intellectual voice: it occupied her thoughts to a certain extent and tired her out so that she could sleep at night.

But, as the paragraph proceeds, we start to hear a less formal voice with phrases like "really bad mess" and "stories to make your hair curl."

Munro manages to take us from a more distant third person POV to one much closer to the woman in this story, where we start to hear the character's voice even though it's not proper dialog.

Tolstoy does this to an even greater extreme, where a chapter's narration can take on several different voices. Here's a paragraph at random from Anna Karenina:

For the mother there could be no comparison between Vronsky and Levin. The mother disliked in Levin his strange and sharp judgements, his awkwardness in society (caused, as she supposed, by his pride), and his, in her opinion, wild sort of life in the country, busy with cattle and muzhiks; she also very much disliked that he, being in love with her daughter, had visited their house for a month and a half as if waiting for something, spying out, as if he were afraid it would be too great an honour if he should propose...

Can't you just hear the mother saying things like "wild sort of life in the country"?

Tolstoy (and Munro) manage two tasks at once by using this technique. On one hand, they are able to characterize their characters by having the narrator display a different voice. On the other hand, by not going directly into dialog, the writers maintain the ability to provide psychological insight that goes deeper than what the characters themselves could probably express.

Isn't this a cool technique? It's one that I've just started to play with. Has anyone done this? Or, can you think of places where this might be helpful to you?


  1. Hah, I love your title! I haven't ever consciously tried this out. I don't think I've ever noticed it in my writing, but I think it's a great technique to use for third person - especially if it's distant third person and you need the reader to feel and get closer to your characters. This would work perfectly.

    I may try this out some in a short story or two. I also need to go read some Great T.

  2. Michelle, I started out calling this post "Throwing your narrator's voice," but I thought that sounded too much like "Throwing OUT your narrator's voice."

    If you want to read some shorter Tolstoy, I recommend Kreutzer Sonata. I just finished it, and I think it's something you would really appreciate.

  3. I have a gift card for Amazon. I should go use it and get that. :)

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  5. Nerf.. sorry. I'm reading Alice Hoffman's "Practical Magic" and I'm noticing the same thing you're talking about here! And I love it! I think it's a great way to bring 3rd person omniscient narrators closer to the reader. It keep things familiar.

  6. Valerie, Good point, and the author still has the flexibility to stand back. This device really lets a writer move around quickly.

  7. I already try to do this, funnily enough.

    A section at random, from CaN:

    “How long have you been watching me?”
    “Is this important now?” Of course it was important! He’d been spying on her!
    “No,” Moriah heard herself say. “Not important at all.”

    I added the italics, but you can see how that segment is in Moriah's head/in her voice without being dialogue.

  8. Matthew, thanks for putting up some of your work. I always really appreciate that. This is a great example.

  9. Oh I love, Dance of the Happy Shades. And I have never considered doing this simply because I write for MG. But if I ever made the JUMP, I would try it. And I might for a story that I work on in my spare time about my Irish immigrant family.

    Such a fantastic post Davin. And I love Tolstoy. I make War and Peace and Twenty-Three Tales required reading for our high school students in our home-school. =)

  10. Robyn, I feel like this would work in MG writing as well. I think often times a reader won't exactly know what device we're using, but that doesn't mean it won't work to help make the story come to life. I need to take your high school English class! :)

  11. Well, since the 3rd person omniscient novel is a rare breed nowadays, I'd say the technique isn't used to much. It's a wonderful tool for the writer's arsenal, though. (Another tool in the arsenal being the lovely mixed metaphor...)

  12. Hmmm, Davin you may be right. I have a new MG story that I just started. I think I'll play around with it and I'll let you know. Sounds like fun.

    And come on over. School starts at 8:30. *GRIN*

  13. Simon, I agree with you that 3rd person omniscient seems rarer these days. That makes me sad. But, at least some of the writers I like the most are still doing it! :)

  14. "Cocke & Bull" is being written in 3rd-person omniscient. I don't know why this POV is seemingly out of favor right now, but it's the best. You get an incredible amount of control over narrative distance, and besides, most of my favorite books are written in 3rd-person omniscient.

  15. I haven't consciously done this either. Actually I've only done close 3rd person and 1st person so I really haven't had the opportunity. Maybe I should try it in a short or something.

  16. Davin,

    I adore Munro... and now I adore this post.

    This technique is exactly want to employ in my writing -- I want to have a noice of an impartial narrator, yet also allow the character(s) to tell the story.

    These are great examples, and I feel very thankful to have read this post today. You've pinned down something I was sort of skirting around all year, really, in my own writing.

  17. Davin: I am amazed at how objective you are about the works you read. I don't know if I'd ever pick up on this - but you seem to have that ability to see the elements within the craft.

    It must be so helpful to you as a writer...part of your gift.

  18. Scott, most of my favorites are written in this best point of view too. And, I'm trying to master it even if it's out of style. I want to be able to write on a larger scale with many characters because that's the stuff that excited me most.

    Lois, to me your book does this all over the place. I think this is basically a close third person, but maybe it's less consistent. So, I guess for you, the exercise would be to see if you can back away and then zoom back in?

    Amber, I think I was skirting around this for awhile too. I've been reading Tolstoy for years, and only very recently did I figure out that he was doing this.

    Tess, this took some work for me. I just kept reading my paragraphs and then T's paragraphs and was trying to figure out why I liked his so much more, why they seemed more interesting when I was trying so hard to copy him. This was one of the devices.

  19. Davin, this is fascinating, and the examples you cite are seamless. I've done this at times, but I got two different reactions by critiquers. One said they loved the way I wove the MC's thoughts into the narrative sometimes, while another person said all thoughts had to be in italics. So I struggle with when I can do it or not, and I realize it takes a masterful hand so as not to confuse the reader.

  20. Tricia, I hereby grant you permission to do whatever you prefer! It sounds like you got two different opinions and you should feel free to ignore whichever one you want.

  21. I agree with Scott. I wish this weren't out of favor. I think its why I read so many classics and "old" books. I love stories with lots of characters, and I want to hear the different povs in a story. I think it makes the tale richer.

    So many recent books use close first person and I tend to get tired of that person. It starts feeling too self centered to me. Stories are rarely only about one person.


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