Writing for Middle Grades Part III: Voice

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This may take more than one post. The one thing editors seem to agree about in the subfield of writing for that crucial 8-14 demographic is that the hardest thing to get right is voice. Voice, for my purposes, is point of view, tone, the index of the narrator’s relationship with the reader and one of the book’s most important guides to who the book imagines the reader to be.

First off, let me state the obvious. There are lots of different kinds of middle grades books so there are, necessarily, lots of middle grades voices. Some have that faintly Dickensian tone: omniscient third person, slightly wry, often dark, but touched with wonder and edged with moral authority. This is the voice of fairy story and its contemporary descendents. Here’s an extract from Adam Gidwitz’s wonderful retellings of fairy stories, A Tale Dark and Grimm:

Hansel and Gretel are coming to the hardest part now.

It’s true that they’ve been nearly eaten by a cannibalistic baker woman; and they’ve talked to the fiery sun and to the child-eating moon and to the kind stars; and they’ve journeyed to the Crystal Mountain; and that Gretel has cut off her own finger, and caused somebody to be boiled alive; and that Hansel has been turned into a beast and been shot and skinned and gambled away; and that he went to Hell and dressed up like the Devil’s grandmother; and that he’s been chased by the Devil himself and has held an old man’s hand as he died.

It’s true they’ve done all those things.

But sometimes, coming home is the hardest thing of all.

Wonderful, isn’t it? Clear and hard and precise, gloriously unadorned, uncluttered by character as omniscient narration always is so that story shines through, king of all. It also gleefully violates that literary sacred cow the injunction to show, not tell. True much of what Gidwitz writes here he has shown before, but the baldness of the facts leap out, presented as they are rather than revealed through action. It’s an effective device, I think, and one we should bear in mind, particularly when we finding ourselves meticulously spelling out the way our heroes brush their teeth in the morning. Sometimes telling is not just more efficient than showing, it has more weight. (Gidwitz discusses this device on his terrific website here).

But there are, as the proverb says, many ways to skin a transmogrified child. In the Harry Potter books, for instance, it really is only the beginning of the first book—when we see Dumbledore bringing the infant Harry to his aunt and uncle’s house the night his parents died—that comes close to this technique. Rowling uses the omniscient perspective here in part because the child who is to be the centre of the narrative’s limited third person point of view later is only a baby when “our story” opens. That “our story” is telling because it marks the story AS story, something being constructed and shared with a reader, not a slice of actual life glimpsed through a key hole. This version of story-telling breaks what in the theatre we call the invisible fourth wall.

Harry ages fast, but the voice retains something of its earlier omniscience, initially tracking not Harry but Vernon Dersley through much of the second chapter, shifting to Harry himself only gradually when his status as wizardling is clear. It’s a clever device, because as Harry starts to come into his own as an individual, he also takes over the narrative voice which gets increasingly limited to his perspective. By the mid point of the first book, virtually everything we see in the story we see through his eyes, and that’s how the series stays, showing us only his experiences from his viewpoint. We never ‘head hop’ from Harry to Ron or Hermione’s perspective, and their thoughts and feelings are revealed either through dialogue or Harry’s inferences. Glimpses of characters and events that Harry can’t literally see are virtually banished and where they do exist thay are shown through Harry’s dreams (such as the one at the old Riddle house which opens book four).

The shift is a move away from the fairy story and into something closer to more conventional, more adult fiction, and its one of the ways Rowling claims to root her story in reality, rather thanin  the mythic landscape of fairy story.

My own book is closer to Rowling’s in tone, and is even more rooted in conventional reality: Darwen discovers another world full of strange and dangerous creatures which are all too keen to get out of theirs and into his, but that’s not a world he can live in. He still has to deal with the ordinary stuff of a real school, real friends, real bullies and so on, and at first I worried that the book would sound too adult.

