N is for Narrative voice, POV, and Distance

The narrative voice is the ‘voice’ of the narrator telling the story. They may be a character in your book or an external ‘know-it-all god-like’ narrator, but whichever they are, it is their ‘voice’ the reader ‘hears’, and with it comes great responsibility. The narration of a book can be engaging, and lure a reader into a story, but get the ‘voice’ wrong, and it may just turn a reader away.

Choosing the right narrative for your story is one of the most important decisions you will make:

First Person

Identified by the use of ‘I, we, us, me’, this narrative is common in young adult books. The narrator speaks directly to the reader, limiting the [narrative] distance between the character and the story as the reader has access to the viewpoint character’s inner thoughts.

Cons: The character is limited to what they know, see, hear, and otherwise experience (and so, too, is the reader).

** One of the drawbacks used to be that you could only narrate from one viewpoint character, but over the last few years, I have seen many a book with multiple first person narration, or a mix of first person and third. If you are using multiple first person narration, the voices should be distinct, so it is clear to the reader who is narrating, although, many authors bypass this requirement by naming the narrator at the start of a chapter. Please be aware, as well, that if you are using a lot of characters to narrate in first person, it can be hard for the reader to remember whose inner thoughts belong to which character.

Second Person

Identified by the use of ‘you, you’re, your, this is a rarely used narrative voice (to the best of my knowledge – I’ve never read a book in the second person, anyway).

This narrative addresses the reader directly, so my little story might read as:

You step through the airlock and whistle. There is is a rickety looking interior before you – not something you would associate with Space Station Ex, although it’s been a while since your last visit. You remove your helmet and secure it against the wall and then half-bounce, half float along the corridor.

I have to say, I quite enjoyed writing in that voice, even if it does read a little like a make your own adventure’ book. It’s very ‘present tense’ (in the here and now), which I know a lot of readers aren’t keen on. There is also no clue as to who the character is (the ‘you’ could be anybody at this stage).

The ‘you’ serves to bring you – the reader – closer to the character (more so than with first person, I think, as the ‘I’, ‘Me’, and ‘We’ still gives an element of distance.

** This is not to be confused with ‘breaking the fourth wall’, where the narrator switches from first person, or third, to address the reader directly (which I think deserves a discussion on its own).

Third Person

Identified by the use of ‘she’, he’, and ‘they,’ third person narration will allow the reader access to information beyond the limits of what a single character knows and experiences. And this is where narrative distance plays a role because there is more than one type of third person narration and the author’s intention dictate which type should be used. It also causes a lot of confusion.

Nine times out of ten, I will ask clients which narrative voice they are using. Not because I don’t know one type from the other, but because the narrative distance employed by an author can make it hard to be sure (and there is no point in my waffling on about third person omniscient ‘errors’ in my comments or editorial report when the author was, in fact, intending to write in third person limited, or vice versa).

The question I ask my clients is this: How close do you want your reader to be to your characters/story?

The answers range from ‘close’ (third person limited) to wanting ‘the reader to know everything about everyone’ (third person omniscient).

I’m not going to go into detail about the different types of third person here (as they each deserve a detailed explanation of their own) but I have listed the key features of each:

Third Person Omniscient (Objective)

  • A narrator that ‘knows all’
  • Reports the facts only (never enters a character’s mind)
  • ‘Shows’ rather than ‘tells’ the story
  • Avoids verbs that relate to emotional behaviour (felt, assumed etc)
  • Avoids adjectives that relate to emotions (Happy, sad, etc)
  • Distances reader from the characters (because it is the narrator telling the story)

Third Person Omniscient (Subjective)

  • A narrator that ‘knows all’ and has a strong opinion
  • Reports the facts
  • Interprets individual characters thoughts and feelings
  • Character thoughts and feelings are provided by the narrator – not the character
  • Can report on more than one character (but with a high chance of head-hopping if it is not done correctly)
  • ‘Tells’ more than ‘shows’ the story
  • Distances reader from the characters (because it is the narrator telling the story)
  • Easily confused with third person limited

For a more detailed explanation of the omniscient narrative(s), at least until I write my own, you can check out this article: https://www.scribophile.com/academy/using-third-person-omniscient-pov

Third Person Limited

  • Limited to one character’s perspective per scene/chapter
  • Draws the reader close
  • Different points of view (not in the same scene/chapter)
  • Commonly used narrative which is familiar to readers
  • Helps to focus the reader as they become absorbed in the character’s plight
  • Allows access to inner thoughts
  • The character is the narrator
  • Restricted to only one character’s perspective (but you can have multiple viewpoints within a novel (one per scene/chapter)
  • Varying degrees of narrative distance (see deep pov, below)

Deep POV

This is, without a doubt, my favourite narrative of all. It took a lot of time and a lot of practice to learn the intricacies of this ‘voice’ (and even now, I occasionally slip up), so don’t expect to ‘get’ this overnight. It pulls the reader as close as you get when writing in third person. It is similar to first person narration, but instead of using ‘I’ etc, it uses third person pronouns (he, she, they).

Deep POV is, quite simply, third person limited (but a stricter form of it). The character (narrator) cannot see themselves blushing, for example, but they will feel their cheeks heating up. They won’t see their eyes welling up (with tears) but will feel them watering up, or experience a blurry vision. They may even taste salt on their lips.

Much of what I’ve noted above for third person limited applies to this voice, with a few added extras:

  • Limited to what the character sees, hears, feels and experiences (but it is rarely ‘told’)
  • Shows more than tells
  • Makes use of the senses
  • Restricts the use of filter words (he saw/felt/knew/heard etc)
  • Minimal dialogue tags
  • Can be annoying to the reader if you overdo the internalisation or show in two paragraphs what you could have told in five words. Too much ‘showing’ can lead to reader confusion (There are occasions when telling is better than showing)

Summary

Deciding which narrative voice to use to tell your story is of equal importance to the plot, characters etc. So have a think about how you want your reader to experience your story:

  • Do you want them to experience what your character experiences and share (and suffer) in their turmoil?
  • Would you prefer them to see the ‘whole’ story from multiple perspectives but keep the reader at a bit of a distance?
  • Are you aiming for it to be a quick read?

When reading, make a note of what you like and don’t like about narrative voices you come across, and what attracts you to their story and makes you read on. It will help you develop your own style of writing. I, for example, enjoy books with deep characterisation, a lot of layering, and a complex plot, but I prefer long books anyway (500 pages plus). A 50k book (when I have time to read for pleasure) doesn’t last very long.

 Useful links:

If you are interested in developing your narrative voice (or other areas I’ve blogged about) then you will be pleased to know that I have listed all the ‘how to write’ type books I’ve read in my Amazon store (please note, I am an affiliate and may earn a few pennies, quite literally – not that I am complaining because every penny helps – if you buy via this store link. End of disclosure:

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