The Writing Manual: Narrative Voice

In this section I will look at the narrative voice and show that its role is far more than as a descriptive tool. I will show that the narrative voice should also be used to pass a character’s thoughts to the reader. However, we will explain the best way in which to do this, and how to avoid it slipping into TELL.

Types of Narrative Voice

In the next section, we will examine the roll of the narrator and look at the types of things you should and shouldn’t be putting in your narrative summary. However, before we look at these deeper technical issues, we must first examine what is meant by narrator.

In its most simple terms, the narrator is the voice in your book that is not that of the character. In other words, anything you write, which does not come from the mouths of your character, is narrative summary. However, the narrator is not you… let me explain.

Let’s go back to a well-worn example:

John walked into the cramped three-bedroom house carrying a large cardboard box with a massive pink ribbon bowed at the top. He found his sister leaning on the doorframe of the open back door, the final drags of a cigarette in her hand. When she saw John, she flicked the cigarette butt into the garden, and then turned to him, her face beaming with a smile.

“John. Is that for me?’ she said nodding at the box. John smiled back, pushing the box onto the kitchen table, its awkward weight evident.

“I don’t see any other birthday girls about, do you?” John looked about in an exaggerated motion before leaning in and kissing his sister on the cheek. “You’d better open it quick, its not the kind of present that likes to be kept waiting.”

She danced from foot-to-foot as she tugged at the pink ribbon. As soon as the ribbon fell away the box lid forced its own way open with an explosion of black fur, ears, eyes and nose. John’s sister scooped up the dog.

‘A puppy. I love him.’

In the example above, all of the narration has been put into italics. You can see that the narrator is the person telling you the story. They are the person who is communicating directly with the reader. Therefore, novels contain two types of voice. The character’s voices AND the narrator’s voice.

However, and this is important, the narrator’s voice is NOT the writer’s voice.

In fact, many people who are experts on these matters will argue that the definition of a work of fiction is that the voice of the narrator is different from the voice of the writer.

Ermm… Sounds obvious, but think about it. When writing non-fiction the narrator’s voice IS the writer’s voice. The narrator’s views and the writer’s views are the same.

If you read a book on the history of the British Army between 1815 and 1945, the voice of the narrator is the same as the voice of the historian. It is as if the historian has dictated the words.

However, in fact, the narrator is NOT the writer. The narrator is a character the writer controls. The narrator can say things that a writer believes to be untrue, that’s fiction.

Types of Narrator

In broad terms, there are two types of narrator for fiction books:

  1. First person.
  2. Third person.

In first person, the narrator is speaking directly to the reader from personal experience. The narrator will know nothing more of the story, than is revealed by the characters. You can spot a first person narrator a mile off, by the use of first person pronoun (I, we, our etc). Here’s the opening section from Conrad’s Heart of Darkness as an example:

The Nellie, a cruising yawl, swung to her anchor without a flutter of the sails, and was at rest. The flood had made, the wind was nearly calm, and being bound down the river, the only thing for it was to come to and wait for the turn of the tide.

The sea-reach of the Thames stretched before us like the beginning of an interminable waterway. In the offing the sea and the sky were welded together without a joint, and in the luminous space the tanned sails of the barges drifting up with the tide seemed to stand still in red clusters of canvas sharply peaked, with gleams of varnished sprits. A haze rested on the low shores that ran out to sea in vanishing flatness. The air was dark above Gravesend, and farther back still seemed condensed into a mournful gloom, brooding motionless over the biggest, and the greatest, town on earth.

The Director of Companies was our captain and our host. We four affectionately watched his back as he stood in the bows looking to seaward. On the whole river there was nothing that looked half so nautical. He resembled a pilot, which to a seaman is trustworthiness personified. It was difficult to realize his work was not out there in the luminous estuary, but behind him, within the brooding gloom.

In third person, the narrator is telling the story and has a wider knowledge of the story, than is told by the characters. By this I mean that the narrator knows what is happening in events beyond those described in the scenes.

Here’s the opening to Jane Austin’s, Pride and Prejudice as an example:

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.

However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighbourhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters.

“My dear Mr. Bennet,” said his lady to him one day, “have you heard that Netherfield Park is let at last?”

Mr. Bennet replied that he had not.

“But it is,” returned she; “for Mrs. Long has just been here, and she told me all about it.”

Mr. Bennet made no answer.

“Do you not want to know who has taken it?” cried his wife impatiently.

“You want to tell me, and I have no objection to hearing it.”

This was invitation enough.

“Why, my dear, you must know, Mrs. Long says that Netherfield is taken by a young man of large fortune from the north of England; that he came down on Monday in a chaise and four to see the place, and was so much delighted with it, that he agreed with Mr. Morris immediately; that he is to take possession before Michaelmas, and some of his servants are to be in the house by the end of next week.”

“What is his name?”

“Bingley.”

At this point, all you really need to know about narrative voice is that there are two types of voice, first and third.

