Voice II—Emotion or What’s at Stake?

From the Director…Voice II – Emotion or What’s at Stake?

A few weeks ago, I wrote about Voice, explaining that it’s not just how the characters sound, but how the narrator sounds as well. It’s the Voice in the reader’s head as he’s reading the book.

I said that Voice is a product of Mechanics and Emotion. In that first column, I talked about the mechanical elements of voice: what words are used (diction) and how they are arranged in the sentence (syntax).

Today, I’m going to talk about one of the emotional aspects of Voice called Narrative Tension or What’s at Stake?

The Voice must convey to the reader that this is an important story—a story worthy of his time and effort. To do this, the reader must feel that there is something at stake for the character.

A recurring problem that I see, especially with us “silver” writers who grew up on the classics of the 17th—19th centuries, is the tendency to spend the first pages setting up the story, describing characters, setting, previous histories, etc. We don’t really get the story rolling until several pages in.

But current literary fashion insists that dramatic tension be present from the first page. We must feel that the character is at risk. A perfect life is boring. Without conflict there is no story.

In an attempt to offer a quick fix for this problem, writing programs issue the prescription: begin in a scene, with people saying and doing things. Don’t start with a long narrative discourse. But in the last year I have come to my opinion that you can start anywhere as long as you infuse the first page with narrative tension—the sense that something is at stake.

Is that really true? Do recently published books tie the character to the railroad track on the first page? Well, there are exceptions, especially among established authors who can get away with a lot more than us beginners, but let’s look at books I pulled at random off the section of literary fiction at the Fayetteville Barnes and Noble. I only noted what I could tell from the first two pages of each book

chart 1 chart2 chart3

So except for the three incidents above where I wrote “hmm,” I did, in fact, see that the character was in some sort of danger or quandary or stood to lose something important.

But narrative tension is not just a lot of people running around screaming. In a future column, we will examine how you can amp up the tension to hook the reader in that all-important first page.