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How to Mix Voices Like Annie Proulx

How to Mix Voices Like Annie Proulx

A guest post by Joe Bunting 

I was in Kenya when I found it. It was a loaner from a friend, a travel buddy. They couldn’t handle the slow plot, the terse sentences, the overall “literariness” of it. I borrowed it eagerly, reading it in between our jaunts out to the dusty streets lined with dark faces. I read it on a cheap foam mattress on the floor. I read it in our outside “living room” while drinking African chai—so good.

The book spoke to me. I’d never read anything like it. Annie Proulx’s sentences were so simple and yet so beautiful. Like this one, chosen from a random page of her Pulitzer-winning The Shipping News:

The waves came on and on, crests streaked tangerine, breaking, receding with the knock of rolling cobbles. She opened the back of Quoyle’s station wagon and lifted out the dead dog.

I could go through all the reasons why her sentences are wonderful, but it would take too long.

How to Mix Your Character’s Voice with the Narrator’s

Instead, check out how she mixes her character’s thoughts in with her narration. This passage is just before the last quote:

Miles up the coast the aunt looked at wind-stripped shore. As good a place as any. She parked at the top of the dunes and gazed down the shore. Tide coming in. The sun hung on the rim of the sea. Its flattened rays gilded the wet stones. Combers seeth under a strip of corn-yellow sky.

“As good a place as any,” and, “Tide coming in,” are both thoughts of the aunt. Did you notice how she doesn’t use quotation marks or italics, like most authors would? Proulx leaves it to the reader to discern who’s talking.

Here’s another example. See if you can tell which is the author’s voice, and which is the character’s.

Quoyle believed in silent suffering, did not see that it goaded. He struggled to deaden his feelings, to behave well. A test of love. The sharper the pain, the greater the proof. If he could endure now, if he could take it, in the end it would be all right. It would certainly be all right.

Did you figure out which sentences are in Quoyle’s voice? “A test of love,” and everything after. The pronouns don’t change; it’s still “he could endure,” not “I can endure,” but it’s clearly Quoyle’s own self-talk.

Why is this technique so great?

1. It is Elegant

It adds elegance to the prose. There are no silly quotation marks or italics to distract.

2. It is Natural

Think about your own self-talk. You don’t really notice what you’re saying to yourself; you just think. In the same way, by not pronouncing it with punctuation, Proulx imitates how we think.

3. It is Seamless

Finally, it lets her switch back and forth between the character’s voice and the narrator’s voice seamlessly. If she italicized the character’s thoughts, half the page might be filled with italics.


Just like Annie, write about someone on their way to bury their dead dog. What are they thinking? Switch back and forth between narration and the character’s thoughts seamlessly, like Annie does. Write for fifteen minutes.

Good luck! And don’t forget to post your practice in the comments.


Joe Bunting  is a professional writer, editor, ghostwriter. He is the author of the Amazon Bestseller Let’s Write a Short Story: How to Write and Submit a Short Story, and the co-founder of Story Cartel. and The Write Practice. You can follow Joe on Twitter.


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