Fifteen minutes long, because you're in a hurry, and we're not that smart.

19:12: A Close Reading on Voice – Red’s Perspective – Muscular Prose

Today, we are doing a very close read of Red’s opening narration and how Red’s voice communicates both character and world in an effective and efficient way. We read several sections aloud and dive into what each sensory detail is doing. Also Mary Robinette talks about what she thinks is the most effective way to draw your readers attention to something. 

Thing of the Week: Planet Crafter 

Homework: Take a sentence from your work in progress and rewrite it to adjust the age of the character to make them a child. Do it again to make them from a different region. And again to give them a different profession.

Credits: Your hosts for this episode were Mary Robinette Kowal, DongWon Song, Erin Roberts, Dan Wells, and Howard Tayler. It was produced by Emma Reynolds, recorded by Marshall Carr, Jr., and mastered by Alex Jackson.

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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key Points: Muscular prose. Use repetition to draw the reader’s attention. Pacing, accent, attitude, experience. Focus, how long do you linger on something. Free indirect speech versus reported speech. Filtering words. Thematically important. Removing ambiguity or adding emphasis. Look at the techniques you’re using, deliberately or accidentally, and see if they give the effect you want. Switching POV during a scene without a scene break.

[Transcription note: I have tried to get the quotes from the book correct, however, I may have made mistakes. Please refer to the book if you want the exact wording!]

[Season 19, Episode 12]

[Mary Robinette] This episode of Writing Excuses has been brought to you by our listeners, patrons, and friends. If you would like to learn how to support this podcast, visit

[Season 19, Episode 12]

[Mary Robinette] This is Writing Excuses.

[DongWon] A Close Reading on Voice – Red’s Perspective – Muscular Prose.

[Mary Robinette] 15 minutes long.

[Erin] Because you’re in a hurry.

[Howard] And we’re not that smart.

[Mary Robinette] I’m Mary Robinette.

[DongWon] I’m DongWon.

[Erin] I’m Erin.

[Howard] I’m Howard.

[Mary Robinette] We’re going to be talking about muscular prose, which is one of my favorite things. One of the things that I want us to start with is actually listening to the first 3 paragraphs of Time War. The reason we’re going to dive into this is that they’re doing so much heavy lifting in communicating both character and world through the language and choices that they’re making here. So…

“When Red wins, she stands alone.

Blood slicks her hair. She breathes out steam in the last night of this dying world.

That was fun, she thinks, but the thought sours in the framing. It was clean, at least. Climb up time’s threads into the past and make sure no one survives to muddle the futures her Agency’s arranged – the futures in which her Agency rules, in which Red herself is possible. She’s come to knot this strand of history and sear it until it melts.”

[Mary Robinette] So, here are the things that she… That is happening here. First of all, we have this sense of the character. “When Red wins, she stands alone.” This is someone who is a singular entity. We know that this is someone who enjoys carnage. “Blood slicks her hair.” “That was fun.” These are things that are conveyed in the text very quickly, very efficiently. Then this thing about “muddle the futures her Agency’s arranged, the futures in which her Agency rules, in which Red herself is possible.” This begins to tell you, oh, here we have the Time War that we’re talking about. Then we got… We have the goal. That she is, among other things, trying to ensure her own existence. All of this is being conveyed in a very compressed, very tight way, but also has this… Has these rhythms to it. The repetition, the intentional repetition of “to muddle the futures her Agency’s arranged, the futures in which her Agency rules.” That repetition… Repetition is one of the most powerful tools you can use to draw the reader’s attention to a thing.

[DongWon] One of the things I love, and you mentioned this very briefly, but the way rhythm is used in this. Right? Because you have this thing that starts with “When Red wins, she stands alone.” Right? So you have this very brief sentence. Then you get to “She breathes out steam in the last night of this dying world,” which is… You can almost feel the exhalation in that breath, because the way you would read that out is in a long exhalation. You have these very sensory, relatively brief things that are very rooted in the body. Then it gets to what you were talking about in terms of describing the Time War, this climbing time’s threads and it kind of goes on in rambling, it reverses on itself, it repeats itself, and you almost feel the thing that Red loves, which is battle and doing these things and feeling the blood in her hair is disrupted by the mess of the Time War. Right? This complicated braided thread that she has to deal with over and over again, that gets in the way of what she’s trying to do, which is enjoy life. Right? I love the tension that is already being communicated through voice at the core of this character, and is the thing that’s going to drive her through so much of this book, of her desire to do a good job and to accomplish mission versus her frustration with the Agency and its overall plan for her.

