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The Broken Union of Narrative Voice and Story (and how to bring them back together)

by Amy Evans

Narrative voice and story content are intricately bound together, and the two must be compatible for your novel to work. There are a host of reasons that lead authors astray with narrative voice, such as lack of research or an inappropriate choice for point of view. Another issue resides in the desire to sound overly literary. Some writers are compelled to use artistic prose and really flex their literary muscles in their story. You may be surprised to learn how often editors have to reign this in, depending on the story content. Yes, the poetic passage you wrote on the changing of the autumn leaves sounds beautiful, but would your character really think in these terms? Read on for the most common issues associated with narrative voice and story, plus how to bridge the gap between them.

Young Narrators

The gang from the film adaptation of It by Stephen King (2017)

There is much to love about young narrators who are wise beyond their years. The ‘kids take on the big bad world’ is a solid archetype— can you imagine the plot of Stephen King’s It, for instance, if the preteen group lacked the courage and strength of character to take on Pennywise? The story revolves around the group’s problem-solving skills and ingenuity far beyond what you would expect for their age. However, there is a difference between children doing and saying certain grown-up things in a story, and employing a narrative voice for a 10-year-old that sounds middle-aged. This puts too much pressure on your young character — remember that their brains are still developing. You may be trying to write with a voice that your character literally does not have the cognitive capacity to pull off.

The solution would be to simplify the language while still maintaining the wise-beyond-their-years trait. Perhaps one of the most legendary young narrators is Jean Louise Finch, better known as “Scout” in To Kill A Mockingbird. Scout narrates from a first-person perspective as an adult, but the story is told from her viewpoint as a girl from age six to nine. Here is an example of some solid Scout Finch wisdom, in reference to one of her classmates:

“That Walter’s as smart as he can be, he just gets held back sometimes because he has to stay out and help his daddy. Nothin’s wrong with him. Naw, Jem, I think there’s just one kind of folks. Folks.”

Scout recognizes that Walter’s life circumstances place him at a disadvantage compared to other students. Scout’s statement about there being just one kind of folks sounds simplistic, yet its meaning is profound. While everyone in Maycomb is preoccupied with social class, race, and other means of division, Scout can see clearly and compassionately that human beings are all the same.

An alternative option would be to change the narrative form. An omniscient narrator can interpret children’s thoughts and articulate them with more sophisticated language. A third-person omniscient perspective takes writing chops, so make sure you are very comfortable with point of view before attempting this. Another option is to feature an adult narrating about the past, infusing pieces of older wisdom while recalling their early years. You would then have to confront the possibility of writing through an unreliable narrator, since memories change and deteriorate over time.

Incompatible Life Circumstances

We’ve all come across certain words or phrases in books that don’t belong. Sometimes this is rooted in a clash between narrative voice and the narrator’s own circumstances. If you’re going for accuracy in a historical fiction, for example, you’ll have to do research on the words used in that era. Otherwise, an anachronism may find its way into your story, something that is inappropriate for a specific time period. Even subtle anachronisms can be distracting to the reader—it doesn’t take a cellphone in a Western novel to catch readers’ attention.

The lexicon of your character will also depend on their demographic, education level, social class, time period, and experiences in general — have they traveled, or have they never left their hometown? Do they live in a rural or urban area? Knowing the backstory of your character, would they really string the words together that you’ve chosen to tell their story? If you want readers to think your characters are lifelike and believable, the narrative voice must be authentic.

You can also consider a different form of narration. An omniscient narrator would provide a wider scope of view and could expand the possibilities for language. This could be the classic unnamed narrator who, knowing more than the characters themselves, can make comments beyond an individual’s capacity. Many of Jane Austen’s novels, for instance, compare the circumstances of social classes, with Austen making her own statements on characters behaviors, ambitions, and society as a whole. It might surprise you that Pride and Prejudice is widely considered a comedy. If you read between the lines, the story is filled with sarcasm, irony, and satire. With an omniscient narrator, the storyteller’s perspective is not limited by any character’s worldview. This gives you more room when it comes to descriptive language, abstract concepts, and societal commentary.

