Thursday, March 1, 2012

Hearing Voices: Narrative and Dialogue

I have spent a bit of time reading submissions for publishers, and recently I read a pretty good chapter book that was along the lines of what the publisher was looking for except for one fatal flaw.

It was written in first person point of view, and the main character was a nine-year-old boy. Here is a sentence from the opening paragraph.

My ears picked up an unfamiliar sound. Dropping the cookie I slid off the bar stool.

Does that sound like a nine-year-old talking? I don’t think so. However, the dialogue in this story, whether talking to friends, to parents, to teachers, was spot-on adolescent.

When I sent the rejection letter to the author, I pointed out that the first-person voice in a story must sound exactly as the narrator would sound in his dialogue. Otherwise the reader will wonder who is doing the talking. In this case, it was clearly the author’s voice coming through loud and clear. That wouldn’t have been a problem had the narrative been in third person point-of-view.

So take a look at your last bit of writing. If you’re in first person voice, does your narrative sound the same as your character’s dialogue? If not, why? If your main character is not an actress, an undercover agent, a schizophrenic, or in our example, an old person who has taken over a child's body, you have some explaining to do to the reader.
Dani Greer is founding member of the Blood-Red Pencil, writer, editor, artist, and Special Projects Coordinator for Little Pickle Press. You may find her at Facebook and at Twitter.

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  1. Barbara Kingsolver did a masterful job of writing in several distinctive voices in The Poisonwood Bible. She kept them all separate and true to the ages of the various characters speaking. It would be a good book to study if one is thinking of writing in first person, especially if the speaker is a child.

  2. This is my next editing task on my wip. I wrote the first draft quickly and I think most of the characters all sound very similar. I need to sit down and work out what distinguishes them from each other and incorporate that.

  3. Very true. It's a good idea to think about whose point of view you want to express while you're writing.

    Morgan Mandel

  4. Great post. Listening to (well narrated) audiobooks in the first person, or reading them out loud is a good way to get handle on it. I think it's actually a good idea for writers who insist on using first person to think about the whole narrative as dialogue and go from there. In fact, when I used to cast narrators for audiobooks, that's how I thought of first person novels - you needed the best character actors so that the narrative was able to be distinguished from the dialogue (tricky with 1st) with good stamina because it was hours and hours of, essentially, dialogue.


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.


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