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Struggling With Narrative Voice? (1 Viewer)

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robertn51

Friends of WF
Is anyone else struggling with narrative voice?

I'll try to make this not tedious. And maybe I'll figure it out before it ends and you all will never see this noodling about.

I've never paid much attention to narrative voice in my fiction writing. It's always been a(n) "it is what it is" sort of thing. The story sort of unspools and the words for it come.

When I'm writing from the first or second perspective I inhabit a character and I write from their place and personality. Words come a little more slowly, carefully, because I'm monitoring, staying in character.

When I'm writing from the third perspective, though, I have a default voice. I don't think about it. I just tell the story. I'm (to myself) transparent and just telling the story. I'm neutral, invisible, absent.

That is misleading, of course. I have my biases, my colorations, my likes and dislikes. I probably write differently about my protagonist than my antagonist. Subconsciously or otherwise. But never mind that.

I think I've gotten pretty bored with my "default" voice. Which is also the first person voice when I'm being lazy and fantasizing my actual self into some situation and spinning a story from within that place.

I'm bored with my voice.

It makes me want to not write.

I hear that guy start up and I'm like, "Wahlp, Imma gonna go get on the gear and get the day's miles in. Enjoy. See you after the shower."

How does that voice get changed?

Must I create an invisible character -- the narrator -- and let them tell the tale?

Is this an impossibly stupid thing to want to do?

Does anyone out there struggle with this?

There's a reason I want to do this, but I have to be brief (gasp). I really do need to get the day's miles in, even in the dark. And I don't think my motivations will add anything to the question.

I'll explain more if needed. Later.

If anyone isn't sure what I'm talking about...
https://www.google.com/search?q=voice+literary+definition

Thanks
 

KeganThompson

Senior Member
So you are tired our third person voice/default voice?
I only write in 1rst person so I never had to struggle with third person voice. Might be more about playing with "purple prose" and word choice. Of course that goes for any pov but I think of 3rd person as more "formal" narration. It depends if you want to make the narrator a "character" itself with a personality even if they aren't directly in the story like first person
This probably doesn't help. But your question made me think about it :)
 
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Theglasshouse

WF Veterans
I don't know the answer to your question. However, I have trouble with first person since I have written third person omniscient all my life mostly. I won't endosre this book, but judging by the table of contents there is more than just 3 POVs to consider. That is like in the book thief death can be a mysterious narrator and character. I don't know whether to call these tropes of pov or strategies. In 13 days I will find out when I next get or receive my payment.

 

Kyle R

WF Veterans
There's a thing called "narrative distance", which refers to how close (or how far) your narrator's voice is to the voice of your character.

It sounds to me like you're operating under the belief that narrative distance can't change. But it can.

Here's an example:

The man rowed his boat toward the center of the lake, and cast out his line. As he waited for a fish to bite, he chewed on his lip, lost in his thoughts.

Now here's the same moment, but written with a different narrative distance:

George rowed his boat toward the center of the lake, and cast out his line. As he waited for a fish to bite, he chewed on his lip. Had he remembered to lock the back door, on his way out? Hell, he probably didn't. He'd been doing this more and more, lately--forgetting the dumbest things. Linda, of course, kept urging him to go to that memory clinic. But Linda worried too much for her own damn good. No way was he becoming an experiment . . .

Notice how, in the second example, we feel more like we're in the character's head? Now the reader actually gets a glimpse inside George, rather than just seeing him externally.

In the second example, the narration blends with George's thoughts and voice, which makes the story pull a bit closer to the character. This gives the narration a different flavor each time (as each character you do this for will have their own unique thoughts, voice, and personality).

If this seems like something you might like, there's a lot of great information about it, all over the internet. Just search for "narrative distance". You can also find videos about it on YouTube.

It's one of my favorite techniques. 👍
 

vranger

Staff member
Supervisor
I don't know if this is helpful, but possibly think of it like this: Who do you want to tell the story? It could be a redneck, an Ivy League professor, a homemaker, a soldier ...

Obviously, if you put those voices into first person, they're going to be very different. But you don't have to go into first person to do that. You can imagine that voice from, certainly, close third, and I'd suppose even from omniscient third. Do you put in a lot of humor? If not, add some. Also, you can control your voice through the characters ... their action and dialogue. I write a lot of dialogue ... it's actually a go-to for when I'm getting stuck. I start writing dialogue, get inside the characters' heads, and ideas come up to move the story along. But at the same time, those characters are also driving the tone of the story. I have certain characters whose dialogue I really look forward to writing, because they're so much fun to write.
 

bdcharles

Wɾ¡ʇ¡∩9
Staff member
Media Manager
For me personally, narrative voice is quite important, something of a sparkplug for my writing. Often the very first thing that happens, to the point where I sort of rely on it to, um, tart up maybe fairly generic plots? I think of it as the personality of the story, though I guess there is some overlap between narration and the POV character/s.