If you go delving into this topic elsewhere, you will find much written on the theory of narrative. It is an academic subject in its own right. You will find discussions of different types of narrator and their role in the story. This is all good and, mostly, very interesting. However, for the context of this book, it is not needed.

This all said there is one little wrinkle that you may find very helpful and that’s the two main type of third person viewpoints:

  • Third Person Omniscient.
  • Third Person Limited.

Third Person Limited — In modern writing this is, by far, the most common type of narrative viewpoint. In short, the narrative summary is written with a focus on just one character. This means that though each chapter will be written from a third person perspective, the events described will focus on a single character.

Third Person Omniscient — This is a less common narrative perspective, though it still seen in modern writing. Third person omniscient has the narrator focus on multiple characters. This means that even though there may be one main character, you will often see chapters that focus fully on other characters. Two very popular examples of this narrative standpoint are The Da Vinci Code and the Game of Thrones series.

OK… so let’s get down to the nitty gritty.

Using Narrative Voice

Having looked at narrative voice (first or third) and defined narrative summary (stuff the narrator says) we now turn our attention to using the narrator within the Show, Don’t Tell Methodology.

There’s one concept that’s essential for you to grasp if you are going to transform your writing and that is…

Not everything the narrator says is TELL.

Let me put that another way…

Not all narrative summary is TELL. Many people learning the Show, Don’t Tell Methodology get caught up in the narrative summary and seem to flinch away from the narrator’s voice. They become fearful that anything that they put in the narrative will be seen as TELL. Well, that’s not true. In fact, the opposite is true. The narrator plays an essential part in your story.

Let’s return to a rule of thumb that you can use when assessing your writing:

  • Dialogue is for moving the plot forward and passing backstory.
  • Narrative summary is for describing actions, locations and people.

It is, therefore, not narrative summary that is your enemy, it is TELL.

So what’s TELL?

Well, TELL is stuff you put into the narrative summary that is something other than ‘describing actions, locations and people’.

TELLING in the narrative summary is one of the following:

  • The character’s back-story – This is when the narrator TELLS the reader about something that has happened in the past.
  • Non-described action – This is when the narrator TELLS the reader about action. For example, ‘the boy was sad’ is TELL, while ‘the boy sobbed, tears streaming down his cheeks’ is SHOW.

Let me just dwell on the ‘non-described’ action for a moment. It’s been said that narrative summary should contain action, so how is non-described action now TELL.

Look at this example:

A beautiful woman walked down the crowded street.

Description?

No. This is TELL. The writer is TELLING the reader the woman is beautiful and the streets are crowded. The narrator must do the opposite and SHOW. They should describe the woman and the crowded street.

Try it. Pop open a blank Word doc and write out a paragraph that DESCRIBES the woman and the street.

Once you have grasped the basics of Show, Don’t Tell, there’s one more level of understanding that’s needed if you are to lift your writing to the highest level.

Much of the technique we’ve looked at so far in this book is pushing you towards a very filmic style of writing. There are times when the technique is calling for a style of writing that seems to consist almost exclusively of dialogue and described action. I’ve even suggested a technique called The Camera Test. However, if your entire novel contains only description, then you are missing one of the most wonderful aspects of novel writing.

This is that novels have the ability for the reader to gain an insight into the writer’s interpretation of life. The writer, using the narrator, is able to provide the reader with a unique way of seeing the world.

In short, a great novel will change the way you see the world.

Deep stuff I know, but this is the secret sauce that will transform your writing from good to great.

Here’s an example to illustrate this point. This comes from Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. It’s about ten pages into the book and comes just after the old man has caught a huge fish…

Then he began to pity the great fish that he had hooked. He is wonderful and strange and who knows how old he is, he thought. Never have I had such a strong fish nor one who acted so strangely. Perhaps he is too wise to jump. He could ruin me by jumping or by a wild rush. But perhaps he has been hooked many times before and he knows that this is how he should make his fight. He cannot know that it is only one man against him, nor that it is an old man. But what a great fish he is and what will he bring in the market if the flesh is good. He took the bait like a male and he pulls like a male and his fight has no panic in it. I wonder if he has any plans or if he is just as desperate as I am?

This is a perfect example of narrative voice being used to add depth but without TELL.

Remember TELL is either dumping backstory or TELLING the reader about actions or a character’s feeling.

This is not TELL, it is narrative summary at its best.

Why? What makes this SHOW, not TELL?

The key comes in the opening two sentences:

Then he began to pity the great fish that he had hooked. He is wonderful and strange and who knows how old he is, he thought.

What this does is sets the remainder of the paragraph as the character’s thoughts. The narrator is not TELLING us what the old man is thinking, he is SHOWING us the character’s thoughts. And this is the key… you can use the narrator to SHOW the reader what a character is thinking.

