WCIT: Voice in The 5th Wave

Welcome to What Can I Take (WCIT) Thursdays, a feature dedicated to looking at our favorite books for tips we writers can take to improve our own writing (or at least get some hints to address those trouble spots). 

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We begin with Rick Yancey's The 5th Wave, of which, as I mentioned in my review of the book on Monday, my favorite part was the writing. Absolutely gorgeous, poetic, and a true delight to read. But, in addition to that, there were two other things about Yancey's writing that really impressed me (and I thought made this book stick out from so many):

1) The way Yancey wove certain phrases and ideas throughout the book, across the multiple perspectives he uses, sometimes using the exact same phrases in a new circumstance to give them a completely different meaning. This repetition also allows him to tie things up rather nicely, while still leaving loose ends for the later books to pick up. Not related to voice, but worth mentioning.

2) Yancey's choice to tell the story through four different voices: Cassie, Zombie, Silencer, and Nugget. This choice isn't in and of itself unusual, but I thought the way he carried it out was (and this is the first things I think we can take from T5W to apply to our own writing). Instead of cycling through the perspectives in a particular order, he picks up a perspective when it is useful for his purposes and drops it when it has fulfilled that purpose. I took a writing class this past semester, and my teacher was always talking about how when we write, we often feel the need to fill the reader in on everythingit's hard to know how much background they need to know for your point to be effectively conveyed, after all. The consequence of that is the reader getting bogged down with unnecessary details. So, my teacher was always encouraging us not to be afraid of just dropping in the information we wanted the reader to know with little to no preamble (adjusting as necessary, of course). Using a phrase or a literary technique when it's useful, and letting it drop when that use has been expended.

Yancey does this beautifully, and he uses it to his advantage to keep tension running high throughout the story. You learn in one section that the army is evil and in the next section, you're thinking, well, maybe not? It's a wonderful tactic that I think is heavily responsible for the book's ability to pull you right into the story so you feel like you're right there next to Cassie as she sleeps in her tent or Zombie as he trains, and you are feeling the same disorientation that the people in this world are experiencing.Who really is the bad guy? This technique really helps this story world come alive for me.

The second thing that I think we can take away from T5W is the distinctiveness of each individual voice. Cassie's voice is very different from Zombie's voice, which is very different from Silencer's voice, which is different than Nugget's voice. When we would switch sections, even before Yancey told us whose head we were in, I could tell. I really respect that, because distinct voices is something I really struggle with in my own writing. What I noticed is you can kind of see how he distinguishes these voices by looking at the choices he makes when constructing his sentences. Cassie's voice is skeptical and sarcastic, but you still feel her teenage girl essence through her use of everyday, teenage vernacular such as creeper, heebie-jeebies, and longer sentences and figurative language. Zombie's, on the other hand, tends to feature shorter, more straightforward sentences, that get to the point. There are fewer memories present in his section, and he speaks like a (non-teenage) young adult, though occasionally, you'll catch flashes of the teenage boy he is. Nugget's is clinical, simple, straight-to-the-point, and Silencer's, matter-of-fact, but tinged with a bit of wonder. Having read the book, I think all of these are perfectly written to express the essence of these characters.

So, how do we copy Yancey? Take a page from his book. Look at the way Cassie relates her experiences versus the way Zombie relates his. Everything from the way you construct a sentence (Is the sentence written in passive or active voice? Is it sarcastically phrased or take-me-at-face-value phrased?) to the words you choose to construct that sentence ("hightailed it" vs. "ran away," "He's creeping me out!" vs. "He was making me nervous.") all reflect your character's personality, circumstances, and experiences. The teacher I mentioned before had us start the class by only writing with simple sentences. It forced us to stop and think about what we actually wanted to say as opposed to thinking about how we wanted to say it, which then made us aware of how we were saying things as he slowly started letting us open up our assignments again to more natural, figurative, complex sentences.

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So what can I take?
  • Only use what you need, when you need it. Don't be afraid to trust the reader.
  • Don't forget the power of the sentence and the things we use to construct them (punctuation included!).
  • Read with a critical eye! If you find a phrase that really strikes you, ask yourself why? You can learn a lot about strong and effective writing when you do that.

Try it out!
Take three characters. Write a short piece in which each one of them recounts the exact same incident from his or her own perspective. Take care to think about how each character might notice certain things over others, the type of language he or she likely to use, and the way he or she tends to express him or herself. (Does she use slang or proper language? Does he tend to ramble or are his observations short and to the point?)

(Writing prompt made by me. Please give due credit if republished.)

Any questions? Comments? Extra tips to add about voice? Share them in the comments! And I'd love to see what you write, so please share it either in the comments or shoot me an email. I might share what I write with you guys too!


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