If I say “narrative voice,” what do you think of? Point of view? Tense? Good.
But first, second, or third person point of view (POV) isn’t where it starts and ends. Neither is whether the story is told in present or past tense. It’s more than that.
Point of View
First, a reminder about the basics of POV. You have four main choices for your book’s narration:
1. First person: “I” tell the tale — a character in the story. This character can be directly involved in the plot or an observer.
Example: “I couldn’t believe she’d asked me to her party. Judilynn was known for her high-end dinner gatherings, and we’d never floated in the same circles. Would anybody be there I could talk to? What would I wear? A million questions swirled in my head. Five minutes after I opened the invitation I wished I hadn’t received it. I didn’t even want to go — but how could I say no?”
2. Second person: “You” tell the tale. A character in the story actually tells the tale, but “You” is used in the writing instead of “I.” This is very tricky, has been tried (arguably successfully) by the some of the best writers out there, and most editors, critics, reviewers, and many readers see it as mostly a gimmick.
Example: “You can’t believe Judilynn has invited you to her party. She’s known to invite the local who’s-who roster, and you’ve never seen yourself in that circle of movers and shakers.”
3. Third person omniscient: A narrator who is not a part of the story but is an all-seeing, all-knowing observer who can follow any character and share any character’s thoughts with the reader tells the tale.
Example: “Nancy couldn’t believe she’d been invited to Judilynn’s party. Judilynn was known for her high-end dinner gatherings, and Nancy didn’t see herself as a part of that group. She stared at the invitation, trying to imagine what she might wear, who else might attend she could comfortably talk with, and whether it would be worth the stress to go. Across town, in her highrise condo, Judilynn paced, surprised at how nervous she was that Nancy might turn her down. She wasn’t sure how Nancy might fit into the mix, but her list of regulars was growing thin, and she needed new blood.”
4. Third person limited: A narrator tells the tale about “her” or “him” from that character’s point of view. Sometimes this is called “over the shoulder third” because it’s as if the narrator is sitting on the POV character’s shoulder. No other character’s actions or thoughts are followed (see the exception below). It’s very much like first person (“I”) except the third person limited POV isn’t as intimate as first person.
Example: “Nancy couldn’t believe she’d been invited to Judilynn’s party. Judilynn was known for her high-end dinner gatherings, and Nancy didn’t see herself as a part of that group. She stared at the invitation, trying to imagine what she might wear, who else might attend she could comfortably talk with, and whether it would be worth the stress to go. She thought about calling her friend Linda to see what Linda thought, but quickly pushed the End button before the call went through. All I need is for Linda to resent me for being invited, Nancy thought.”
Exception/Alternative: Sometimes a writer will use more than one “limited” POV character, switching back and forth among them. Usually chapter breaks, space breaks within a chapter, or another signal is given to the reader to indicate the point of view is about to change.
Did you notice the second person example used present tense whereas the other examples used past tense? It makes the most sense for second person point of view (really… it’s hard enough to believe “You are” doing anything… much less that “you did” something and are just now reading about it…. See how oddball second person can be?), but can be used for any of the others as well.
What are the advantages to each of the tense options?
Many writers opt for present tense when they want to convey the sense of immediacy: “I tear open the linen envelope. ‘You’re invited…’ I read. I read the invitation again. I read it a third time. Judilynn is inviting me to her Thursday dinner party. It’s an honor to be asked, not one I’ve ever thought I’d be given. And now that I’m holding one in my hand, I’m not sure I want it after all.”
Will she accept the invitation? Will she go? The questions in the reader’s mind are tied to the immediate issue.
Now see if that changes with the tense. Here’s the same example but in past tense: “I tore open the linen envelope. ‘You’re invited…’ I read. I read the invitation at least three times, unable to believe it was for me, that it had come from Judilynn, that she was asking me to her Thursday dinner party. I’d never thought an invitation would come my way and though it was an honor to be asked, I wasn’t sure I wanted to be holding that invitation in the first place.”
Notice the difference? It’s more subtle than you might think and much deeper than just shifting from present tense to past tense or vice-versa. Think about how time affects you. How many times have you uttered some variation of: “I wish I’d known that before I did this!”
We’re (supposed to be, anyway) more experienced over time. So a story told in past tense suggests the character (whether third person or first person) is now a little wiser, a little more experienced, a little more jaded, a little more optimistic, a little more something than they were before the story happened. There’s a reason they’re telling the story in the first place, and they’ve gained something from the experience they now feel as they look back and tell the tale.
Telling a story in present tense means that *something* they’ll have experienced hasn’t yet occurred, and the main character hasn’t yet learned anything from it. They don’t have an “older but wiser” perspective, can’t see what’s coming, and don’t have any idea how the choices they make at this point will affect things later.
As I said, it’s a subtle thing, but it’s important. The best writers understand this and know how to use it.
What Does this Mean Relative to Narrative Voice?
Deciding on your combination of point of view and tense is just the start of creating your narrative voice. Narrative voice is how the story is told — the tenor, the timbre, the nuances of language and expression.