[Mary Robinette] You can hear that in that 2nd thing about “That was fun, she thinks, but the thought sours in the framing.” This is something that she has enjoyed in the past. There’s an almost… This is a thought that I’ve had multiple times, that was fun. But something has… She’s losing interest and excitement in it.

[Erin] Yeah. I really like… I feel that tension a lot in the… There’s a lot of violent verbs, like, there are a lot of, like, very strong, very active verbs throughout this that are… You’re nodding, in… Searing… There’s a lot of… Everything feels very active. But even in that sentence, “She’s come to knot this strand of history and sear it until it melts.” Those are very strong verbs. But “She’s come to” sets it back. It’s not like “She knots.” Like, there is a little bit of a… Okay, there’s a little bit of distance in the sentence itself, in the voice itself, where it is I am doing these acts of violence, but I am also slightly observant of them. Slightly looking at what I do as I do it. That, I think, is what allows room for that tension between the environment and the feeling of unease about that enjoyment or about the work itself.

[Howard] It’s also worth pointing out that throughout the book we will see Red associated with things that are red, and Blue associated with things that are blue. In the first 2 lines, “When Red wins, she stands alone. Blood slicks her hair.” we have the word Red, and we have the word blood, and the way the text is laid out, they’re actually one almost directly above the other. That’s a very subtle signaling for what is going to happen for the rest of the book. At the bottom of page 1, 

“After a mission comes a grand and final silence. Her weapons and armor fold into her like roses at dusk.”

[Howard] Now we have a much more subtle… The first of the I am Red, therefore I do things with red things, the very first of those moments. On a reread or on a re-re-read of this text, you will find this everywhere. You will find new words for red things.


[DongWon] It becomes an explicit game throughout the book, of trying to come up with more synonyms for red, and more synonyms for blue, that the characters are playing, and that’s where the playfulness comes in. That’s also one thing I want to point out here, is that this… The tone of this is so serious and so dramatic. Right? We have this image of this woman, whose body is strange in this moment before it folds back in on itself, literally holding a corpse in one hand, celebrating her victory. But there’s also a playfulness to it. Right? That Red and blood, the searing of the strand, like, all this imagery, there’s a little bit of a… I… You can feel the writer saying to you a little bit, I’m having a really good time right now, and you’re going to have a good time with me. We are doing it. I think that comes through in a way that is really delightful and invites the reader immediately to, hey, play with me in this space here.

[Mary Robinette] It’s also, I have to say, one of the things that I particularly love about that sentence is that it contains this… This very tiny hint of foreshadowing. Because Red is coming from the Agency which is all mechanical things, and ultimately is going to be seduced, and seducer is someone who comes from the Garden. So, this first introduction of, like, roses at dusk, that’s also this first moment where… It’s foreshadowing that roses and gardening things can be attractive. That, I find really really lovely and very subtle. One of the other things that I want to pause for is to just reiterate that some of the tools we’re looking at our pacing, accent, attitude, and experience. You can see that in all of these, that her experience is coloring the way she is looking at things. But the other thing that is happening in this is something that I call focus. Which is how long you linger on something. The longer you linger on it… If you think about it as looking at something in real life, the longer you linger on it, the more important it is. So, it’s one of the ways that you can focus the reader’s attention on things that are important. You choose where to put that. Frequently, when you see something that’s got purple prose, they’re putting those emphasis points at everything instead of just at the important things. So, the example that I have of this is, again, the “Her weapons and armor fold into her like roses at dusk.” Then, because weapons and armor are extremely important, we emphasize this by continuing to talk about them. “Once flaps of pseudo skin settle and heal, and the programmable matter of her clothing knits back together, Red looks again something like a woman.” A woman, her appearance is the least important part of that. The thing that is important to Red is her armor. So that’s where all the emphasis comes, that’s where the focus is, that’s where all of the flourishes are in the text, to focus the reader on the thing that is most important to this character.

[DongWon] It’s interesting. I’ve never read a book where I feel so deeply attached to the characters. But I have no mental image of what these 2 women look like. I don’t know what Red looks like, I don’t know what Blue looks like. I have no conception of them other than literally a red shape in my mind and a blue shape in my mind. Yet, they feel like such thoroughly realized characters. Right? In part, that is part of the playfulness that they’re doing here. There’s a hint that Red has an actual name at some point. That’s mentioned explicitly, but we only know of her as Red. We only know her as this abstraction. Yet because the voice is telling us none of these other things matter, here’s what matters about Red is that she is red and she is a woman. Right? That’s the information we need to know. Then we’re off to the races. There’s so much clarity to that and the voices part of how that’s being reinforced to us over and over again.