I think it might be about freeing up aspects of yourself. Let your moods out :) For myself, I - my moods - are quite changeable, so there are a few options. If someone has a fairly constant personality, the voice-change might be a little trickier. That said, those writers seem in my experience to have better luck with compelling plots. But even if this is you, and you're still not feeling it (hard to comment without a sample), my suggestion would be to read some novels that have a unique narrative voice and see if some of it can rub off on you. I recently read Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro, which had a very unique and engaging personality, though it was first person. Cormac Macarthy's The Road - there's one with a clear voice that's in third.
 

indianroads

Staff member
Global Moderator
Have you tried Close Third Person Limited?
That's my preferred perspective (POV) - it's like the reader is sitting between the character's ears, listening to their thoughts and experiencing everything they do. It allows you to write in that character's voice, yet step out to narrate and describe the world they're living in.
ETA:
About voice - in Third Limited, the voice you use is that of your character.
 

JBF

Staff member
Board Moderator
Something that's worked for a couple of writers I used to run with starts by figuring out what the rules of your particular voice are. Once you've done that, break one. If that doesn't work, revert and break another one. Keep breaking and resetting until you're out of the rut.

Invisibility can be your problem. One of those things that's great for technical papers but lousy for narrative purposes. By disappearing yourself out of the text you remove the things that make the difference between a readable writer and a favorite. Think of it like taking your favorite musical album and erasing everything but the vocals.

Yeah, it's the same song and you can sort of hear what drew you to it. Otherwise it's soulless and makes you realize the lead vocalist isn't that great.
 

KatPC

Senior Member
I think I've gotten pretty bored with my "default" voice. Which is also the first person voice when I'm being lazy and fantasizing my actual self into some situation and spinning a story from within that place.

I'm bored with my voice.

It makes me want to not write.
@robertn51, it is never good to be 'bored' with your own voice, I will come back to your main question, by answering others.
I don't know if this is helpful, but possibly think of it like this: Who do you want to tell the story? It could be a redneck, an Ivy League professor, a homemaker, a soldier ...

Obviously, if you put those voices into first person, they're going to be very different. But you don't have to go into first person to do that. You can imagine that voice from, certainly, close third, and I'd suppose even from omniscient third. Do you put in a lot of humor? If not, add some. Also, you can control your voice through the characters ... their action and dialogue. I write a lot of dialogue ... it's actually a go-to for when I'm getting stuck. I start writing dialogue, get inside the characters' heads, and ideas come up to move the story along. But at the same time, those characters are also driving the tone of the story. I have certain characters whose dialogue I really look forward to writing, because they're so much fun to write.

I absolutely agree @vranger! I think it is very important to 'be' that character, because that will set the tone of the story. In my story telling, I often daydream during work, thinking about what a character would be doing in any given situation. Say I bought some milk from next door and I was short changed, how would a character react? It sounds irrelevant and the example was poor, but for me, having a mental picture of a menial situation makes me understand the character more and when work finishes and I can stare at my screen to type, my character is already next to me.

I think it might be about freeing up aspects of yourself. Let your moods out :) For myself, I - my moods - are quite changeable, so there are a few options. If someone has a fairly constant personality, the voice-change might be a little trickier. That said, those writers seem in my experience to have better luck with compelling plots. But even if this is you, and you're still not feeling it (hard to comment without a sample), my suggestion would be to read some novels that have a unique narrative voice and see if some of it can rub off on you. I recently read Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro, which had a very unique and engaging personality, though it was first person. Cormac Macarthy's The Road - there's one with a clear voice that's in third.

Agree again, let go, write crazy, write weird, write different and if you hate it, you have more closed doors never to open, this doesn't solve your initial problem of your 'boring' narrative voice, but we are getting there ... one more comment to go.

Something that's worked for a couple of writers I used to run with starts by figuring out what the rules of your particular voice are. Once you've done that, break one. If that doesn't work, revert and break another one. Keep breaking and resetting until you're out of the rut.

Invisibility can be your problem. One of those things that's great for technical papers but lousy for narrative purposes. By disappearing yourself out of the text you remove the things that make the difference between a readable writer and a favorite. Think of it like taking your favorite musical album and erasing everything but the vocals.

Yeah, it's the same song and you can sort of hear what drew you to it. Otherwise it's soulless and makes you realize the lead vocalist isn't that great.

Seems like a trend setting here. Breaking rules of your voice? 'Keep breaking and resetting until you're out of the rut ...'

Agree again.

I remember back in the 'old' forum you wrote lovely introduction piece, it was a lovely read. I recall the peculiarities, the strange feeling that I had no idea what it was about, drawn in by the gentle telling of the story, to the final conclusion that tied it altogether, a wonderful piece of writing. Sustaining a voice is not easy, but for my own ventures, their voices live in my mind and as I briefly touched above, innocuous events can be turned into an opportunity for the mind to delve into 'what would the MC do in this situation?'

Break the rules, go wild, try new things, don't hide the voice away.
 