But as I’ve already suggested, voice is about tone and attitude to both the reader and the content, and I found that the adjustment was easier than expected. Rather than point out what I THINK I did, let me offer up a sample here and then respond to comments and queries about the specifics. Next time I’ll extend the coversation about voice to issues of age-appropriate vocabulary. Till then, feel free to share thoughts about what you think characterizes the subgenre about the narrative voice of any middle grades books you’ve read.

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15 comments to Writing for Middle Grades Part III: Voice

  • Unicorn

    I’ve never really thought about whether I’m using the appropriate voice for my YA audience, considering that I’m the same age as they are. I should probably look at it, though. I’m not exactly your typical teen.
    Thanks for the great excerpt and the thought-provoking post. After reading the sample, I’m more eager than ever to get my hands on “Darwen Arkwright and the Peregrine Pact”. I ordered it yesterday, by the way, and I’m looking forward to it :)
    Unicorn

  • Thanks Unicorn. Yes, voice is not so much about matching the age of the writer to the age of the reader than it is the creation of a tonal register and set of assumptions about how genre and relationship with the reader. Hope you enjoy Darwen!

  • MaCrae

    Two days ago I found out that what my story was missing was voice. Up until then I had just plunked out boring omniscient way of explaining things. I had character but other than squishing the odd sentence like “He didn’t like it.” that was awkward and out of place, the voice and story was flat. I’m still gettingn used to it; my writings a bit rough. After I’m used to it I’ll hopefully add age appropriate voice. Which I think is teens and up….?

  • MaCrae,
    you’re not alone. I think voice is one of the hardest things for a writer to master. Try reading aloud whatever books yours is closest to and see if you can capture the feel of them in your own work. Ignore the story (for the purposes of this exercise) and focus on the sound, teh tone, the attitude. Treat the narrative voice as if it’s a character.

  • Hepseba ALHH

    Hey, thank you for sharing this cool introduction with us. I think my favorite line for the voice discussion here was “he supposed they survived pretty well”. To me it really conveys an intelligent person who still has that uncertainty of youth. Also cool the way you set up that close identification with the bird that I’m not sure adults are quite capable of anymore. For my own WIP, I don’t have to worry about trying to fit a voice for a younger audience, but sometimes I think I’ve got the voice down well and sometimes I think it’s all over the place. I guess I’ll see what I get when I get through revisions and get some more polish on it. Do you find that you need to settle into the proper voice right as you’re writing the story, or are you able to smooth some things into the proper tone in revision? Sometimes it seems like voice is more than just sentence level stuff and flows a lot into the sort of orders-of-operations for telling the story…

  • I’ve read a good deal of your work now, A.J. — I’ve read MASK OF ATREUS, both WILL books, and DARWEN, and I can’t tell you how much I admire your facility with voice. You do a lot of things very well as a writer, but I think that voice truly is your greatest gift. My middle grade book, which still needs more revision, suffers because the voice just isn’t right yet. I am better with adult books, which may mean that I should just stick to writing them. I find the challenge of getting that MG voice right both compelling and deeply frustrating. All of this by way of pointing at your post and saying, “Yeah, that.” Thanks.

  • Hep,
    thanks for your comment. I think I probably do both, though the more you work with a book the more naturally the voice comes, minimizing the need for extensive revision. As you suggest, voice affects content and such as well, so I’d be a bit wary of just writing the book in terms of plot etc. and fixing the voice later. You may well find that what you’ve already done doesn’t fit the voice you think you need. Since voice is so tied to perspective the way you say something is going to influence what you say, what the reader experiences. That doesn’t mean you have to nail the voice thing right out of teh gate, but I’d recommend trying to get comfy with it early so you don’t have to think about it quite so much as you go. And in this, writing quickly is probably helpful.

    David,
    that’s so kind of you. Thanks. I need to think more consciously about this stuff so I can try to say more about it. Maybe we can come up with a joimnt exercise or something. For now, I’ll leave it at ‘thanks.’ I’m touched.

