The Voice that Speaks BestBy Elaine Marie Alphin
You've plotted your story. You know your characters and their conflict. You know how your viewpoint character will grow by achieving a resolution. Now you face one last decision before you start writing. What voice are you going to use? You might choose to write in the first-person present tense, with the story pouring out of your main character as the plot unfolds; the first-person past tense, with the narrator writing letters or a diary, telling a friend, or just remembering. You could choose the third person present tense to give your story immediacy and intensity, or the classic third-person past tense. You might even opt for the rare second-person. Whichever voice you choose impacts on the way readers are drawn into your story and on the way editors view your submission.
Classic Narrative Voice Most stories are written in the third-person past tense:
Alice glared at her third-grade science teacher. "I won't catch butterflies! It's a stupid class project."
"Sissy Alice wouldn't hurt a butterfly," teased Matt, sticking out his tongue.
"That's enough, Matt," said Mrs. Baxter, frowning. "And the project stands."
Alice slumped in her seat. She couldn't tell them about the raccoon family she'd seen in the meadow. Matt would make it his business to find the babies. But any of the kids might stumble on them, searching for butterflies.
What could she do?
The third-person voice firmly anchors the reader in Alice's view
point, and allows the writer to show the other characters believably. This voice works well for all age groups.
The Voice Less Written Few writers use the second person, because "you" is hard to believe as the main character, except in choose your-own-adventure stories. While kids enjoyed these in book form in the past, the various choices require more space than a magazine story can support. Readers would probably find Alice's story artificial and off-putting in the second person: "You glared at your third-grade teacher." Who glared? The reader?
While a strong writer might pull off a story in the second-person, the voice distances readers from the action and the characters, especially the second-person Alice. It can work occasionally in simple, participatory stories for the very youngest readers:
Alice sings a butterfly song,
"Pink wings, blue wings, yellow wings up high.
If butter can fly, then why can't l?"
You sing the butterfly song with her. This can also be a fun voice for poetry, but the second person probably won't do much for your fiction for older readers.
My Own Story To write in the first-person, you must know your narrator so thoroughly that you know exactly what word that character would choose to express any thought or feeling, based on age, personality, and circumstances. Would Alice use "glaring" to describe her expression? Would she identify Mrs. Baxter as her third-grade science teacher, since she already knows who Mrs. Baxter is? That identification is included for the reader's information and flows smoothly in the third person, but seems awkward in the first. The first-person voice can make Alice's feelings more intense:
I made my eyes all squinty and angry. Mrs. Baxter had to pay attention when I looked at her like that. "I won't catch butterflies! It's a stupid class project." I crossed my fingers under my desk when I said that last part, because it could be a fun project, just not right now.
"Sissy Alice wouldn't hurt a butterfly," Matt said in a mean voice. He stuck out his ugly tongue at me. It was still green from his popsicle after lunch. I knew he couldn't wait to stick pins into those butterflies. Or into me, I bet.
Readers will know Alice much better, but it can take more words to tell your story, and space may be limited. Editors love a compelling first-person story, however, because each narrator's voice is unique. Some may even be unreliable! This technique demands a great deal from both writer and reader, but the personal voice pays off in helping the reader bond with the main character.
Elaine Marie Alphin has written numerous articles, stories, and activities for a wide variety of magazines and is also the author of acclaimed novels, including The Ghost Cadet and A Bear for Miguel. Permission to reprint this article was received from the author.