Narrative Voice: Breaking the Rules

Guest post
by Mark Hamner

As I worked to complete my third book, Cinder’s Reach, I encountered a situation which led me to think about narrative voice rules and if it’s ever okay to break them. I believe that most of the time the answer is no, but there may be some situations in which it’s not as cut-and-dried.

For those perhaps new to writing, narrative voice can be thought of as the general perspective of the story. The narrative voice goes hand-in-hand with the narrative point of view. Some common narrative voices are first-person character voice (“I wonder what Jennifer is thinking”), third-person limited voice (“Mike had no idea what Jennifer was thinking”), and third-person omniscient voice (“Mike was confused; Jennifer was furious.”)

My Echo Chronicles series is written in third-person omniscient voice. As you know, that means I follow the characters in a “He said,” “He went,” “He thought,” manner, and I give my readers insight into the thoughts and feeling of more than one character. My story does, of course, have a protagonist, and his is the main point of view and narrative voice, but I do drop into others as well. I have four main characters, and all four have lent their voices to the story at various times. This worked well for me through my first two books, but I hit a snag in the third.

Near the end of Cinder’s Reach, one of my main characters (not the protagonist), learns a game-changing secret. For several reasons, she’s not able to tell the protagonist this secret. It was important for the story that I convey that there was a secret, and that the secret was a big deal, but not give away the secret itself. This presented me with a problem. Until this point, the secret-bearing character had been an “open book,” with her thoughts presented clearly and frequently. Now she had to keep something from my readers. Ultimately I decided the preservation of the secret and its importance to the overall series was more important than fidelity to narrative voice rules, and let my character keep her secret. For reasons I can’t say without spoiling a key plot point, this only had to last a short time, so fortunately I didn’t have to carry my stretching of the rules through to the next book.

Despite my deviation, I’m actually a big fan of sticking to your narrative voice. If you hop around too much, or do so arbitrarily, it can make it hard for your readers to feel connected to your characters. And I believe that connection to our characters can be a big part of what makes folks want to read – and keep reading – our stories.

I’m certainly not the first author to have a need to deviate from these rules. For example, there is a scene in Mockingjay, by the excellent Suzanne Collins, where she leaps out of Katniss’s first-person voice and into Finnick’s head. Collins was very clever in how she accomplished this, and I’m not going to give anything away, but I urge you to re-read the sewer chase scene from Mockingjay to see what I mean.

I do feel the rules of narrative voice are important, as they give your readers a comfort level with your work. But I also believe that, on occasion, a break from the rules is warranted if it serves the overall good of the story. But that’s just what I think. I’d love to hear what you think!

Mark Hamner is the author of The Echo Chronicles series, an independently published young-adult post-apocalyptic series. The first two books in the four-part series, Echo’s Remnant and Empire’s Rise, are available now at Amazon. Mark lives in Louisville, Kentucky, with his wife and daughter. In addition to focusing on completing his series, Mark enjoys blogging about his writing experience. Learn more about Mark and his writing from his blog and his Amazon author page.

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7 thoughts on “Narrative Voice: Breaking the Rules”

  1. This is why I prefer third-person limited in most cases. If you’d been in third-person limited all along, the part where one character needed to keep the secret could have been told from another character’s PoV. Plus with third-person omniscient, it’s sometimes too easy for the author to step out of the objective narrator’s voice and either preach or give his/her own opinions, which Victorian audiences loved but modern-day audiences hate. But I’m no PoV genius – my series is in first-person, which apparently many readers hate. So you’ve gotta do what you think is right. Great post, Mark.

  2. Fascinating post Mark. I still struggle with the terminology for some of these writing mechanics. When I first started my apprenticeship as a fiction writer, third person omniscient was my comfort zone [because I’d started life as a tech writer], but I gradually learned how to use third person limited. Now I save third person omniscient for what I think of as the camera view – i.e. something visible to all characters that lacks emotional content.

    1. Thanks for your reply! I’ll probably end up moving away from third person omniscient as well. It can be very useful and convenient, but now I’m starting to see limitations in its freedom (clever sounding, huh? 🙂 )

  3. Sorry to take so long to wade in here; been busy, been sick, yada yada… Anyhow, I’ve played with POV quite considerably, even mixing them, with varying degrees of success; each POV has it’s strengths and weaknesses. I guess it depends on what strengths you want to utalise in a particular story. Comfort is a bit over rated, I believe; because if you practice anything it can eventually become comfortable. Just my two cents worth.

    Nice article, Mark.

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