No matter how good your premise, how twisty your plot, how loveable your characters, if you don’t nail that narrative voice, you won’t do your story justice.
You know when you pick up a book and the tone/style/atmosphere instantly grabs you by the goolies? When you can happily suspend your disbelief, safe in the knowledge that you’re in experienced storytelling hands? When the narration puts you right into the mindset of the characters and gives you ALL THE FEELS?
That’s what we’re after.
Like the unmistakable rhetoric and unrelenting piss-taking of Dickens. <snarf, good sir>
Like the profanity-filled Glaswegian phonetics of Trainspotting. <get tae fuck>
Like the heart-achingly spot-on childlike narration of Emma Donoghue’s Room. <sob>
Like the terrifyingly accurate psychological perception of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi. <swoon>
Like the gleeful fourth-wall-breaking omniscient hand of Terry Pratchett <gnu>
Like… whatever it is you’re about to write. <yay!>
So what makes a smash-fucking-tastic narrative voice? And how do you find the right voice for your story? Uhm. Well. We wish we had a straight answer for you, but… hahahaaaa this writing thing is fucking hard, remember? And narrative voice is an extreeeeeemely personalised and subjective thang. You kinda have to just try, and experiment, and tweak, and endlessly doubt yourself until you get it right. Right? Right.
Also, in most cases, narrative voice tends to emerge towards the end of the first draft, so don’t sweat it too much if it feels a little vague at the beginning.
But we’re not leaving you totally high and dry. Here are a few jumping off points to help you refine your voice:
Tone – What kind of atmosphere or feeling are you trying to create? You’re driving this thing, remember. Should there be a feeling of underlying sarcasm? A sense of dread? An element of mystery? Experimenting with word choice and sentence structure will help you to figure out the effect of your writing on the reader.
Perspective – Whose story are you telling? Even third person can (and should) reflect the main character in some way. Nailing your voice is doubly, triply, quadruply important for novels that have several different narrators or POVs (we’re talking to you, dual narrative peeps) – as each one needs to be instantly recognisable and distinctive.
Reliability – How much does the narrator (whether it’s you, or one/several of your characters) want the reader to know? How much does the narrator actually know? Should the reader trust them?
Emotion – Does your narrative voice provoke an emotional response from the reader? (Hint: it should.) How can you use it to poke and prod us in the right direction? Think about the highs and lows, and the balance between them. Moments of extreme drama can be tempered by a little humour. A sudden crisis can jack-knife pacing after lulling the reader into a false sense of security. Lead us on a rollercoaster of emotion and we’ll be glued to the page.
Rhythm – How can you play with pace and style and motifs to create a rhythm for your story – one that keeps the story moving forward and won’t let the reader put the book down? Every good book leaves us feeling like the writer is in full control of the narrative.
Individuality – What makes your narrative voice uniquely YOURS? No one else can tell this story the way you can. Let us see what’s in that brilliant storytelling universe inside your head.
Emulation – If there’s a style or mood of writing (or a particular author or book or film) that inspires your story, can you deconstruct and emulate it? That doesn’t mean you should completely rip it off or try to force your writing to be something it’s not, of course. But being mindful of what you’re aiming for, and gradually guiding your writing towards that target can help you to find the tone you’re after.
Experimentation – Why not muck about with style and POV and tense and all the rest? Try writing a scene from the antagonist’s perspective. Try getting rid of all your description and focusing on dialogue for a change. Try stripping back the exposition and getting right into the nitty gritty. Try skipping over the bits where your character travels from one place to the next and just jump forward to the next interesting part. Why the fuck not? You’re gonna edit it later anyway. You might just come up with a new way of telling the story.
TIME FOR A GREAT BIG WHOPPING CAVEAT:
Here’s a thing. You probably (definitely) won’t get your narrative voice right first time. Or maybe even the next one. Narrative voice is something that develops and grows and evolves and mutates over time, after you’ve written tens of thousands of words and really got to know your plot and your characters and all the little secrets and layers and subplots therein.
BUT, chances are, you will see little flashes of it here and there. Even in this first rough draft. You’ll find a scene that just feels right, somehow – a section that just flows – and you’ll be all like: “this is actually pretty fucking good” but also “how the fuck did I do this?”
That, dear writer, is your narrative voice peeking through. Treasure those little sections – deconstruct and analyse them until you work out what it was you got right. Chances are you’ll start to see more of them as your draft progresses, and the style of writing towards the end of the book will edge closer to what you’re aiming for.
So… in summary… WRITE the damn thing. The voice will come.