There’s four little technical points to consider when using narrative summary to present a character’s thoughts:

  1. Thoughts are always in the present. They are a reflection of the current events.
  2. Thoughts are not a way to present backstory. They are not a way to give the reader a vital clue about the plot. They are a way to add context to a character and their reaction to the current events.
  3. Thoughts are not a way to present emotion. They are not a short cut from describing/showing how a person is reacting to an event.
  4. Thoughts should be used cautiously. If used on occasion, to reinforce key issues, thoughts via the narrative summary can be very powerful. However, if overused they lose their power very quickly.

In the next section we will look at some real life examples of narrative summary in action.

Examples of Narrative Summary

Below are two real life examples of narrative summary. They are both taken from Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. The aim of these examples is to demonstrate how narrative summary can be used to enhance your writing without slipping into TELL.

When examining these examples please hold in your mind the following:

  • Watch for TELL.
  • Notice that the narrative summary is cemented in the present.
  • Recognize the fact they are character’s thoughts.

Example One

This is taken from the first half of the book, where the old man and the boy prepare for the fishing trip.

“What do you have to eat?” the boy asked.

“A pot of yellow rice with fish. Do you want some?”

“No. I will eat at home. Do you want me to make the fire?”

“No. I will make it later on. Or I may eat the rice cold.”

“May I take the cast net?”

“Of course.”

There was no cast net and the boy remembered when they had sold it. But they went through this fiction every day. There was no pot of yellow rice and fish and the boy knew this too.

“Eighty-five is a lucky number,” the old man said. “How would you like to see me bring one in that dressed out over a thousand pounds?”

“I’ll get the cast net and go for sardines. Will you sit in the sun in the doorway?”

“Yes. I have yesterday’s paper and I will read the baseball.”

The section of narrative summary that has been highlighted has the narrator showing the reader that the boy remembered the pot had been sold. The importance here is that it adds a new level of context to the exchange of dialogue.

By showing the reader that the boy knows the pot has been sold, the reader can see that the boy’s interaction - “No. I will eat at home. Do you want me to make the fire?” — has a new meaning. The boy has chosen to interact in a way that protects The Old Man’s feelings. The narrator is not TELLING us that the boy is kind; he is SHOWING us by adding context to the words. The is very power and should stir a deeper emotion in the reader.

The next section of this paragraph — But they went through this fiction every day. There was no pot of yellow rice and fish and the boy knew this too — is the narrator’s voice. Remember the narrator knows everything. Yet rather than the narrator TELL us the boy is kind, he reinforces the point adding more context.

The point here is that the narrative summary never TELLS us the boy is kind, instead it SHOWS us.

Example Two

This section comes from later in the story. The Old Man is alone on the boat and has managed to catch the “great fish”. He has been propped in his boat for many hours, unable to move, holding the line as the fish tries to escape.

The sun was hot now although the breeze was rising gently.

“I had better re-bait that little line out over the stern,” he said. “If the fish decides to stay another night I will need to eat again and the water is low in the bottle. I don’t think I can get anything but a dolphin here. But if I eat him fresh enough he won’t be bad. I wish a flying fish would come on board tonight. But I have no light to attract them. A flying fish is excellent to eat raw and I would not have to cut him up. I must save all my strength now. Christ, I did not know he was so big.”

“I’ll kill him though,” he said. “In all his greatness and his glory.”

Although it is unjust, he thought. But I will show him what a man can do and what a man endures.

“I told the boy I was a strange old man,” he said.

“Now is when I must prove it.”

The thousand times that he had proved it meant nothing. Now he was proving it again. Each time was a new time and he never thought about the past when he was doing it.

The first thing to notice is that Hemingway has the old man talking aloud, perhaps to himself, perhaps to the fish, perhaps to God. The beauty of this is that it allows the writer to keep the story moving with resorting, exclusively, to narrative summary.

The first section of narrative summary is clearly a thought — ‘Although it is unjust, he thought’. Yet the thought adds context to the dialogue. The book’s major theme is the fight between man and nature and this simple thought pushes this into the reader’s mind. It acts as a contrast between the action and a meaning for the action. Hemingway is using the action and the narrative summary to force the reader to think differently about man’s role in the world.

The second section sees the narrator passing a judgment on The Old Man. The narrator is telling the reader something about The Old Man. It adds context to the character’s action, but forces the reader to think more deeply about the action. The Old Man says aloud “I told the boy I was a strange old man”, but it is the narrator that forces the reader to look more deeply into this statement. How is The Old Man strange? How has he proved it in the past? Why keep on proving it?

In these two examples, it can be seen that by both using character’s thoughts and directive narrative voice, a writer can add an additional context to a character words and actions.

So… on the most basic level the job of narrative summary is to describe the actions of characters. However, there is a second more valuable and more powerful role. This is to force the reader into a place where they add additional depth and meaning to these words and actions. If done correctly, this will turn any good novel into a great novel and a work of art.

Yet, one of the great ironies of novel writing is that this one simple strategy is the hardest of all. Writers, such as Hemingway, dedicated their whole careers to trying to make it work. For most writers, this is the most worthy and valuable of journeys.

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