One of the trickiest challenges writers face when beginning a new project is figuring out the main character’s voice. Will the narrative be told in first person or third? Past or present? How will the narrative sound? What will the tone be?
One technique writers can use is giving their narrator an audience: thinking through who their narrator is “talking to” and how that audience can shape the narrative in interesting ways. Veera Hiranandani uses this technique beautifully in her Newbery Honor winning novel The Night Diary, our February Middle Grade at Heart pick.
In The Night Diary, which is set in 1947, twelve-year-old Nisha, who is half-Hindu and half-Muslim, tells the story of what happens to her and her family after India splits in two, so that Hindus have to live in India and Muslims have to live in what has become Pakistan. Each night, Nisha writes in her diary, addressing each entry to her mother, who died giving birth to her and her twin brother. The choice to frame Nisha’s story as nightly diary-letters to her mother is effective for many reasons, and we’ll look at a few of those reasons here.
1.) The narrative structure leads to a very intimate tone that draws readers right in. Take a look at this passage in which Nisha directly addresses her mother:
But here is the question that is most on my mind. I’m afraid to say it, even afraid to write it down. I don’t want to think about the answer, but my pencil needs to write it anyway: If you were alive, would we have to leave you because you are Muslim? Would they have drawn a line right through us, Mama? I don’t care what the answer is. We came from your body. We will always be a part of you, and this will always be my home even if it’s called something else.
Consider the vulnerability and urgency in this passage. It’s impossible not to love and understand Nisha because we get invited so deeply into her heart and mind. This intimate tone would be very difficult to achieve if Nisha’s mother were not her imagined audience. All of Nisha’s complicated, tender feelings toward her mother imbue the storytelling with such beautiful emotion.
2.) The narrative structure fits Nisha’s character and the novel’s themes. Nisha has a very hard time talking to most people. Her struggles with speaking up are an important element of her story. That means that the narrative structure doesn’t feel at all like a gimmick; it enhances the story’s plot and emotional arc, and it feels right. The fact that Nisha can be so articulate in her diary-letters makes it all the more devastating when she is unable to form the sentences she wants to say in the scenes she describes. We learn a lot about Nisha and what she needs when we see how relieved she is when she is able to write about her often traumatic experiences every night; we see how desperately she needs a certain type of connection and we long for her to get it.
3.) The diary format highlights the timeline of the book. Because Nisha is writing in dated entries, we see just how quickly huge changes are happening. Veera Hiranandani is also able to emphasize how traumatized Nisha is (but in a gentle way that is very appropriate for middle-grade readers) by showing that sometimes days pass and Nisha is unable to write because she needs time to begin to recover from horrific events.
We’d love to know what else you notice about the impact of this narrative structure as you read The Night Diary, and we’d love to know about any other books you love that use a diary or letter format effectively! Our newsletter about The Night Diary will go out on February 25th, so be sure to subscribe if you haven’t already, and our Twitter chat about the book will be on Tuesday, March 5th at 8pm EST. We hope you can join us.