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Finding a distinctive narrative voice May 21, 2010

Posted by pacejmiller in Novel, On Writing.
Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

Narrative Voice

One of the most important things in creative writing is find the right voice for the narrator.  Admittedly, it is also one of the most overlooked.  I used to write without giving much thought to voice other than whether I would use the first or third person perspective, but I’m finally starting to realise that having the wrong voice can absolutely destroy what may have otherwise been a good story.

When I say “narrative voice”, what I mean is the way in which the narrator tells the story.  It’s the style, the tone, the use of words.  Do you want the narrator to be up close and personal, like a father telling his son a bedtime story, or do you want to be more distant, like eavesdropping to a stranger in a bar?

Picking the right narrative voice can be tricky.  For example, if you’re telling a story set in the 1800s, using contemporary language and prose probably won’t work.  Conversely, if you’re writing a story about the technologically advanced future, you wouldn’t want to write it like a Jane Austen novel.  Who knows, maybe you would.  That’s the thing — you can’t be perfectly certain until you try.

Finding a Distinctive Narrative Voice

Some writers always write in the same way and with the same narrative voice.  Some others like to experiment and try different voices in telling a story.

Regardless, finding a narrative voice that is distinctive and stands out is crucial.  Especially if you want to get it published.

I was reading a magazine the other day that interviewed a few successful authors.  When asked what the recipe for success was, most of them answered that it was to “stand out from the crowd.”

Usually, I would presume that to mean having a fantastic, original premise, or at least an original slant on an old premise.  And while I still think that is probably the quickest way to get noticed, this particular publisher (Louise Thurtell for Arena) said:

A strong or distinctive narrative voice is gold to a publisher.  So many manuscripts we receive are marred by a bland, forgettable narrative voice.

And that was when I said “Crap!”  She’s absolutely right!  I thought about some of my favourite novels and what I liked most about them — The Basketball Diaries by Jim Carroll, American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis (off the top of my head) — and I realised that apart from having a pretty decent story to tell, what I loved most about them was the way they told the story.

If you have a great idea for a story, you might be able to get away with it, but let’s face it, considering how hard it is to come up with anything truly original these days, it won’t hurt to put a bit more thought and effort into creating a distinctive, powerful narrative voice.

Which just reminds me — I’ll probably have to do something about that when it comes to my stagnant novel, when I eventually get back to it…



1. Ryan - July 5, 2010

I wrote a similar entry in my blog, These Open Pages. In that entry, titled “A Voice Imaginary,” I talked about this exact same topic – how underrated and important the narrative voice is to a story. The examples I cited were The Catcher In The Rye and The Great Gatsby, but I can certainly agree with your choices as well (particularly American Psycho; what a narrative). Another great one is a book by Markus Zusak called The Book Thief, narrated by Death himself. Terrific read, and a great example of strong, distinctive narrative voice.

2. worddreams - October 16, 2010

Great points, Pace. I can tell when I’m not true to my voice because my writing is stilted, unbelievable. As are my characters. I have to backspace, close my eyes, think about what my character really would have acted like in this scene.

3. Vance - May 23, 2011

I know this has nothing to do with what you guys are talking about but would it be illegal if i took this picture and put it as a cover for a mixtape and added a tittle to it?

pacejmiller - May 23, 2011

It ain’t my picture either, but here’s the thing about copyright: if you are taking it for personal use and not for commercial purposes then no one will care. In other words, if your mixtape is just for yourself (and maybe friends/family) and no money will be made out of it and it won’t ever get circulated to the general public, then I wouldn’t worry about it.

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