This is an excercise I’ve used in a unit on autobiographical writing with first year students at the University of Portsmouth. Finding the right narrative voice is one of the most important things when writing a story because it’s the voice that first draws the reader in and makes them want to continue. Fictionalising autobiographical events is often difficult, especially for young writers, because they generally want to tell the story from their own point of view. This exercise is meant to help them discover a range of different voices, with different perspectives, and to realise the subtle differences each voice brings to the story.
Over the years, our perspective on childhood memories changes. As we get older, we become privy to information and insight that we didn’t have at the time: we get a more complete understanding of the circumstances surrounding events in our past and we usually acquire a broader, more objective point of view. In narratives from the child’s point of view, the child is usually centre of the action, as either witness or perpetrator. A child’s eye is limited to what he or she sees at the time or knows from experience.
An Exercise in Four Parts
1) Writing in the first person, past tense, recount an incident from your childhood, from the perspective of the child you were at the time. Try to get back into the skin of your former self and experience the world as you did then. Pay particular attention to the narrator’s voice – remember that the language employed by a child narrator will differ to that of an adult.
2) Now, rewrite this incident in first person, present tense – as if the incident is happening at this very moment and you are that child again. Make the reader experience the same sensations, and see the same things your narrator does.
3) Taking the same incident, write a brief passage from your adult perspective. Think about the things you know now about the circumstances connected to this incident, things you weren’t aware of at the time. How does the voice alter? Is it less agitated, more understanding, angrier, philosophical?
4) Lastly, using a third person narrator, recount these events a final time. Your narrator may or may not be part of the action. He/she can be a dispassionate witness, empathise with the protagonist, or be out to stir up trouble. Each of these scenarios will change the way the narrator tells the story.