Narrative Voice

One thing that's pounded into the heads of us writers is the phrase "Show, don't tell." When I first started writing, I increasingly took this to such an extreme that I never mentioned what the characters were feeling, but rather described their facial features and body language. The problem I had with this, is that my audience didn't always share the same level of attention to such things as I do, and thus, might not be able to relate to what I was trying to say.

As such, I've had to experiment a lot with the right narrative voice that accomplished what I wanted. Interestingly enough, I've found that some stories are best suited with different writing styles, so you should never feel limited by picking one and using it for all your stories. Let's go through some styles and talk about how they might best be used.

Third Person, Observant is the style I first described. This can be effective for short stories, prologues, or other disconnected scenes where the audience is not meant to get too attached to the characters. It's rare you, as an author would actually desire this effect, but it does have its places.

Third Person, Omniscient is the most powerful. The author jumps from character to character, describing what is important to the story at the time. I called this powerful because the author can stay with a single character or group for a while, then switch over to somewhere else, advance that for a while, etc. This is primarily how tv shows, movies, and most novels work.

Third Person, Limited is where you stick with just one person. As the name suggests, it's far more limiting, but let me explain why I like it better. If you stick with one character, the reader will better connect with and feel invested in that character. The reader learns what the main character learns at the same time. This can create a bond between protagonist and reader. Both Omniscient and Limited allows mention of the moods and feelings of the characters where Observant does not.

Lastly, I'll mention First Person. It's a style I recently started vigorously using. What I like about it, is it gives me incredible control over the telling of emotional reactions the protagonist has. This is very helpful for stories that spend a significant chunk of time taking place in the main character's mind. A big disadvantage of this style is the protagonist, being the narrator, can only describe what they know, and through the prism that they understand it. This can be good in that the reader can get a sense of the character in how they see the world, but it can be bad if you need to tell the reader something that the narrator wouldn't know or care enough to think about.

I sometimes get around this problem by mentioning observant things(similar to the first narration style I mentioned), that the narrator observes and describes in a way that the reader would understand, even if the narrator doesn't. This can sometimes even be done quite humorously. For example, if a young child is the narrator and walks in on his or her parents and decides the parents are wrestling on the bed. We, the readers, know what's happening. The author knows what's happening. But the narrator does not.

Let's look at a story about Claire and see what might work best for it. So far, I've used Third Person, Limited in all the short examples I've given on this blog. But as she feels alone in the cafe from the last example, I could chose to write about a nice guy sitting on the other side of the cafe, that Claire is not yet aware of. I could jump to his perspective and describe what he's also feeling alone. This would be Omniscient instead of Limited. What I could do with this, is build tension in that the reader, if sympathetic to Claire, will hope the two meet. When they miss a connection, we have the makings of what could be an interesting love story. If Claire isn't aware of this nice young man, such a story would be incredibly difficult to write unless I wrote it from the man's perspective, or through Third Person, Omniscient.

Lastly, it's important that you pick one style and use it consistently throughout your story. Some novelists, myself included, break this rule with regards to Prologues and Epilogues. I will often write my Prologues in Third Person, Observant to get a basic setting down through a short story. I won't use the main characters in the Prologue again as main characters for the rest of my novel, if at all. As such, I use Observant perspective so the reader feels disconnected from them.

Speaking of phrases being pounded into us, how about "Write what you know"? Next week, I'll talk about what to do if what you know is not what you want to write about.

1 comment:

  1. Good explanation. I look forward to more shared knowledge. :-)