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Friday, October 09, 2015


Friday Speak Out!: Voiceless in Storyland

by Elizabeth Harris

Imagine you’re in a mixed-gender group of writers and we’re talking about omniscience. I suggest that you each write the first page of a story as an omniscient author who openly expresses his/her own views of it—Jane Austen’s kind of omniscient author. My totally unscientific prediction—from experience—is, about a third of writers will inadvertently write from a different perspective, the third-person intimate, that of a single character. And more of that third will be women than men.

Most women writers are good at empathizing with characters: some men can’t imagine why anybody would do anything. But women tend to disappear into their characters, maybe hide in them. Men find it easier to speak out in a voice that acknowledges their presence and pretends to omniscience.

Writing as an omniscient author is a way to explore your own voice. It can haul you out of your characters, invite you to speak as a fictional “self” of your own. And— the best part—if you don’t like how “you” sound, you can change it by tinkering with your author’s attitude or style. The authorial narrator is not you: she’s a creation of yours.

If you’re up for this exercise, choose an omniscient passage where the author seems strongly present. Maybe the beginning of Pride and Prejudice or Toni Morrison’s Beloved or Alice Munro’s “The Love of a Good Woman.” Copy it out, in longhand (if you’re a purist) or (if you’re bionic like me) on the keyboard, noticing things.

Where does the voice of the author speak clearly, offering opinions, judgments, or explanations? At what points does she enter the perspective of a character or a group? At what points does she pull out afterwards to her own perspective or zoom into another character’s? At those points, watch where the “camera” of the story is pointing and whose eye—character’s or author’s—seems to be behind it.

Where does the author do other things that, in life, nobody reliably can? Maybe she says what a character doesn’t think (“it never occurred to him.”). Or sees ahead in time (“later, she would understand”). Or sees actions happening simultaneously in different places (“while he was trying to rob the bank, his children were at school, cutting angels out of silvery paper”). The omniscient author you’ll create could do any or none of these.

After saving a copy of your copy, revise the passage in some consistent way, changing the author’s attitude, to get a different tone (Jane Austen as a meanie?); or style (Jane Austen as street?) to get a more casual or contemporary effect. (Been done, I know.)

Then write an omniscient authorial voice of your own. Maybe try it on a story set over a long period or in widely separated places; it makes transitions easy. Maybe try jazzing around with it; it’s so flexible. You may find a story you couldn’t tell in a narrower voice.

You may find more. A newly freed voice may say the unexpected.

* * *
Elizabeth Harris is winner of the University of Iowa Press award for short stories. Her debut novel, Mayhem: Three Lives of a Woman, releases October 5, 2015.

Would you like to participate in Friday "Speak Out!"? Email your short posts (under 500 words) about women and writing to: marcia[at]wow-womenonwriting[dot]com for consideration. We look forward to hearing from you!

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