Sunday, February 01, 2009

Exploring Voice

Thirteen-year-old Josh Greenwood, the main character in Shelley Pearsall’s new novel, All Shook Up, has a problem.

His grandmother is ill, and his mother flies off to Florida to take care of her, shipping Josh from Boston to Chicago, where his father lives and where Josh definitely does not want to be, especially after he discovers his father doing Elvis impersonations in order to make a living after losing his job at a shoe store.

How is Josh supposed to show his face in his new school if the other students ever find out his father's making a fool of himself?

Here’s Josh trying to explain, mid-way through the story, how he feels to his father:
After that, my voice began to grow less sorry and more angry. It was like another thirteen-year-old suddenly took over my body: Josh Greenwood, Now Being Played by His Evil Twin. “Everybody thinks I can handle anything. No problem–send Josh to a new city or a new school or whatever, he’ll be fine, right?”

My voice rushed on, gathering steam. “Then, just when he’s starting to fit in with people and he’s made, like, two or three friends...why not have his dad go ahead and screw it all up? Because Josh can handle anything, right? Don’t even bother asking Josh his opinion– ”

“What?” my dad interrupted, sounding completely surprised and confused. “What have I messed up? Tell me.”

This was the point when one of those possessed, forced laughs came out. “Jeez, Dad, how can you not see it?” My voice rose, sounding embarrassingly like a girl’s at one point. “Walking around pretending you’re Elvis and buying thousand-dollar costumes–that’s normal? And then you go and sign up to be Elvis at my school? I mean, what do you think I’d be upset about?”
How does Pearsall use voice to draw readers into Josh's world?

First, there’s the voice of the narrator. It’s Josh’s voice, describing how he feels about his own voice, which is an interesting way to reveal character. As a result, we get an insider's view of the picture, hearing his voice the way he hears it.

Hearing that voice, that interior voice, lets us know Josh on a deeper level. It's what gives us a clearer understanding of Josh's emotional state, which isn't just anger, it's more than anger, as if “another thirteen year old suddenly took over my body: Josh Greenwood, Now Being Played by His Evil Twin.”

This layer adds a new perspective and lets us see Josh viewing his life as if it's a horror movie. It's the perfect way to draw a reader deeper into Josh's emotional vortex because it depicts exactly how Josh feels at this point–as if he actually is playing the lead role in a horror movie.

Then we get the chance to hear not only Josh’s interior voice but his actual voice so that we can evaluate the anger for ourselves. Once Josh's voice appears in quotes on the page, we know not just what’s going on inside him and how he hears himself, but how he sounds to the rest of the world and to his dad in particular.

“Everybody thinks I can handle anything. No problem–send Josh to a new city or a new school or whatever, he’ll be fine, right?”

The sarcasm, tinged with anger and blame, comes from Josh's desire to make sure his father understands just the opposite of what he’s saying: maybe he can’t handle anything, and everybody’s wrong; he isn’t fine.

Notice how in the second paragraph his voice rushes on because he can’t control the anger that’s bubbling up inside him. He's been left out of the decision-making process. It’s his life. Shouldn't he have been included? Instead, he has to put up with his mom and dad shaking up his life.

What does Josh want? He wants to live a normal life, the same as everyone else, which is to say, ordinary and under the radar, where most teens his age prefer to live.

Yet Dad’s totally clueless, unsure what he’s done wrong, unable to see the problem that Josh has with him dressing up as Elvis. For Dad, impersonating Elvis is simply a way to make a living, and, surprisingly, he enjoys it.

But it's precisely Dad’s blindness that causes Josh’s anger to boil over. His voice rises until it sounds almost like a girl’s as he attempts to explain the situation to his dad in the most sarcastic tone possible, assigning blame even as he begs for sympathy, and posing the ultimate in sarcastic questions: what do you think I’d be upset about?

What’s wonderful about the way Pearsall uses voice in this excerpt and throughout the book is how she shows us a character from the inside–using voice intonations, interior thoughts, self reflection–as well from the outside as other characters see and hear him.

By constantly shifting the camera’s eye so that first it’s inside Josh, then outside him, always pointing to something else, revealing something the reader hasn’t yet seen, Pearsall is able to bring her character to life in the reader's mind.

The next time that you’re working on a story and struggling with a character, listen closely to his or her voice... and see if you can record not only how the voice sounds to other characters but how that voice sounds inside the head of your character.

Imagine a video camera trained on your character. You’re the director behind the camera. What do you see and hear?

Now imagine the camera inside your character . (You’re still behind the camera, seeing and hearing everything through its lens). What do you see and hear now?

If you have a moment or two, share what you discover with us at Wordswimmer.

For more on voice and character development, take a look at:

For more on Shelley Pearsall and her work, visit:

And for more on All Shook Up, visit:

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