Monday, October 1, 2018

The Importance of Narrative Voice


The last post talked about the tools to give characters stand-out voices. However, the voice that fills most every page is in fact the narrative voice, so it has to be the most unique voice of them all. Without the narrative coming through just as clearly and as strongly as the characters, the gap between dialogues becomes an ordeal for the reader, who ends up skimming through pages looking for quotations rather enjoying the writing.

Narrative voice stands out in particular when the story is written in the first-person perspective. This puts us into the mind of the main character, so it better be a memorable place. It is where readers get to see how the gears turn, where thoughts come from and go to, and all the behind-the-scenes decision-making that shapes the hero’s journey. If that inside view of the main character does not offer anything more than the characters words and actions, then the author might want to reconsider why this is the chosen perspective.

Consider a first-person perspective story in the thriller genre, where the action moves the hero from one risky situation to another, tension at every step. The character may be speaking and acting in quick, sharp bursts, but this provides the opportunity for the narrative voice to provide insights and explain actions and decisions, plus demonstrate the doubts, fears and conflicts that the external action never reveals. At this point, even though the narration is from the perspective of the main character, the duality of narrator versus character creates two distinct, complementary entities that make the story that much more intriguing.

The first-person perspective is easy to examine from the narrative point of view. Things get tricky when either the story shifts between character viewpoints (a difficult writing task) or when the story is from the third-person. Focusing on the latter, the narrator needs to have some kind of quality that offers something more than what the main character would normally say, see, or do.

The simplest way to give third-person narration its own quality is to take one aspect of the protagonist’s character, and imbue it in the narration. If a character is placed into a strange, new world, think about how that character sees this new environment. Is it frightening? Amazing? Boring? Once that choice has been made, pour that perspective into every adjective in the narrator’s descriptions, make the narrative absolutely resonate with that feeling.

Probably the most common genre to use this technique is the mystery novel – horror in particular. In any horror novel, the reader already understands that the main character is scared or even terrified. What sets apart the great novels from the others is when the reader feels this terror coming from every direction – from descriptions of a stormy night to that creepy house by the cemetery, those landmarks should radiate uncertainty, insecurity, and a sense of dread that even the characters may not fully appreciate. In this genre, the narration becomes more than just the descriptive voice, it creates the mood that haunts the reader.

Narrative voice is very difficult to pin down in any particular work. At least in the first draft, opportunities to express mood and create a memorable environment often get lost in the process of storytelling. We only fully understand how these should be expressed once we have completed our work. At that point, we can inject that mood into areas where it serves the story best, and shift to a lighter voice when necessary.

The narrative voice can play a crucial role in developing a story. It is perhaps the most important thing to influence a story’s direction, other than the author’s actual writing style.

So guess what the next post will be about…

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