Get ready for more examples.
“I opened the envelope and immediately regretted it. I’m certain Judilynn meant to flatter me with her largess, inviting me to her high-brow Thursday soiree, but she neglected to consider how that would appear to my other friends, individuals who mean so much more to me than Judilynn ever has. Without a second thought, I tore the linen invitation, and its matching RSVP card and envelope, into tiny bits and tossed them into the trash bin. Wiping any clinging bits of paper from my hands, I went straight into the powder room to thoroughly wash them, avoiding my reflection in the mirror for fear I might just regret my rash act.”
“I opened the envelope. Couldn’t believe it. That old crow Judilynn, who thinks she’s got Thursday nights all sewn up with her little clique of drinking buddies, who thinks she can send a fancy-dancy printed invitation would woo me into her clutches, well, she’s got another thing coming. Sure, she calls it a dinner party, but I know what goes on over there. I might be half-blind and near deaf in my old age, but I know what I know. Right into the garbage went this little attempt to win me over.”
Ah! Some people think — mistakenly — that third person is “just the writer.”
That’s where they go wrong. That’s often why editors, agents, publishers, even readers will say that the writing just didn’t catch them. Examples? Sure thing:
“Nancy held the dinner party invitation in shaking hands. She read it three times, each time slowly and carefully, looking for clues as to Judilynn’s motive. She always had one, after all. Was it to embarrass her? Or was it a genuinely friendly gesture? It was so hard to tell with Judilynn. Nancy dropped the invitation on the table with the rest of the day’s mail. She’d decide about the party later. Right now she didn’t want to think about whether going meant getting a new dress or if it meant she’d have to talk to strangers or if it would upset her best friend who probably wasn’t invited. No, she’d think about it later. She’d give herself right up until the RSVP was due. At least that would send Judilynn a message back, a clear message, a message that said more than whether she was going to be there or not.”
“Nancy’s hands shook like an addict’s after a long dry spell, shook so bad she couldn’t read the writing, a fancy script meant to look like handwriting that might have fooled Nancy if she didn’t know better. Nothing about Judilynn was real. Fake hair color. Fake nails. Fake boobs. Fake smile. Fake friends. The only real thing about Judilynn was her ability to toss back drink after drink without falling on her face. Which gave her the chance to laugh her fake laugh at the bad jokes the people around her table told. No, it wasn’t the kind of get-together Nancy wanted to be a part of. And that was despite the boost in local social status she would get from being invited.”
First, both paragraphs are third person limited and told in the past tense. So they’re the same, right? Not if you read them carefully. See the differences?
The first uses full sentences — the second has several sentence fragments (“Fake hair color. Fake nails.”). The first spends some time inside Nancy’s head — Nancy wondering what Judilynn’s motivation was for sending the invitation, deciding not to think about whether to attend or not. The second dwells on Judilynn — painting a picture of her while revealing Nancy’s attitude about Judilynn through careful word choice (“fake,” “boobs”).
These differences distinguish the two “narrative voices” at work in each paragraph. They aren’t exactly the same paragraph — and that’s as it should be.
Each story should have a unique voice to tell the tale. A snarky, cynical “voice” can tell certain kinds of stories better than others, while a light, conversational voice works better in others. Sometimes it’s refreshing for the writer and readers alike when a seeming misfit actually is made to work — a cynical voice in a humorous series of events; a “hard” voice in a romantic scene.
Finding a voice for your story is essential. Sometimes it emerges organically — it comes easily as you write the book — and other times it’s a struggle. Maintaining the voice is critical, unless there’s a good reason for a change.
The important thing is to understand that POV and tense are NOT narrative voice. They are elements that help create narrative voice, tools you can use, but voice is more than those singular elements.
Still confused? Here’s an analogy that’s helped me keep the idea of narrative voice clear as I write. I remember my mom telling me a story about the actor John Wayne. She said, “He’d say, ‘Just tell me which hat to put on and which door to go through.’” If you watch John Wayne movies, he’s always John Wayne. He might be wearing a cowboy hat in one movie and a military helmet in another, but his speech patterns, his physical acting (especially that famous saunter) are all John Wayne.
Now think about Dustin Hoffman. Dustin is different in every single movie. He’s Tootsie or the Rain Man or any of dozens of other excellent characters. He becomes the characters he plays.
What Dustin is doing is exemplifying “narrative voice.” Think of what a different movie “The Rain Man” would be if Dustin Hoffman was just Dustin Hoffman.
Each book — or series, if you’re writing a bunch of books featuring the same main character(s) — should have a unique voice, just as Tootsie and Rain Man are unique. As you read, tune in to the narrative voice. How would you describe it? What is it about that voice that’s keeping you engaged (or not)?
Now describe the “voice” of your work in progress (WIP). Is it conversational? Casual? Formal? Personal? Impersonal? Cynical? Naive? Convincing? Unsure?
What can you do to improve the way your story is told — through voice?