Choosing a Narrative Voice for your story can be harder than you might think. Sure, you may naturally gravitate towards writing in the third person, but if a story sounds better coming directly from the mouth of its main character, then that’s how it needs to be written. Sometimes, the choice is obvious, but there will be times when you have to experiment, test the waters a little before landing on the one that will tell your story in the best and most powerful way possible.
There are of course a few things you can fall back on to help with the selection process.
First of all, work out what it is you want to convey with your story. If it is centred purely around the actions and experiences of one particular character, telling it from his/her perspective is likely to work very well. In contrast, a sprawling epic with several key characters and interweaving plotlines is better suited to be told from a third-person perspective.
Of course, it’s not just as simple as choosing one or the other and running with it. I’m sure if you google ‘Narrative Voices’ right now, you’ll come up with hundreds of articles and resources listing countless different types of voice that you could play around with. And no two lists will be the same (I know, I’ve looked).
When you get into the details, you can quickly find yourself being deafened by the jumble of voices out there.
So, let’s simplify things a little. There are lots of different factors to consider when choosing your narrative voice, but for now, let’s focus on just three things:
If you nail down these three factors, the rest should find its place in its own time. As you may imagine, there is a lot to be said about all three of these, so I’m not going to try and cover everything in one post. This week I’ll focus on Person and Tense, leaving Knowledge/Character to next week.
So, let’s get into specifics.
There are three types of Persons you can choose from:
- 1st Person – I, me, mine
- 2nd Peron – you, your, yours
- 3rd Person – him/her, he/she, them, etc
First-person narration gives you a story told from the perspective of one character. It offers the reader a single avenue into the narrative and can even make the readers feel as if they are themselves the main character (or at least very close to them – close enough to know their inner thoughts). This sort of close bond between the main character and the reader can help to magnify the tension and suspense in any story. Being allied with a single character means that the reader (usually) doesn’t see anything that is outside of that character’s knowledge. If other characters are deceiving or manipulating them, the reader will only find this out at the same time as them.
This, of course, doesn’t necessarily apply if more than one character’s perspective is used to tell a story (as is the case for The Time Traveller’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger, and Allegiant by Veronica Roth). Writing from more than one character’s perspective can help to widen the world of your story, but it can also be quite disorienting to the reader if they settle themselves into one character’s voice, only to be taken out of it in the next chapter, particularly if those characters’ voices are similar in tone and syntax.
I’m not saying that having more than one character narrate a story from a first-person stand point doesn’t work, but it is quite tricky to pull off.
One of the main things to remember when it comes to any narrative voice is sustainability. If you lock yourself into a particular voice at the start of story, make sure you are confident that it will see you through right to the end. If it doesn’t, readers will notice.
This is exactly why second person is rarely used for fiction, unless you are writing a gaming book where the readers choose their own adventure. What is interesting about it, however, is that it puts the readers directly into the action, as the story is written as if it is happening to them. This may sound like a lot of fun to play with (and it is), but try keeping it going past the first chapter. It’s a lot harder than you might think.
One thing I will say about second person is that it works quite well for stories within stories. If, for example, you have a character who wakes up from a coma and can’t remember how he/she got there, another character could quite credibly recount to them the events that led up to their comatose state, using second person to fill them in.
Lastly, there is always third person to fall back on. This is the voice type that I tend to use the most. I find it offers the most flexibility, as it means you don’t have to tie yourself to one particular character. Instead, the narrative becomes a lens through which the reader views the whole story. It allows you to add in scenes that don’t include your main character at all, making it easier to showcase your antagonist every once in a while, or get inside the minds of secondary characters who have their own take on the story’s events.
The main thing to decide with a third-person narrative is the scope of the narration: will it be limited, or will it be omniscient? This is something I will be coming back to next week.
The English Language has at least a dozen different tenses to choose from. Thankfully for us, they boil down to three essentials: Past, Present and Future. As with second-person narratives, the future tense is not particularly common in fiction (unless your story happens to include an element of prophecy). Writers are more likely to write about events that have happened, or are happening, rather than ones that are yet to come.
As such, the main choice you will have to make here is between Past and Present.
Telling a story in the present tense offers a sense of immediacy. Events are unfolding as the story is being told, which means that the reader knows as much as the characters do about what is to come as it hasn’t happened yet. This works particularly well when coupled with a first-person perspective as the narrative character tells the story as they go.
It is less common with third-person narratives, as the nature of the third-person voice naturally tends towards recounting past events.
The past tense, on the other hand, has a more retrospective feel to it. The reader gets the sense that the story has already happened and is being told after the event. This means that more hints of what is to come can be dropped into the narrative. Foreshadowing future events can be very useful for keeping a reader’s attention, but it can also come across as trite if phrases such as “little did they know…” or “if I had known then what I know now…” are over used.
Past tense can be used with either first- or third-person narratives but are probably most commonly paired with third person.
Mixing it up
If you really wanted to get creative with the narrative structure, there are ways to include both past and present into your story (and even both first and third person as well).
Bad Monkeys by Matt Ruff, starts with the main character, Jane, in a police interrogation room, using a third-person, present-tense voice. As Jane goes through the events that led to her being in the interrogation room, the narrative switches to first person, past tense. Throughout the book, Ruff periodically takes us back to the interrogation room, switching back to the third person, present tense narrative to gauge the reactions of those in the room with her.
Most important of all when choosing a narrative voice is to keep things fresh. Don’t settle on a particular type just because you are most comfortable using it. Changing your narrative voice to suit the story itself can have a huge impact on how it is appreciated by your readers.
And all this is before we’ve even had a look at the importance of knowledge and character within the narrative voice. But that’s for next week. For now, I will leave you to your own experiments with voice. Feel free to share some of your results in the comments below.
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