Jun 17, 2016

Finding Narrative Voice: Considerations and Advice

I love telling stories, I always have done. Ever since I began learning how to spell I started making up tales and adventures. I remember being very little and having a big book of dinosaurs open so I could spell their names correctly as I inserted them into my stories, I entering every poetry competition at school (and sometimes winning), and watching every movie I could get my hands on at the video rental store to digest more stories.

She probably has quite a unique voice

When I wrote I usually wrote with my own voice, and I often still do unless I determine that writing with someone else's voice would really alter the story in a significant beneficial way. But even when using my own voice it is important to keep in mind who I am talking to.

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One Ear or Many
When you speak to one person, the language and expression you use is normally fuller and richer than if speaking to two people, three or a group. This is because with one person you build up a shared meaning of words and ideas that become in some ways its own private language that is evolving and growing. If you are speaking to many people at once, the words and phrases you use have to become broader, shallower and more general in order to make sure that everyone understands you well enough. This is why if you see stand up comedy in small basement room with twenty people, you can get a deep interesting shared experience that evolves with the group, as the comedian takes risks and builds a relationship with the audience. But when performing to a stadium sized audience the stand up comedian generally relies on jokes about airplane food and differences between men and women, because they are having to reach a broader audience and needs to tap into more general experiences that are more common.

When writing, you have to decide whether the voice you are using is communicating with one person, a few people, or many people. In reality (if writing for a book, poem or comic book) you will have a single reader at a time, but be conscious of the style of language and word choice as it will affect the style of your language. Will you choose a deep intimate and meaningful language as if talking to someone you know well, a casual language as if talking to someone you do not know well, or a general and shallower language as if talking to a group? All are natural and good choices, the important idea to remember is that you should be consistent in your voice from beginning to end.

Character as Narrator
If writing a story as a character, first you should decide if the character is actually inside of the story or not, by which I mean are they taking part in the story or do they only exist in the world of the story. Then you must decide if the character is omniscient (that they know everything, past present and future), and if they are not omniscient, what exactly do they know and not know. This sounds like a great deal of work at the beginning but it will save countless errors and backtracking in your writing further down the line.

After that you will need to consider all of the usual aspects of a character, such as their motivations, relationships, agendas and how what they are telling impacts them personally. To go even deeper, you must have some kind of reasoning why the character is telling the story at all, and in doing so justify that you are using that character's voice instead of another.

Start Small
If I am trying a new voice I have not attempted before, I find it great practice to write short pieces in that voice first. A poem, anecdote or short story is a great way to practice staying in that same voice from beginning to end with a piece of writing, and can make it easier when attempting a larger story.

By doing this you can get an idea of what words to watch out for, any unnatural turns the voice might take, and keeping a consistent mood or feeling to the voice. I also find it useful to read my writing aloud, as this can very quickly bring to light inconsistencies, pacing issues and give new ideas for language and phrasing choices.

The Unreliable Narrator
I myself have never committed any serious writing with an unreliable narrator. An unreliable narrator is one which obscures the truth, either because the voice is heavily biased, uninformed, silly, mad or just a plain liar. This can lead to interesting experiences in writing and reading, however I personally enjoy telling stories more as one would tell a story to a child, or a fable to an ancient, where the story can be full of lies, deceit and treachery, but the story teller themselves can be trusted. Like Virgil guiding Dante through the circles of Hell, as the one reliable figure through a world of shadows, disturbances and mixed agendas. (The narrator of the story is Dante, but I am comparing my duty as a storyteller to Virgil's, I apologize if that is confusing).

If you want to attempt to write as an unreliable narrator, ask first if there is some other way the desired experience you want the reader to have (anxiety, tension, curiosity and so on) can be achieved in another simpler way, with a plot twist, character reveal or some kind of betrayal within the story, as using an unreliable narrator can be rewarding, but does ask for a lot of energy and patience on the part of the reader. Also as advised earlier, practice by starting small.

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