Nailing Your Narrative Voice
Finding your narrative voice when writing a piece is not something that can be taught, as such, but when you discover it you will know. It is like walking a tightrope where you can sense the next step you need to take: your feet inexplicably balance, yet you know that you could fall at any moment. It is exhilarating and, once you have it, you will fall in love with your writing.
Whether it is fiction or non-fiction, poetry or prose, your voice is integral and must remain consistent. Some writers stumble across a voice as they write and go back to fix the earlier sections that are lacking, whilst others start several times until they are happy from the beginning. Personally, I try and nail the voice in the opening line.
The first sentence of any piece should set the tone for the rest of it. An incredible opening will hook the reader and create an atmosphere and feel for the story or poem as a whole. As such, the beginning naturally carries a lot of weight. Not only do you need to introduce the world and major characters, but also the themes, motivations, and plot. You need to start the story, launching it, and bring it to a place where there is no turning back. Until then, the tale could just cease to exist, so in effect that point of no return is the logical end of the beginning.
Whether you have planned your entire plot, or you are finding your way without, or with minimal structure or just an outline, you still need to give the reader a sense of discovery as they read. The temptation might be to dump all the information and exposition right at the start so the reader has it all, then throw in several characters at the same time, and let them all get on with it. This, fairly obviously, will not work: it will be a boring opening; characters will feel lacklustre as they are grouped together, and the reader will likely not make it through.
Writing the beginning of your story should be like finding a new place you did not know existed. Whether you have a route and destination planned or not, you still don’t have all the information straight away, so you need to explore and work out where you are and what is there. You don’t just know everything; you must look at it, listen to it, interact with it, walk through it. Your story is not a pile of information, but rather it is like stepping through a doorway into this new place. Until you cross the threshold—or, from the perspective of your audience, read the first page—you know nothing of where it is. You could walk into action or stillness, a place you can see or one you cannot. As you go further you understand more, and as you discover so should your reader.
Upon revision, you may well need to go back and foreshadow things that occur later, but that is the beauty of redrafting. As long as your discovery follows a consequence-based narrative, you will be writing in a way where each choice leads to a result that affects the next step taken as you explore.
It is therefore paramount to set the right feel as the story starts. Just like stepping through that doorway into a new place will give you an immediate first-impression, so should your opening sentence or paragraph. Your readers need to sense the overarching tone of your piece without you dumping everything on them.
First-person narratives are somewhat easier to give voice to, as you are writing internal dialogue throughout. You can craft the voice in the same way you would speech; giving the narrator quirks and idiosyncrasies, even an accent and a specific vocabulary that includes slang and key phrases. Third-person narrators tend, more than often, to be written either in perfect prose, or in the voice of the writer. I approach third in the same way as first, writing as if someone is telling the story, even if they are not in it. Every narrator needs their own voice—their own style—whether they are visible or not.
By combining that moment of initial discovery with a consistent narrative voice, the opening of a story (or poem, or non-fiction piece, or any type of writing) should set a strong and clear tone: this is what you will be reading, this is how it is. By doing this, a feel emerges, as it is not simply bound by the voice of the narrator but enhanced by the tone of the writing. It is this that narrows the path you tread to a tightrope. At that point—and you will know it when you find it—a thrill will run through you, as you realise you have it. Then, finally, you can move on to the next paragraph.
© 2017 Seb Reilly
Available under the Thanet Writers Education Policy
Seb Reilly is a writer, fiction author and occasional musician. He lives by the sea in Thanet, Kent, with his family and two cats.