The narrative voice in a novel is a strange beast indeed. It blends a character’s conscious thoughts, their observations and physical surroundings (which a person in real life might not stop and think about), and contextualizing detail that helps orient the reader.
It’s weird. It’s not like anything else that exists in the world.
When you’re honing the narrative voice within your novel, you will likely get into all sorts of trouble if you try too hard to faithfully recreate a character’s contemporaneous thoughts. You probably won’t give the reader the context they need and you’ll risk disorienting the reader with inadequate physical description.
Remember, the narrative voice is storytelling to a reader. You are not transcribing the literal thoughts of someone in an alternate world (unless you’re writing something very experimental). It weaves in a character’s contemporaneous thoughts, but you have to make sure the elements the reader needs are present.
One major pitfall of trying too hard to stay true to a character’s thoughts is that some writers will wait for a “pause” in the action before they show the character observing their surroundings and concoct triggers for characters to look at things.
They’ll end up dribbling out information to the reader like this:
Karen ran through the forest.
“Hey, wait up!” a male voice said beside her.
Karen didn’t have time to talk to John. She rushed into a meadow.
“Stop!” her friend said. “Wait!”
Karen stopped along the banks of a gurgling stream and took a deep breath. She put her hands on her hips and turned around and stared at John. He had a red bandana around his neck. His paws were brown and muddy. The last thing she needed was spending a whole afternoon giving him a bath.
“You run fast for a human,” the talking golden retriever said.
I bet you weren’t imagining John was a talking dog when he first arrived!! Might have been helpful to know that from the start, no?
This is an extreme version of a phenomenon I see all the time. We’re given one teeny tiny morsel of information at a time, and the reader has to spend their energy constructing the scene like it’s a jigsaw puzzle instead of getting the information they need all at once and being able to just focus on what’s happening.
When you dribble out morsels, this is what you make the reader do: “Okay, it’s an unnamed male voice, must be a stranger. Oh, it’s someone she knows named John. Oh, uh, I guess they’re friends. Wait… dirty paws, why would that be the… HE’S A TALKING DOG??? WHAT?!?! NOT what I was picturing. Or…wait… are the male voice, friend, John, and the talking dog different characters? Are there four people within this scene now?! I’m so confused.”
Look how much easier this scene is to read when you just hit “pause” when John arrives, give the reader the context and physical description they need, “unpause,” and keep going. Karen doesn’t need to look at John to “trigger” physical description, the narrative voice can just describe him when he arrives. It’s much better to refer to John consistently so it’s clear he’s the only other character present.
Karen ran through the thick pine forest behind her house. The cool mountain air chilled the tips of her ears.
“Hey, wait up!” John said.
John was a skinny golden retriever with a goofy grin who moved into the house next door three years ago. Karen spent one of those years silently waving at him until he eventually accused her of being rude for never saying hello. Karen hadn’t known he could talk. Once that misunderstanding was cleared up, they became the best of friends and spent every afternoon together chatting and gossiping about the strange people in their village.
He galloped alongside her now, panting, with a smart red bandana tied around his neck. Karen didn’t have time to talk, she needed to get to the haunted cave to investigate the strange voices she’d heard. She rushed through a meadow with orange wildflowers and stopped to catch her breath beside a gurgling stream.
John sat beside her, his paws filthy with mud. Just what she needed, spending a whole afternoon giving him a bath.
“You run fast for a human,” John said.
There’s rarely much to be gained from withholding information from the reader. Only do it if you are intentionally trying to create a judiciously-chosen mystery, and even then it’s usually best if the reader knows what the protagonist knows.
“What is happening entirely?” is not a good mystery, and you’ll risk the reader throwing up their hands and giving up if you don’t give them the information they need to conjure a scene. Or, even worse, if you force them to drastically revise a mental image they’ve already conjured. It’s disorienting and exhausting, sort of like the writer is constantly pulling a rug out from under us.
Err on the side of precision, clarity, and context. You don’t need an artificial trigger. Just hit pause and give the reader what they need.
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Art: Gebirgige Flusslandschaft mit Figurenstaffage by Pieter Francis Peters