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Narrative Voice – careful choices can change your story

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Narrative voice, one of the things that arises with the creation of your story, is the perspective from which the events in your story are observed. What does that mean?

It’s the point of view, dude.

It’s also much more. In partnering with the narrator as they embark upon the journey of your story, the reader will pick up on four key elements:

  • point of view
  • the narrator’s degree of knowledge or infinite knowledge
  • objectivity
  • reliability

narrative voice

I touched on POV in a previous article Editing For Awesomeness – Part 2, which related to the internal perspective between scenes. While similar, in this context, I’m referring to the overarching perspective of your story. While you should never lapse into too much narrative that will bog your story down, the frame of your tale is held together by the narrator.  This makes it the most important point of view.

As with all points of view, for narrative voice you also have three basic choices:

First person
Second person
Third person

There are about a million ways to describe this, but in general, these three basic perspectives can be refined by the additional elements:

First Person Protagonist
First Person Witness
First Person Re-teller
Second Person
Third Person
Third Person Omniscient
Third Person Objective
Third Person Limited

Careful choice of which narrative voice to speak from is not only about the way the story is told. More important, it has a direct affect on the way a reader experiences your story.

narrative voice

Beginning writers sometimes have difficulty with this one and switch points of view in their narrative voice as they move through the story. Again, that’s one of those things you can get away with if you’re doing it for effect, but is bad news if you don’t realise you’re doing it.

I know I keep saying it, but only because it’s true–before you start breaking rules, learn them well. Having a good footing means when you break them later, you’ll be adept enough to know doing it will give you the most bang for your creative buck.

A note about second person narrative voice:  It’s rarely done, because it’s so difficult to pull off.  Addressing the protagonist as “you” can be very confusing for readers. The second person narrative voice is sometimes done when the writer is speaking to a younger version of themselves or similar.  For the most part, though, readers have a hard time keeping up with who is being addressed in this perspective.

Here’s a ‘for instance’ for you in case you haven’t seen this one in action:

You left the house at a run. Marcus was being pissy again and you didn’t want to deal with it while you were still nursing a hangover.

See?  Tough to know who the narrator is speaking to.  Even very skilled writers don’t use this one very often or at all.

As part of creating the best vehicle for your story, narrative voice makes a big impact on the way your story unfolds. Deliberate point of view choice is a device you weave in through the narrative. And when I say “deliberate”, I mean you did it on purpose.  The end result?  It’s subtle, working away in the background and playing on the readers’ subconscious.

This means, the reader will get extra information without you having to explain it.

Creative and deliberate choice of narrative voice can be a way to build more suspense. Something as simple as jumping from character to character with the reader at your side is a fantastic device for that. Why? At the narrator’s shoulder, the reader can see all, though affect nothing. If done well, the outcome can be a high speed roller coaster ride with the audience yelling at characters when they make wrong choices, because the reader is privy to what other characters are doing beyond the knowledge of each separate character. It’s these sorts of devices that suck a reader right into the thick of the story, not to mention make them curse you when it’s over.

And isn’t that the reaction you want? Bloody right.

During the events leading toward your story’s climax, your narrative voice perspective limits or hinders how much the narrator “knows”. This weaves in a subconscious trust factor about the reliability of information shared.

Create tension with a careful choice of narrative voice

How much the reader trusts what the narrator knows or doesn’t know can have a profound affect on their experience. Done with intent, you can play with the readers’ emotions and add to their investment in the tale.

How do you choose the direction of the narrative voice?

Choosing a perspective where the reader trusts that the narrator’s information is reliable can add frustration and an underlying tension. Surprised? Knowing everything and not being able to affect the outcome is a good way to make the reader cheer for the hero or root for the bad guy’s demise. In choosing a narrative voice perspective that suggests not all the information is accurate, as in the case of a first person narrator who can’t see into the heads of the other characters, this can create suspicion. When the reader notes things the narrator doesn’t know due to their perspective, this can add a puzzle-solving element.  This can heighten mystery while the reader works to make sense of what’s going on.

A choice between an internal and external narrator changes the way knowledge is conveyed. About what you would expect, an internal narrative voice limits knowledge. Due to that position, this can add an element of confusion or surprise when new information is revealed that the narrator wasn’t privy to. The opposite, an external narrator, doesn’t always produce the opposite position. An external narrator can make mistakes and interpret events also from their limited perspective outside the action.  The external narrator can even provide a false interpretation of the unfolding drama, because they’re too far away to have all the facts.

Can the reader trust the narrator or are they going it alone?

Personal biases and the narrator’s own personality can colour their recounting of events in your story. For example, a narrator who is also one of the characters is going to have a vested interest in the story going in a particular direction. That character’s own personality will change the reliability of the “facts” they recount to readers who will pick up on that and begin to take that info with a grain of salt. A narrator with an emotional investment in events going in one direction or another can’t be trusted and that mistrust can heighten tension. Sympathy or emotional distance again changes the way information is conveyed to the reader and changes their experience.

If you are a beginning writer, remember to take note of the narrative voice that comes to life as you write each of your stories. Think about how much that narrative perspective brings to your fiction.  When you run into a writer block, sometimes it’s due to the limited perspective of the narrator.  Try rewriting using a different narrative voice to open up avenues to complete your story.  There are a variety of points of view to choose from and none is better than any other.  The trick is to know which is most appropriate for what you’re working to say.

If you take nothing else away, remember this–be consistent with the perspective of your narrative voice for better story cohesion.

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