Friday, May 16, 2008

The matter of voice

This is from Huckleberry Finn:

Not a sound anywheres -- perfectly still -- just like the whole world was asleep, only sometimes the bullfrogs a-cluttering, maybe. The first thing to see, looking away over the water, was a kind of dull line -- that was the woods on t'other side; you couldn't make nothing else out; then a pale place in the sky; then more paleness spreading around; then the river softened up away off, and warn't black any more, but gray; you could see little dark spots drifting along ever so far away -- trading scows, and such things; and long black streaks -- rafts; sometimes you could hear a sweep screaking; or jumbled up voices, it was so still, and sounds come so far; and by and by you could see a streak on the water which you know by the look of the streak that there's a snag there in a swift current which breaks on it and makes that streak look that way; and you see the mist curl up off of the water, and the east reddens up, and the river, and you make out a log-cabin in the edge of the woods, away on the bank on t'other side of the river...



Fitting the voice to the story is, you would think, one of the easiest things to do, and yet it is one of the faults most commonly found in beginners' writings. We've all read stories where the voice screams out at us as being clearly wrong: child characters projecting abstract, adult thoughts; or characters who are largely painted as being less intelligent suddenly using complex words or imagery or thinking; or characters in a particular situation responding wholly unrealistically. I remember, for example, one story in which a man is propositioned by a young girl – very young, as I recall – and instead of the gamut of emotions which would go through one’s head in such cases – from 'this is my lucky day' through to 'life without parole for kiddy-fiddling', the character stops to tell us how twinkly the stars were that night.

This example, from Mark Twain, is wonderful. Huck Finn, remember, is a lightly educated young man of thirteen or fourteen. But he is an outdoors boy. He knows and understands natural phenomena. Therefore, he can describe them with a skill that I – as a townie – would be unable to. But he doesn't, of course, use fancy language, so everything here is told using very simple words. But think how descriptive it is. Isn't it wonderful? Doesn't it absolutely paint a picture that you can close your eyes and see quite clearly. All from the voice of Huck Finn. Without a single fancy word or any authorial showboating or beginners' trying-too-hard-itis. Brilliant writing.

2 comments:

Jim Murdoch said...

I know it was the style of the time but nowadays that huge sentence would be split up into much shorter sentences and sentence fragments which would be far more in character.

Tom Conoboy said...

Interesting you should say that, Jim. I'm listening to this on talking book at the moment and it was this passage I heard as I was walking to work yesterday. I liked it so much I looked up the text version on the internet at lunchtime.

I, too, was surprised by the semi-colons when i actually read the passage, and thought the same about shorter sentences being more in character, before coming to the same conclusion as you that it was just the style of the time...