Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Common writing mistakes #2 – What is the narrative voice?

A big question for any writer is: who is my narrator? And are they talking in the first or third person? Or, sometimes, second person (but make sure you can carry it off à la Jay McInerney in Bright Lights, Big City or don’t even bother attempting it)?

In first novels the narrator – whether in first or third person - is often the novelist, and this is understandable but it’s usually a mistake, because it means the writer ends up producing something for an audience of one: him- or herself (see Common writing mistakes #1).

The narrative voice needs to be immediately engaging and consistent throughout – although that doesn’t mean you can’t have an unreliable narrator (i.e. one who is concealing things from the reader, like Lionel Shriver’s Eva in We Need to Talk About Kevin). It just means that the unreliable narrator’s voice needs to be reliable. We need to trust that, when we open that book up after a three-day absence, we’re being told the story by the same person who was telling it to us three days ago.

A consistent, appealing voice is difficult to attain and takes practice, and yet more practice. Quite often it helps to read your work aloud – humans were originally oral storytellers, so a good story should always be read-aloudable, and difficulties with the narrative voice may be revealed by a read-aloud exercise. But once you’ve got the voice – once you can hear the narrator chattering away in your head – then you can tell your reader anything. Plot is important, characters are important, but that narrator … well, there’s no story without them.


Josephine Damian said...

I think there's a thin line between "voice" and "author intrusion." I see a lot of AI in books I read, especially by newbie authors.

Zara Penney said...

The oral storyteller as well as the illustrated m/s has an added dimension. Face or illustrations. Tonal changes and a chance to voice rythm and act out parts.

Children's picture books work well in the omniescent because the author uses the illustration as a co tool.

But carrying it off throughout a full novel is so difficult because it can so easily turn into just plain annoying.

I think it is so important to try to base a POV, concentrate on that and it would be a lot easier and as well, if the author enjoys it then it will be quite apparent in the story the author produces.

Personally I hate POV jumping. That is a common thing and a legit choice.

But playing God, creates a distance between character and story. You'd have to be very very good at it.

Zara Penney said...

Hope you had fun ann-kpn. I'd say to you 'get a life'
When I think of all the brain cells you used to send the comments like this, I'd be careful and eat all my vegies so you can renew the lost ones. You need them.

Carrie A Ryman said...

I accidentally stumbled upon your blog after perusing the others here. I will be following it for sure. As a writer, myself, I am always looking for ways to improve my skills. Thank you!