Narrative voice is like a car. Grammar is the frame and hoses and moving parts. Style is the result of choices that define the characteristics of an individual car. You can jack up a Wrangler to make it climb rocks. You can add a spoiler for whatever it is you think it does. Custom paint jobs, modified engines, daisy headlamps all tailor the look or performance of the car. Language is flexible and expandable, and some people are fond of saying there are no rules. But hold ’er, Newt. I’m not one of those.
Narrative Voice and the Anti-Existentialism of Grammar
The rules of grammar exist to give structure to language. A writer may bend or modify a rule, but only as long as the remaining structure better serves the narrative voice.
Her head moved just enough to swirl her black page-boy hair and the look she sent back to all those good people and their white-haired guardian of the law was something to be remembered. For one long second she had the judge’s eye and outraged justice flinched before outraged love. (Spillane)
…as he perceived, these shrewd people had quite made up their minds that she was going too far….Winterbourne wondered how she felt about all these cold shoulders turned towards her, and sometimes it annoyed him to suspect that she did not feel at all. … Then at other moments he believed that she carried about in her elegant and irresponsible little organism a defiant, passionate, perfectly observant consciousness of the impression she produced. (James)
As writers, Mickey Spillane and Henry James could not have much more different narrative voices. For Spillane, the shortest distance is a straight line—that’s all a bullet needs to get to the point. He didn’t waste ink over commas unless he needed them. James was a punctuation opportunist, delivering the complexity of thought in kibbles and bits. Wheels within wheels. Grammatically, however, both of these passages are sound and solidly orthodox. Let’s mess up one line of James:
…as he perceived these shrewd people quite made up their mind about her going too far.
James had it his way. But it could also be edited to:
… he perceived that these shrewd people had quite made up their minds that she was going too far.
…as he perceived, these shrewd people had quite made up their minds about her: She was going too far.
These edits result in a change in narrative voice and style. A really presumptuous edit might inadvertently change the meaning as well:
…he watched as this crowd of shrewd people quite made up its mind that she had gone too far.
Style-Driven Modifications: High-Performance or Just Noisy
If a liberty taken with a grammatical rule results in confusion or misdirection, then it isn’t a matter of style—the writer has simply fouled up his vehicle’s performance.
Ed walked out. Dawn up: fresh light on a mob scene. Patrolmen held back reporters; rubberneckers swarmed. Horns blasted; motorcycles ran interference: meat wagons cut off by the crowd. Ed looked for high brass; newsmen shouting questions stampeded him.
In L.A. Confidential, James Ellroy used a narrative voice pared down to the skeletal. He wanted to reflect the fast, hard, sharp-edged perceptions of his characters (including the narrator), who operate in a violent, harshly lit landscape. These people don’t have time to pad out their thoughts with genial filler.
Ed walked out. Dawn was up: It cast a fresh light on what had become a mob scene. Patrolmen held back reporters;, and rubberneckers swarmed. Horns blasted; as motorcycles ran interference: for the meat wagons, which were being cut off by the crowd. Ed looked for any of the high brass who might be around; but while he was looking, newsmen shouting questions stampeded him.
To convey a rush of impressions, Ellroy simply left out all the words that weren’t necessary to carry the expression of more complete sentences. The essential grammatical structure remained intact despite the elided bits. This is not the same as throwing the rules out and letting the words fall as they may. Ellroy’s prose are crisp and brilliantly clear. The same could not be said if he had written “Running interference with motorcycles, the meat wagons were cut off by the crowd,” which dangles ugly and undignified in its confusion. Or even “Patrolmen held back reporters; rubberneckers swarming. Horns blast; motorcycles run interference: meat wagons cut off by the crowd”—which is just narrative confetti, lacking the immediacy of Ellroy’s construction.