In this day and age of streaming TV/movies and social media video, so many aspiring novelists think about their novels solely in terms of dialogue and gestures. Characters talk, maybe there’s some action, they sigh and look at things, they talk some more, and that, in their minds, comprises a novel. They aren’t thinking enough about their narrative voice.
A strong narrative voice that carries the heft of the storytelling has become a bit of a misunderstood and lost art. So much so that when I refer to a missing narrative voice when I’m editing novels, sometimes authors don’t even know what I’m talking about.
A narrative voice is more than just the POV and a vessel for describing action. In this post I’m going to cover:
- What is a narrative voice?
- The different roles a narrative voice plays in storytelling
- How to craft a strong narrative voice
- Why you must pay attention to your narrative voice
What is a narrative voice?
A narrative voice is the non-dialogue storytelling that communicates description, action, thought processes, and context to the reader in a manner that’s infused with the anchoring POV’s personality.
Got all that? Ha. Don’t worry, if that sounds like gobbledygook, we’re going to spend the rest of the post unpacking it.
In essence: It’s the storytelling voice. Dialogue gives you a chance to let secondary characters speak for themselves, but the narrative voice is the guide that pulls the reader through the novel and provides all of the information that’s necessary for the reader to understand what’s happening.
If a novel is a cake, the narrative voice is the base. Dialogue is like the frosting and adds some unique flavor, but if you constructed a cake with only frosting, you’d have a big mess on your hands.
But it’s not just that: there’s a personality that’s woven into the voice. Here’s what it does.
The different roles a narrative voice plays in storytelling
Even in dialogue-heavy novels, narrative voice still has a crucial role to play. That’s because smushing physical description and context into dialogue invariably feels extremely forced.
When was the last time you described a setting or action that was taking place around you when the person you’re standing next to wasn’t visually impaired?
“Wow, look at that black cat that’s walking across the street toward the house with the broken down porch and the scruffy lawn.” -> CLUNKY
When was the last time you mentioned the context for how you met your significant other to your significant other?
“Remember how we met on match.com and then we went on a date on a cable car and now we’ve been dating for ten years?” -> CLUNKY
Writers who can’t think past dialogue and neglect narrative voice end up concocting wildly convoluted conversational workarounds that are scarcely believable.
Don’t do that. Use the narrative voice. Here are some different roles it plays.
Physical description and action
The narrative voice provides crisp, clear physical description and action that helps anchor the reader in the setting and, better yet, immerses them in the setting. Even if your novel is dialogue-heavy, it shouldn’t mean no physical description, it might just mean economical physical description.
“Angie rolled her suitcase through the harsh light of Terminal B” is some really brief physical description, but I bet you can fully picture that setting without needing an entire page describing every single weary traveler and frazzled gate agent.
Context and exposition
Unless you’re writing something very experimental, the narrative voice is not a stream-of-conscious transcription of a character’s literal thoughts in another time and place. It doesn’t have to be strictly true to the world of the novel.
The narrator is storytelling to someone in the reader’s place and time. It’s breaking the fourth wall. That means that the narrative voice needs to provide the reader with the information they need to understand what’s happening in the present narrative.
Don’t make the narrative so vague that you force the reader to chase clues to understand what’s happening entirely. Choose your mysteries wisely, and otherwise err on the side of keeping the reader in the loop.
The protagonist’s thought processes
Motivation is everything in a novel and we anchor to what characters want like it’s a north star. The more that’s at stake and the more skin the protagonist puts in the game going after the things they want, the more invested we’ll be in whether they’re going to get it. Even better if we know how it fits into their ultimate hopes and dreams.
But in order to grasp those things, we need to know what the protagonist is thinking, how they’re contextualizing new information, and how they’re evaluating their choices. We should have a sense of why they’re doing what they’re doing.
Some omniscient narrative voices will incorporate multiple characters’ thoughts, but we absolutely need to know what the protagonist is thinking and what they ultimately want.
How to craft a strong narrative voice
The bedrock for crafting a strong narrative voice is to first understand what it isn’t: Narrative voice is not a dry play-by-play.
There are two main principles at play that will help you craft a strong narrative voice:
- Weave the POV character’s or omniscient voice’s personality into the narrative.
- Give hints of a reality outside of the narrative voice (particularly for non-omniscient POVs).
To craft an engaging voice, it’s not just a matter of dispassionately describing some swans in a pond and describing in a dry way how a character gets from Point A to Point B. There should be an outlook that’s woven into the description that gives a sense of personality and character.
Hannibal stood at the edge of the pond and watched three pristine swans cavort with graceful ease among colorful lily pads and swaying reeds. Just disgusting.
Narrative voice is not “and then this happened and then this happened and then this happened.” Always look for chances to weave the anchoring POV’s personality into what’s being described. It’s a filtered view of the world.
Even with a true omniscient voice that’s not a named character, I still encourage authors to think about who the omniscient narrator is and to think of that voice as its own character. It should still have a personality and perspective, which will help you keep an omniscient voice unified and consistent.
A world outside of the POV
But don’t think about narrative voice solely in terms of the protagonist and/or omniscient perspective. You also need to find a way to show hints of a more objective reality creeping in.
Because the narrative voice dominates the way the reader imagines the world, it’s helpful (and feels more realistic) to show other characters reacting with their own outlooks and experiences. Just as in real life, no one is wholly objective and self-aware.
This is particularly satisfying when there’s an unreliable narrator, but it goes for narratives where we’re otherwise meant to trust the voice as well.
Nathan and Chris stood at the edge of a chasm full of bubbling lava. If Chris didn’t make the jump, it would just prove he was a coward.
“We can totally make this,” Nathan said.
Chris gave Nathan side-eye and tested the cave wall for loose stones.
The Author Who Must Not Be Named is particularly good at this. You often have a sense of precisely what Ron and Hermione are thinking based on their gestures, demeanor, and dialogue, but the perspective never actually delves inside their heads to show their thoughts.
Don’t focus solely on your protagonist’s narrative voice as the only reality. Make sure you have other outlooks creeping in via non-POV characters’ dialogue and gestures.
Why you must pay attention to your narrative voice
A narrative voice really and truly is what will make or break your novel. All of the most scintillating dialogue in the world isn’t going to overcome a weak or nonexistent narrative voice, while a beautiful narrative voice can more than outweigh some pretty generic dialogue.
It is not easy to come up with an overall voice that feels unique, and you may find yourself frustrated and feeling like you’re imitating someone else when you start writing.
Push yourself. Keep it in your mind that you need to weave a characters’ outlook and personality into everything that’s on the page. Keep writing and keep writing until you find that voice, then make sure to revise it back into the opening.
In a day and age where it seems like everyone is just thinking about snappy dialogue, a great narrative voice is the best tool to separate your novel from the pack.
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Art: Im Gespräch by Viktor Borisov-Musatov