[Mary Robinette] So, I think this is a great point to pause. Then when we come back, we’re going to look at some other examples of the way they are manipulating voice to establish who these characters are and what the world looks like.

[Howard] This episode of Writing Excuses has been sponsored by Better Help. You know that puzzle with the eggs and the sand and the jar? If you pour the sand in first, the eggs won’t fit, so you put the eggs in first, then pour the sand around them. It’s a metaphor about making time for what matters in life. If you’re like me, you may need someone to help you label the things you’re trying to fit into the jar of your life, and then assist with some of the finer points of… And I’m going to stretch the metaphor here a bit… Placing the eggs in the jar without breaking them. Yeah. A therapist. Better Help makes it easy to find and meet a therapist. Fill out the online questionnaire and Better Help will match you up with a licensed therapist with whom you can connect via messages, chat, phone, or video. Getting help getting everything into the jar may seem like one more thing you need to get into the jar, which is exactly why Better Help makes it easy. Learn to make time for what makes you happy. Visit today to get 10% off your first month. That’s better help…

[Howard] I love sandbox games. Especially those that let me build things. When I’m building, I really really don’t want to be interrupted by combat. So. Let me tell you about Planet Crafter from Miju Games. It’s a first person sandbox survival game in which your objective is to build things to transform… No, to terraform the world to which you have been banished. Your only enemy in this endeavor is you. You, and your own overestimation of how far you can go on one tank of oxygen. I put at least 40 hours into this game during early access in 2023, and I’m happy to recommend it to you.

[Mary Robinette] So, now, let’s look at some really specific examples.

[DongWon] One thing I really love about how the voice operates here is the authors managed to make a clear distinction between what is narration and what is internal thoughts to the character. That is not indicated at all in any way in the typography of the text. Usually, if you were like slipping into the character’s internal perspective, you’d have italics or quotes or something like that. Instead, this is very fluid. So, the example that I’m thinking of comes very early. It’s in that 3rd paragraph. Or first paragraph. She’s holding the corpse. It says,

“She let’s go and the exoskeleton clatters against rock. Crude technology. Ancient. Bronze to depleted uranium. He never had a chance.”

[DongWon] What I love about this is it goes from full sentences which are the narration into these very clipped and abrupt thoughts that most of the time don’t even have verbs. You get the sense of this is Red’s internal monologue, of just utter contempt and dismissal of things that aren’t important to her. Her thoughts are so brief and abrupt, and this is… Again, getting into this idea of what is muscular prose, we get a sense of a character who is so forceful, so abrupt and straightforward and violent, even and how she thinks. Right? We see a little bit of that again later, when she’s contemplating the letter. We have this moment where once she finds the letter, it says,

“She thirsts for contact, for a new more worthy battle. But she’s alone with the corpses, and the splinters, and the letter her enemy left. It is a trap, of course.”

[DongWon] It’s like the “It is a trap” again feel so much like Red’s internal thoughts interjecting into our experience of the flow of the world.

[Howard] Here’s another good example of this, just on page 2.

“She paces the battlefield. Seeking, making sure.

She has won, yes, she has won. She is certain she has one. Hasn’t she?”


[Howard] That transition from I am watching you stalk across the battlefield in 3rd person to I am inside your head, riding this question mark with you, is seamless.

[Mary Robinette] This, mechanically, is something called free indirect speech. Popularized by Jane Austen.


[Mary Robinette] But it’s where you take the character’s thoughts and you put them directly into the narration. There’s also reported thought, which we have earlier in the 2nd paragraph… That first page with, “That was fun, she thinks.” That’s a reported thought. Reported speech. For me, the difference between when you make the decision on how to use these is that free indirect causes all of the narration to become directly linked to the character. So the reader then is spending time with the character. But when you go to reported speech, it creates a distance between the narration and the character, because there’s a distinction about which one is happening. That can sometimes cause the rest of the narration to become slightly distanced for the reader. So what I find is that if I want the reader to come in closer, that I will use free indirect speech, but if I want them to be a little bit distant, then I will often go to that reported speech or, if I want to remove any ambiguity about the fact that this is a thought that the character has in exactly those words.