Your Novel is Plot Driven

Too much descriptive language slows down the plot, which can be particularly problematic with mysteries and thrillers. If you want to keep the momentum of suspense going, consider the fact that less can be more. Ask yourself if the descriptions add much, if anything, to setting or plot. Give your readers credit and allow them to use their own imagination, picturing the scene as an extension of what you have written.

Half a lifetime ago, when I read Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, I was disappointed by its climax. Harry and his friends gradually piece together that a centuries-old basilisk, commanded by the Heir of Slytherin, resides miles below Hogwarts in a sealed chamber. Harry enters the Chamber of Secrets and slays the basilisk in a matter of pages. JK! I thought back then, why didn’t you describe the chamber more? Why was the fight scene so short? I can now answer these questions. First, although I as a reader was curious about the inside of the chamber, Harry was more focused on rescuing Ginny, confronting Voldemort and killing the snake. Now that I think about it, could the Harry vs. Snake showdown have gone on any longer? It was a basilisk, after all. It could smell him and slither anywhere in the chamber Voldemort commanded him to go, so there was nowhere to hide. Based on the conditions established by Rowling’s plot, it always had to be a fast-paced, live-or-die situation.

Harry Potter slays the basilisk in the film adaptation (2002)

Overpowering First-Person Narration

Although most fiction novels are written in the third person, many stories feature first-person narration. First-person perspective allows you to dive deep into a character’s psyche and experience the story from their inner world. It becomes repetitive when too many sentences begin with I:

I couldn’t believe my eyes. Dragon’s can’t be real, I thought. Am I imagining this?

Better: An impossible sight towered before me. Dragon’s can’t be real. Am I imagining this?

Italics are not necessary to convey thought in the first person, since the entire story is coming from inside the character’s head. You may have the urge to include everything your protagonist is thinking or feeling. Overly long descriptions of thought and feeling present two problems: first, you take away from the immediate action and the momentum of dialogue between characters. Second, you are constantly telling and not showing. Showing is essentially evoking a mental image in the reader, while telling is a statement made to establish the image.

Showing would be describing the character’s body language, nervous ticks, mannerisms, etc. Dialogue is also an excellent way to show rather than tell. Have your protagonist describe things with all five senses. Note the actions and reactions of other characters. Rather than have your protagonist think, my roommate is conceited, write in a scene where the roommate bursts into the apartment bragging about his superior LSAT marks, waving his test scores in the protagonist’s face.

A Guide to Point of View

Reedsy has an excellent guide on first, second, and third person POV. It provides well-recognized literary examples and details the advantages and pitfalls of each form. Learn more about the nuances of each narrative perspective here.

Book Recommendations for Narrative Voice

Here are some notable and award-winning examples of narrative voice, ones that I found valuable topics of study. A little bit of every genre for everyone:

First Person Narration

Third Person Narration

Mixed First and Third Person Narration

Kobo Staff Pick for October 2019 (@kobobooks)

Novels in second person point of view are exceedingly rare. This involves the narrator addressing the audience using ‘you,’ ‘you’re,’ and ‘your’. Lisa Taddeo’s nonfiction, Three Women, is written in second person. So is Erin Morgenstern’s fantasy novel, The Night Circus, which began as a NaNoWriMo draft. Speaking of NaNo, stay tuned for updates!


Amy Evans works on Author Engagement for Kobo Writing Life. She helps answer author questions and comes up with creative blog content, mostly on the craft of writing. Amy studied Social Sciences at the University of Ottawa and Publishing at Ryerson University. She has worked as a content author of literature study guides and as an online literature educator.

2 Responses to “The Broken Union of Narrative Voice and Story (and how to bring them back together)”

    • Amy Evans

      You are most welcome, Christa! I’m glad you benefited from it. If narrative voice ever seems a bit daunting, the Reedsy guide that was included in the article is very informative as well 🙂

      Reply

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