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Narrative voice in fiction

Your narrative voice is the way you tell a story. The author’s personality and emotions  as they tell the story make up their narrative voice. A strong narrative voice gives a story a unique tone and perspective, creating a sense of intimacy between the reader and the characters. It also makes the reader feel like they are a part of the story. Here are some tips to help you find your narrative voice when writing.

children listening to story's narrative voice

Make your narrative voice distinctively you.

Your voice is unique, reflecting your experiences, perspective on important themes, and writing style. Developing your personal voice is what will make you stand out as an author. The more books you read by the same author, the more you get to know their distinctive storytelling voice that helps their stories stand out.

Consider the point of view.

Deciding on the point of view can make or break a story. Each point of view has its benefits and drawbacks, so choose the one that best suits your story. For more on point of view, see “3 Popular Points of View.”

The point of view can make all the different for the story’s narrative tone. Here is a scene from The Guardian by Elise Abram, written in third-person limited point of view from the protagonist’s, Molly McBride’s, point of view:

Molly opened the door of the women’s dorm to a rush of stale, humid air. “Let’s get the windows open. Air this place out,” she said, wincing.

Once inside, she tried the lights. “Huh. Looks like the electrician’s a no-show, too,” she said.

The dormitory was a double trailer set up so that rooms ran down either side of the structure. Each dorm room contained two bunk beds. A lavatory incorporating several toilet stalls, a few shower stalls, and some sinks made up the dorm’s central block. A common room occupied the front quarter of the structure, furnished with a padded bench running along the front wall of the trailer and beneath a bank of windows.

“There’s supposed to be a washer and dryer in each dorm that hasn’t arrived yet. Surprise, surprise,” Molly said. She thought she saw a gleam in Clint’s eye, indicating how much he enjoyed her plans gone awry.

“The bathrooms are this way,” she said, leading them down a narrow hallway. She paused in the lavatory doorway. Because the washrooms were in the centre of the structure, there were no windows to aid in the illumination of the room. Gradually, her eyes adjusted to the lack of light, and she entered the lavatory, making a beeline for the first stall. She flushed the toilet; it worked. The sound of swirling water against porcelain was like music to her ears. “At least the septic system’s on line,” she said.

“Yeah, but no running water,” said Meagan, turning sink taps.

“So let me get this straight,” said Clint. “We can pee, but we can’t see to aim straight? Hitting a bulls eye’s hard enough in the light—any contingencies for cleaning near misses?”

“You are such a pig, Clint,” said Meagan.

“Too much information, buddy,” Gabriel said. He clapped Clint on the back on his way out of the room.

Third-person limited has the same parameters as first-person limited. This scene sets up the adversarial relationship between Clint and pretty much everyone else. The problem is that it lacks emotion, probably because Molly is more concerned about the field school running smoothly than she is Clint’s grudge. Molly is too busy exploring the trailer to care about much of anything else. This is why the narrative focuses on describing the setting.

The next excerpt is the same scene, described through Clint’s eyes:

McBride opens the door of the first trailer to a rush of stale, humid air that smells like dirty socks.  “Let’s get the windows open, and air this place out,” says Mary Sunshine.  She flicks the lights a few times, like if she can prime the switch she’ll eventually be able to pump some light into the joint.  “Huh.  No power,” she says, stating the obvious.

To call the battered, shoebox-sized trailers behind the house ‘dormitories’ is to call a prison cell the Taj Mahal.  This is what we’re forced to call home for the next few weeks.  The front door opens into a common room that occupies the front quarter of the metal structure.  There’s a padded bench under the portal windows near the door, and a washer and drier in the corner.  The rest of the trailer is furniture free, save for two, bivouac-style metal bunks, in each stall that tries to pass as a dorm room.

“The bathrooms are this way,” McBride says, drawing our attention to what was supposed to be the lavatory in the centre of the trailer.  Though the room’s dark, what with no electricity and no windows, I can make out several toilet stalls, some shower stalls and sinks.  

McBride pushes past Sykes and I where she makes a beeline for the nearest stall.  She flushes the toilet and I can barely hear her sigh of what sounds like relief over the well-water sluicing around the bowl.  “At least the septic system’s on line,” she says

“Yeah, but there’s no running water,” says Sykes, turning sink taps like he’s tuning the radio or something.

I think about this for a minute.  “So let me get this straight,” I say.” We can pee, but we can’t see far enough to aim straight?” 

McBride clucks her tongue against her teeth and shakes her head either in disgust or frustration at me, I ‘m not sure with.  Six of one, half-a-dozen of the other; I’m quite content with either reaction.

“Too much information, buddy,” says Sykes.  He claps me twice on the back, hard, like we’re good buddies or something, on his way out of the room.

Told in first-person limited from Clint’s point of view, this scene is more descriptive and vivid. It focuses on what’s going on inside Clint’s head. As a result, the animosity between the two characters is brought to life. This is because Clint cannot get over his resentment of Molly being his boss. The narrative focuses on what’s going on in Clint’s head, so the animosity between the characters takes the forefront in favour of describing the setting.

The choice to switch the point of view and the point of view character brings the scene to life while making it more interesting for the reader.

Use vivid imagery.

Descriptive language, also known as imagery, helps create a sense of tone and atmosphere. The language you use reflects the tone and mood of the story, allowing the reader feel as if they are present in the action alongside your characters as a part of the story. Use descriptive language, figurative language, and sentence structure to create a unique, distinctive writing voice for your story. Describe the sights, sounds, smells, and feelings of your characters and settings to bring your story to life.

Experiment with different narrative techniques.

Narrative techniques include stream-of-consciousness, writing from multiple perspectives, and unreliable narrators. These techniques can help create suspense and interest in your stories, setting them apart from other authors.

Read like a writer to develop your narrative voice.

Reading widely will help you to develop your narrative voice. The next time you read a book, read like a writer instead of a reader. Question every choice the author makes, asking yourself why the author included each element of the story and its purpose. Reading different authors and genres will help you become familiar with various narrative voices and techniques that you can borrow for use in your own stories.

In conclusion…

A strong narrative voice can make a story more engaging, memorable, and powerful. It is the voice of the author and/or narrator that sets the tone of the story. A distinct narrative voice can make your story stand out, connecting you to your readers.

If you are struggling to develop your narrative voice, EMSA Publishing can help. Contact us for a developmental edit of your manuscript. For more details, see our page on developmental editing specifics.