Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Writing the Voice Sketch

In my experience, one of the most difficult parts of writing a voice piece is finding a way to capture a unique voice without exaggerating that voice to the point of disbelief.  And the two pieces we read for class cut a very fine line here, managing to capture some of the extremes of local dialects without inflicting a cliche.

Today's topic addresses the approach we use for writing voice in fiction, and is a continuation of "What Is a Voice Poem." The pieces we cover in particular for this topic include Bobbie Ann Mason's "Shiloh" and Bernard Malamud's "Angel Levine."  The IFP Voice Sketch is a minimum of two pages double-spaced.

"Angel Levine," in particular, captures a wide of voices, from Manischevitz's colloquial "My dear God, sweatheart, did I deserve that this should happen to me?" to the very intellectual diction and tone of Levine's early speech: "It was given to me to understand that both your wife and you require assistance of a salubrious nature?"  Later in the story, in the synagogue in Harlem, Malumud exposes us to still more variations of dialect, from "Let's git on wid de commentary" to "On de face of de water moved de speerit.  An' dat was good.  It say so in de Book.  From de speerit ariz de man."

To understand what Malamud has done with voice here, we must consider the purpose of the story: we have a Jewish tailor confronted with a angel who happens to be Black.  And in the Harlem synagogue, we see Jewish gentlemen - each one Black - discussing the "immaterial substance" of the soul.  And this reveals that, regardless of dialect, an individual can discuss and believe in Manischevitz's Judaism.

The key here is that the diction may come from dialect, but the topics of discussion come from the needs of the characters.  And this is crucial.  Stories which are considered "cliche" or "overdone" often try to enforce voice at the expense of characterization.  As a veteran, I tend to notice this most when I'm reading stories with military personnel.  For example, you might read a conversation like this:
They'd been fighting for days. Private Joe was happy to get a few hours when he saw the Master Sergeant walking up with new orders. "Hey, Sarge," the private called. "What's cookin?"

The Master Sergeant whipped out her map.  "Our orders," she said, looking every man in the eye, "are to take this hilltop."
I know from experience that few soldiers actually speak like this.  (The term "sarge," especially, will earn a private in today's army a whole lot of push-ups...)  Another problem with this dialogue is the way it divides the private from "The Master Sergeant."  This examples gives the difference in rank between the two men as more of a matter of social class than of age and rank - it sounds almost as if they're from entirely different world's, culturally speaking.  Then we have the line of this sergeant "looking every man in the eye."  Yes, it sounds very steely-eyed-heroic, but not exactly realistic.

To truly capture the voice of these soldiers, we would need to see them as people first and soldier's second.  The best way to do this is to first zero-in on a single point-of-view (POV) character.  In the previous example, we have confusion about which character holds the true POV.  Private Joe gets the most POV exposure with "he was happy," but we have no idea what he thinks as the Master Sergeant is looking everyone in the eye.  If we really take on his point of view, we can get a stronger feel for how he and his buddies are actually feeling.

Joe watched Sims as she pulled out the map.  He didn't want to look at the paper again.  He didn't even need to, know - they'd fought back-and-forth across those hills for so many days that he could have sketched the ridge in the sand with his eyes closed.
Note that we've dropped most of the "army" jargon - now it's just two people looking over a map.  But we can feel the grit of this situation much better - Joe is tired, he's been fighting a lot, and he already knows his job.

Point-of-view established, we can now move on to developing this POV to reveal the voices of other characters:

Sims flicked her eyes up from the map to meet Joe's gaze.  She seemed so small, for a moment, hunched forward under the weight of all that Kevlar, but then she straightened.  She brought up her carbine and clunked the weapon down over the edge of the map as a paperweight.  She cast her eyes over the rest of the men.  She looked angry and tired, as usual.

"Our orders," she said, "are to take this hilltop."

The emphasis here is still on the people.  Without the weight of ranks and steely-eyed looks, we can see this sergeant as she really is - tired and angry.  And it sets up some good tension for later.  Why, if she's so unhappy, is she now a Master Sergeant?  Does she really want to take this hilltop, or is she literally just following orders?

Note that we've introduced some military jargon here, but it's not the cliche jargon of a John Wayne movie - instead we see some of the equipment that these soldiers would use and carry every day.  To them, this stuff is as familiar as air.  For minimalist fiction, just mentioning these words might be enough, but I recommend providing enough explanation that all readers would understand what these objects actually represent.  Here, it might help to know that Kevlar is the polymer used in military body armor, and hence a common nickname for the armor itself.  A carbine is a shorter version of an M-16 - the kind of weapon everyone now recognizes from movies and popular culture.  But do we really need to be told these things?  Depends on the audience, really.  Think about whether this knowledge would have helped you understand the short piece a little better, and then try to keep in mind which of your own references your readers might not know at first.

As always, please feel free to reply or e-mail with any questions or comments.

Happy Writing,
Ryan

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