Kootenai River in NW Montana, near Canadian Border

Kootenai River in NW Montana, near Canadian Border
photo by Gene Tunick of Eureka, Montana

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Tip O'Day #375 - Which Voice?

Guest blogger Donald McMiken opines on writing distance.

In the paradigm of prose, writers are free to choose several viewpoints; we are not confined to a uniquely personal point of view in telling someone what happened. Within each of our choices of viewpoint there are several further possibilities. The primary choices are first person, second person or third person. It has been said that third person is the most flexible and appropriate point of view — except when it isn’t.

For each viewpoint we have another choice: single or multiple voices. A story may be told from just one, or from different perspectives. At a third level these viewpoints and voices might be singular or the consensus of a collective — plural. To complicate matters, a writer can also be closer or more distant in their viewpoint as intimacy in the tale changes, a perspective that’s called writing distance. More than a few writers, even successful novelists, have trouble changing their writing distance and tense where it could be most effective.

Writing distance refers to how close and personal your voice is, or at the other extreme, how your distant view captures reality through the wider lens of objectivity. Note that objectivity is perceived not actual; even the most deluded holocaust denier can write in an objective third person with a scholarly voice.

You can think of writing distance as like describing a panoramic scene. Picture, if you will, arriving by sea at a tropical island. As you approach you first observe the entire island on the horizon from the boat. As you get closer you can see details of a bay and a dark rainforest. Closer still and you enter this fine bay, heading toward a sunlit beach of white sand. Now you are so close you can no longer see the entire island, just the bay. You move closer through deep blue water. You see fish swim among the coral and dolphins leap and play around the boat, while sunlight sparkles on the water. Then the boat runs aground on the beach and you leap into gentle waves lapping the shore.

You venture across the hot, pristine sand with bare feet leaving footprints that track your journey. Now you can no longer see the whole bay, just white sand, a few palms and a dark foreboding forest dead ahead. You plunge in among the trees and vines. You stand still to allow your eyes to adapt to low light among the undergrowth. Now you can see only an arm’s length in front of you. There is a crash, low guttural rumble, a stench of a carnivore’s breath, then a flash as a monster bares its fangs ahead of you. In the slow-motion shock of an adrenaline rush you leap for a low-hanging branch. You have now closed writing distance.

You are so close that your only writerly choices now are fleeting impressions. At the same time, you will likely change tense, which amplifies immediacy and pace, to reinforce a sense of imminent danger.

Donald’s first novel has not yet been released. He is the author of Secrets of Writing Killer Essays & Reports, available from Amazon here.

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