Dave Marks, National Writing Institute
When very young children tell stories to their parents, they have no idea they are creating a voice with which to tell the story. This means they exert no control over the aspects of their narrative voices. This is fine, but there is a responsibility to writing that verbal story telling doesn’t have. The writer of a story leaves a permanent record and has a continuing responsibility for what it says to subsequent readers. Children have to be told this and have to be taught to select and maintain a consistent set of characteristics for each story’s narrative voice.
The elements of narrative voices can become fairly complicated and should be introduced slowly to young writers. About eight years old is a good time to begin this introduction, and it should be with just one of the choices to begin with. On the next writing of a story, a second element should be introduced to y our child. This should continue until all of the possibilities are introduced, and then it is just a matter of practice with you watching for consistency.
Most homeschooling parents weren’t taught in school to control narrative voice. I know I wasn’t even in graduate school, and it was a mystery to me. So, I have made a chart of the elements of narrative voice that a writer may choose from. In this and subsequent essays, I will introduce these choices one at a time. You can, if you wish to do this with your children of any age, introduce them to these choices in exercises such as I will use to illustrate the functions of the voices.
In a previous essay I introduced you to an exercise working with person, and so will just mention it now. If you missed that essay, you might catch up by starting with the element of person with your children.
An easy way to introduce person to young writers is to have them write directions in how to do something. The first time the directions are written, they should be in third person and the second time the same directions should be in second person and the third time, in first person. This should give your young writers an understanding of how these elements of person work and how they are appropriate for different circumstances.
The narrative voice option an author has with number is an easy choice for a young writer to make. The only problem your child might have with it is consistency of use. Practice will help here. This problem could arise with a misunderstanding of how the narrative voice is using number. In any narrative piece, when the voice uses plural or singular references they don’t always identify the person in which the voice is speaking. An example should help make this clear. In this example I will use a singular number as my narrative voice choice. I will highlight my use of a singular voice and you will see that even so, there is a reference to plural involvement (I will underline these), but the narrative voice will remain singular.
It was a warm night but Bill was wearing his new jacket. He was sure he would not need it, but he was proud of it, for it had been a birthday present from his brothers and sisters.
When he had come downstairs this morning he was surprised that everyone was in the kitchen looking at him. It was then that he noticed the jacket over the back of his chair. His whole family sang “Happy Birthday” to him and their voices made him glad that he was part of such a wonderful group of people.
The use of a plural reference in this example doesn’t mean that the narrative voice choice has changed. The voice is still talking only about Bill. There is reference to his family, but the focus of the narrative voice is on him alone.
I will write the same piece again only using a plural voice. You will see how it changes the focus of the story. Now the narrative voice will be talking about the family as a group and the voice will be using the plural voices choice. I will highlight the use of number again but you’ll see that it is in reverse to the first example.
Bill’s three sisters and one brother were in the kitchen watching breakfast being prepared. They had hung Bill’s new jacket over the back of his chair and they were excited about giving it to him for his birthday. It was an expensive jacket, but they loved him and he really needed a new one. When they heard his footsteps on the stairs, Mom,Dad and the four kids lined up so they could all see Bill when he came into the kitchen and could sing the birthday song to him.
The change of number had radically changed the focus of the narrative. Now it appears to be a story about the family and not just about Bill. Read these two pieces to your children and show them how the narrative voice choice makes the narrative different and why this is so. You might read to them from two or three books and ask them to identify the number the authors chose to use for their narrative voices.
This exercise is an easy one to assign. Ask your children to write short pieces both ways (or all of you do this). One, using singular number for their narrative voices and then to write the same pieces again using plural number for their second efforts. Then watch that they are consistent with their uses of number the next time they write.
~ D. Marks
National Writing Institute