[Erin] Yeah. I often… Talking about the difference between these made me think about filtering words, which are things like she thinks or she saw or… If you say, “She saw him across the room,” you’re reminding me that there is a character experiencing this versus, like, “There he was across the room.” Then I’m inside the thoughts, it feels a little bit more immediate. I think what’s interesting is this is one of those times in which, sometimes I’ve seen people say, you don’t want filtering words in your prose. I hate don’ts in writing advice. Because, really, it’s you want to figure out when, like you’re saying, you want to create that distance. When is it important to know that someone is watching someone else? When is that part of what you’re trying to be creating on the page, and when do you want to be immediate?

[Mary Robinette] Yeah.

[Erin] That’s why I love seeing it here, because it really shows when those transitions are happening.

[DongWon] Yeah.

[Erin] What they’re actually doing for you as a reader, how they’re making you lean in and when they’re allowing you space to kind of lean back.

[Howard] Can I ask a dumb question. I’m sorry. You said when I want them to be close, when I want them to be farther away. When do you want that?

[Mary Robinette] This is a good question. I think that what you’re looking for our… And again, this gets into there’s another question behind it, but things that are thematically important. So, things that are thematically important, where you want the reader to really be there with you, those are the ones where you’re going to want them to lean in, where you want them to embody. You can think about unpacking versus compressing. The things that are not thematically important, things you need to kind of skid past, those are the ones where your… It’s like, okay, we can give you a little bit of distance here. They walked down the hallway. It’s like we don’t experience any of the walking down the hallway, we just transition there.

[DongWon] What I love about this case is the one time we do see that sort of reported address is it’s a lie. It’s explicitly a lie. Right? She says, “That was fun, and then the thought sours.” We understand immediately that that is not a real thought that Red is having. That is a thing that is injecting that distance, that we have the perspective on her, and then that parallax lets us understand, oh, wait, Red is somebody else.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah.

[DongWon] That’s when we get the direct later… Or the sort of… Free indirect?

[Mary Robinette] Free indirect.

[DongWon] Thank you. When we get that later, it is so much closer to who she is as a true person.

[Mary Robinette] Well, the other thing is… And this gets back to Howard’s question. The other reason that the thing that’s happening with that “That was fun”. When you want to remove an ambiguity or add emphasis so, at the beginning, there is ambiguity, because we don’t know Red yet. So if that were just…

“Blood slicks her hair. She breathes out steam in the last night of this dying world.

That was fun. It was clean at least.”

[Mary Robinette] There’s no, like, that’s a very different experience than “That was fun, she thinks.”

[DongWon] Yeah.

[Mary Robinette] Again, that adding emphasis of the… There’s a distance there, but it also removes the ambiguity. So I think it’s doing 2 things at the same time. I will also say, readers, that when you’re listening to us talk about these deliberate choices, that very often if we talk to the author about it, the author will be like, “Oh. I did? Right?”


[Mary Robinette] So, just because we’re talking about this tool that you can use and look at how they did this does not necessarily mean that they were thinking about it consciously.

[Howard] One of the best pieces of advice I ever got, I got indirectly from our very own Mary Robinette Kowal. When someone approaches you and says, “I love the way you use…” for instance “free indirect speech in order to draw me into this character during their scary walk down that hallway,” and you don’t remember actually writing that, you smile and nod and say, “Thank you so much for noticing.”

[DongWon] I will save Max is an infuriating writer to work with because every time I do say something like that, he says, “Oh, good, you noticed that.”


[Mary Robinette] Yeah.

[Erin] But I would say sometimes what you can do is look at the effect of something. So, one way these tools are great is if you’re like, “Wow. I thought I wrote this really emotional moment, but when I’m giving it to beta readers, or reading it back, I feel like there’s this weird space between the characters. I feel like people aren’t getting the emotions. They feel really removed.” It’s to be like, “Oh, well. What type of speech am I using? Maybe I am using, like, filtering words, maybe I am sitting further back.” Then you can look for the techniques that you may have used accidentally and say, like, “Do I want to shift that technique? Because the effect that it’s having is not the one that I was looking for.”

[Mary Robinette] Yeah. Also, like, one of the things that you can do to tie the reader closer to the emotion is to put that free indirect speech in. I find that there is the body language and then there’s the motivation behind the body language. So, I will often put the… That character thought in there when the body language itself is ambiguous. It’s like, “Oh, let me explain why this thing is happening.” But by putting it part of the narration in the character’s voice, in the character’s emotion, it looks like… Instead of me saying this is why they did this thing, it’s like, oh, now we’re experiencing it with the character. I’m masking it in a way.