  • There are so many different narrative voices in middle-grades fiction that I’ve enjoyed, I’m not sure where to begin! Diana Wynne Jones comes to mind for her fairy-tale-esque, seemingly omniscient, but somehow interpersonal storytelling, which kept me hooked on every line (albeit at arm’s length) through Howl’s Moving Castle, The Dark Lord of Derkholm, and House of Many Ways. The very limited but, nonetheless, sophisticated third-person POV that Philip Pullman assumed in The Golden Compass, which allowed us to journey on the shoulders of Lyra Belacqua from the clandestine halls of an alternative-universe Jordan College to the chilling yet enchanting “North”. But also, the surprisingly down-to-earth, though occasionally tall-telling, first-person of Salamanca Tree Hiddle in both Walk Two Moons and Chasing Redbird by Sharon Creech.

    The thing that all three authors have in common (and the thing that all my favorite storytellers seem to share) is first-rate, sentence-level writing. I agree with David. One of the most standout aspects of all the TK and Will books, and from what I’ve read of Darwen, is the immediately well-established and distinct voices of your respective narrators. I just wanted to add that I think this has everything to do with the great care and skill you have for word choice and composition. [I only say “great care” because I want to believe there was great care and effort involved… because if it is, in fact, just raw/spontaneous talent, then I am aspired and envious!] :)

  • Vyton

    AJ, I agree with David about your facility with voice. I wonder if your theater experience enhances the way you handle voice. As a dramaturg, are you not searching for the voice in the script in order to provide that to the director and cast? And do you think reading epic poetry would provide somewhat the same experience. I’m looking forward to the follow up on your post.

  • Raven,
    I think it’s brilliant that you can identify the feel of so many different authors, and I completely agree that in voice, even more than in other areas of writing, paying attention to the sentence level stuff is of paramount importance. You really can’t control this stuff if your focus is all on large scale issues of plot and scene. And yes, (he says, through blushes) my efforts, such as they are, take great care. Kind of you to mention it.

    Vyton,
    also kind. I do think that being around a lot of theatre (and Shakespeare in particular) does help me think about voice. Plays reinforce the sense that EVERYTHING in story is driven by character, and that even narration of event is loaded with the perspective and feeling of the speaker. Think of the way Gertrude describes Ophelia’s death in Hamlet: such a curiously vivid, romantic and poignant picture that captures the strangeness of the moment while imbuing it with a curious eroticism. It’s just an account of what happened, but it’s loaded with inference and character because it’s spoken by someone. I think all narration aspires to this, even the most distanced 3rd person, where even teh apparent absence of characterization is itself a form of characterization! But I’m getting esoteric and will stop. I think dramayurgs are not so much looking for A voice in the script as helping actors to identify multiple voices, different playable options to increase their range of choices. Either way, yes, I think it helps. And I think you may well find similar things in epic poetry, particularly if you read it aloud. Poetry certainly helps focus attention on the kind of sentence-level writing that Raven references.

  • Vyton

    I think reading poetry aloud is the best way to enjoy it. Even if you read it only to yourself. I would like to see you run with the characterization (and absence thereof) in another post. Thanks again.

  • Hi AJ. Just getting to this, from Shreveport, La, where I spoke to the La. RWA group. What a wonderful group! It was a blast.

    I have always wanted to write YA or MG books, but I never had a young voice even when I was a kid. I *know* that I’d never get it right. Your Darwen’s voice is just perfect. Just enough angst, just enough bravado, just enough yearning and fear and excitement and learning. WELL DONE!

  • AJ, Thanks for not only your interesting post, but the trail of breadcrumbs on the subject as well. I read Gidwitz’s post, too, then followed a link he included to another post on the subject by yet someone else. Fascinating reading; thanks for setting the ball in motion.

  • That’s the researcher in me, Ed :) Glad you found it interesting. Gidwitz seems like a smart cookie.