As I mentioned last time, I have found useful writing tips to be few and far between. This is, to me, one of the most powerful things you can use in creating fiction, but it’s subtle and has no real nuts/bolts application. But just being aware of it helps you when nothing else does. The term is “narrative voice”.
I first heard it in school from Jack Cady, a very talented short story writer who taught writing and science fiction in the Engineering department. Oddly, two weeks later I was sitting in a bar just off campus with Ken Kesey, and he said exactly the same thing. So I took it to heart.
It’s a vague and slippery concept as writing tips go, closer to psychology or spirituality than to medicine or exercise. But you should be aware of it: just keep that awareness a little unfocused. Narrative voice is, in Cady’s words, the way your story wants to tell itself. It’s way more than a point of view or style or dialect or mode or any of that, though all of those are elements in it. You pick up a children’s book about a kid looking for a lost friend and read it, it’s telling itself in a certain way that fits the story. Then you pick up a noir detective story about a guy looking for a lost friend and it tells itself in a very different way.
Sometimes you see satires or fun stories that switch the narrative voice. Black Beauty as told by Mike Hammer, a sexy romance in the cadences of the King James Bible, whatever. And it makes you aware of that voice that lies below the various elements that are more often described and debated. You don’t decide, “Well, I guess I should use limited third person, and maybe take the POV of the detective’s sidekick.” Those flow out of the proper narrative voice, each element determining the others. And it makes all the difference. I would say that you can spin your wheels and pound your brow for a long time until the right narrative voice makes itself felt, and when it does, the thing just starts telling itself.
Which is exactly what Kesey said. He mentioned “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”, which at one point was just driving him nuts. He was trying different POV’s, different perspectives and techniques, all the stuff he learned at Stanford, and beginning to despair of getting a handle on what is a much trickier story than it looks. Then, from out of nowhere, he came up with The Chief. A catatonic Indian who stands motionless in the psych ward, watching what goes on. And when he hit that, he told me, everything fell into place and the writing just took off, dragging him along behind it.
I’ve mentioned this to a lot of writers, the majority of whom have never heard the term–because people don’t teach what they can’t understand or break down into rules and nomenclature–and the majority grasped it immediately. Yeah, yeah… I was going nowhere until I realize the little girl was sitting there watching all of it. Yeah, it was just one more hack mystery until I started hearing it from the driver, looking back twenty years later, sneering at their fake tough attitudes when they were kids.
I’m not talking about something like the idiot online advice I saw the other day: to tell the story from the dog’s point of view. The voice might be a totally dry, disembodied narrator. It might be something as intricate as the gradually aging narration in Joyce’s “Portrait Of The Artist”. But your designated narrator is there, speaking a certain way, and when you hear it, it will be couched in the POV and voicing and mood and attitude that you need to get the thing done.
Trouble is, this is where I should be saying, So here’s how you go about identifying and implementing the Narrative Voice. And there ain’t any. Sorry.
So what good is all this? Because just being aware of something subtle very frequently helps you be receptive to it. It’s like believing there is intelligence behind the universe or that you have a soulmate somewhere. As long as you think you can learn some more esoteric POV label to help you, you’ll stumble in the dark. But if you know what is actually happening–that you are moving things around and listening to the story, waiting to hear its voice–then you can save a lot of time and stress getting there.
I often find that when I first think of a story it comes to me in very dry chunks. What if there’s this guy who thinks his son’s dead, but he really isn’t. And, oh, wait, the son isn’t even really his son. Blunt third person scratch notes. But at some point the plot and characters are known and the restless mind starts speaking in the voice of the story, the stuff you write down as part of the writing process. The more you know there is a voice hidden in there to tell you the tale, just as the sculptor knows there is a dolphin hidden inside that block of marble, then you can move towards it, calmly welcoming the true voice by which your story wants to be told.
* * * * *
Lin Robinson is the author of several books and manuals, available at Amazon. An award-winning journalist and magazine/catalog guru in his mis-spent youth, he now lives in Mexico and doesn’t even drink much. You can learn more about Lin at his website. You can also follow him on LinkedIn and Twitter. [subscribe2]