[Howard] The nice thing about writing as opposed to say tennis, off the top of my head, is that when you get it wrong, when you miss the ball completely or hit the net, you get to rewrite it.


[Mary Robinette] Yes. Yes.

[Howard] You get to learn from the mistakes, so that when it actually goes to the wide audience, the serves are perfect. They… There’s no nets, it’s just… It’s right on the line. I don’t play tennis. I don’t know what these things are called.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah.

[DongWon] One other section I want to talk about before we end this episode is there’s another shift in voice in this chapter. So, right towards the end, we lose Red’s perspective. Red leaves the scene. Then we get a shift in the voice, where it goes to Seeker. What I love about this is it’s once again indicating the playfulness that were going to encounter over and over in the book. But also the way the authors are using voice to communicate the central plot question. Right? One of the main mystery threads pulling us through the book is what the hell is Seeker, what’s going on there, what keeps happening at the end of these scenes? So we have this shift from Red’s voice, which we’ve talked about, to this different perspective.

“The planet waits for its end. Vines live, yes, and crickets, though no one’s left to see them but the skulls.

Rain clouds threaten. Lightning blooms in the battlefield goes monochrome.”

[DongWon] Literally, we’re losing color, we’re losing that like abrupt muscular perspective, and receding into something that has more distance from the scene and something that has a longer timescale, and has more emotion and relaxation almost in it, like, we’re letting the planet die, we’re stepping back from these moments literally.

“The letter’s cinders die.

The shadow of a broken gunship twists.”

[DongWon] It’s like all these images that are slower and calm her, but also more mysterious. That shift invoice and tone is such a signal to the reader that something else is going on. It’s the author raising a big flag and saying, “Hey. Pay attention to this. We’re doing something different for a second here.” It’s a wonderful use of the way you can use voice to communicate tons of information that isn’t just mood or setting, but is like, hey, this is plot. Pay attention, this is plot right here.

[Mary Robinette] You’ll also often hear… I’m glad you brought this up. One of the rules that you will hear people tell you is that you’re not allowed to switch POV during a scene without a scene break. That’s not true. You just have to be really clear about the fact that it is happening. One of the things that mechanically happens here is that Red leaves. It just says Red leaves, and we stay there. So if you think about it as a camera, the camera is still in place. One actor leaves, another enters the scene. So you can absolutely do that. I can think of multiple examples in published fiction, not just here.

[Howard] It’s called 3rd person cinematic. It’s… Literally. Because camera.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah.

[Howard] You mentioned Seeker and this shift, the plot hook at the end of this chapter… Are we getting ready for homework?

[Mary Robinette] Yeah.

[Howard] Can I read this last bit? Okay.

“The world cracks through the middle.

The ash becomes a piece of paper, with sapphire ink in a vinyl hand at the top.

This letter was meant to be read once, then destroyed.

In the moments before the world comes apart, she reads it again.”

[Howard] I get chills every time that happens, because I feel like Red introduced us to some of the rules of time travel in this opening chapter. Then, at the end of the chapter, we’ve broken a rule and I don’t know why and I don’t know how, but I want to know both, in this chapter bought, for me, the whole rest of the book.

[DongWon] Yeah. I mean, this section is not hanging a gun on the mantelpiece, it’s hanging an entire cannon up there that is going to go off by the end of this book in a really delightful and exciting way.

[Mary Robinette] It is fantastic. So, I have some homework for you. I want you to take a sentence from your work in progress, and you’re going to use the tools we’ve been talking about. Pacing, accent, attitude, experience. You’re going to adjust the age of your character. I want you to adjust them to make them a child. Then, I want you to do it again. Same sentence. I want you to adjust it to make them from a different region. Then, again, to give them a different profession. So you’re changing their experience, you’re changing their attitude, and I want you to ch… And their pacing, because the pace that you use as a child is different than the one you use as an adult. Those are things that I just want you to play with. If you get really excited, you can start switching things to be from the point of view of a different character in your book, but the same experience. So, have fun.

[Mary Robinette] This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses. Now go write.

[Howard] Hey, podcast lovers. Did you know that you can upgrade your experience here with our ad free tier on Patreon? Head over to to enjoy an ad free oasis, as well as access to our virtual Discord community where you can talk with your fellow writers.