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Sinister

Senior Member
I actually have a book on the back burner that I haven't made an earnest start on, because I just cannot get the narrative voice down. It's kind of an old-style whodunnit. Those are traditionally first person from the point of view of a side-kick. But I started this with third person...and then it drifted to third-person omniscient and I found myself wanting to go back to first person.

It wouldn't have even been an issue for me, but, despite really wanting a first person narrative, I have other points of view I need to tell in order to progress the story. I haven't had a sit-down think about it in a long while. I haven't given up, yet, just walked off to other projects for the time-being.

-Sin
 
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robertn51

Friends of WF
First of all, thank you, each and all, for your responses.

I struggled with myself before posting my questions. I feel the writing process is unique to each writer, no matter what the "experts" call all the so-called necessary bits and pieces. So talking about "process" seems to me to be just flinging more noise out in the stream. (yeah, I'm also no fun at parties. Or social media.)

On top of that I also struggle with the odd nature of my own process.

The image of the productive writer with his workshop of materials and tools and his knowledge of arcane alchemy of joinery and surfaces has troubled me since the beginning, since writing erupted into my world six decades ago. I've never seen myself as that competent craftsman down there in the basement, a vision taped to the wall and him sawing and whittling and cutting and sanding and making. Now, that fine tequila he's sipping while working, that I get.

For me it's more like gardening. Without planting anything. I squat on the loamy fertile dirt, scan the unruffled surface, and ask, "What's happening down there? What have you got for me?" Sometimes things sprout. Sometimes they aren't weeds to be tilled back under. Sometimes they are something I want to nurture and culture and work with. Weird, huh?

Yes, I will never make a living at this. Imagine explaining that to an agent, an editor, both tap-tap-tapping their toes, looking at the money-time.

However, your responses have energized me. And forced me to really look closely and name what's hanging me up here. The Name is an Is and that Is implies an Ought. I was being sloppy, ignoring the very thing attracting me.

I didn't choose this character. He's like nothing I've attempted before. He was just there. And he's dangerous. And I want this.

See? Weird. I know. Go ahead, roll the eyes. I don't blame you. Welcome to my world.

I stopped writing 21 years ago. For myriad "reasons." And here it is, back again, wanting and wanted. I won't blink first.

I'm fascinated that he's here. He's so far "out of my lane" it's near ridiculous. And yet, like him, here I am, trying, struggling with how to narrate him.

Hence my questions. And all parts of your righteous answers.

May I? In order?

I think of 3rd person as more "formal" narration. It depends if you want to make the narrator a "character" itself with a personality even if they aren't directly in the story like first person
Yep. Me, too. It's that technique of making the narrator another character I was struggling with. I've never done that before. And I don't want to complicate things anymore that I have.

I don't want to walk away from this story, this doing. I am intrigued by the idea but I'm going to leave that for another tale. I've always wanted to write a really unreliable narrator. And I when I do, I will want to focus on that. I've too many moving parts in this tale already.

@Kyle R's reminder, later on down, about "narrative distance" is the right solution, I think. I just need to get over my chickenshit discomfort, being way out of my lane. To which @KatPC enthusiastically agrees.

I have trouble with first person since I have written third person omniscient all my life mostly.
Isn't that interesting? We all have our "comfortable" ways. Me, I'm a sucker for first person and will choose it first without even considering its limitations. (Like the one @Sinister notes about information blind spots.)

On the other hand, when I think about the things in my writing past I've really liked, things that shook me, they were all third person.

Well, except for that one that started in third, changed to second, then to first, then to second, and back to third again. That one I was just screwing around, having fun. But I liked the setting and characters. One of them is freshly back in my pocket, waiting for my confidence to join us again.

There's a thing called "narrative distance", which refers to how close (or how far) your narrator's voice is to the voice of your character.
This is the proper solution to my issue. I just need to get over myself, own the unfamiliar lane, and take what comes of it. Sure he's nearly an alien to me, but that's not what's important. It's what he is to the reader that matters. And I think I can manage that. I need to get out on the thin ice. Ultimately the story is about him, not me.

Also, thanks for the book reference. Some "brutal writing advice" is what's needed. And oh look, it's on Kindle. And I have $13 extra this month. Oh yeah.

Who do you want to tell the story?
Heh! The Big Question, no? And, since I wrote my original questions, I asked myself, "Just what kind of story is this? What sort of conflict?"

The answer is "It's a man versus self" story. So the natural narrator is the man. But I don't want him speaking to the reader. That's a hard off-limits for me. So it's going to be a Close Third. Hands down.

It's interesting you brought up dialogue. Because the story's conflict is, essentially. an internal struggle, there's a lot of "interiority" going on. But I sense there's a balance. Because it's the exterior situation and events causing the interior struggles. It's not all "talking to himself."

I've had clots of that exterior dialogue floating up and I like it. I'm just eyeing the word count and time and wondering if I should write to the time limit (a shorter story) or write to the story's potential fullness (a longer story) which means all the sharp dialogue and fun things. And then just don't worry about the time and count.

But I'm leveraging that time limit to get something down and get it away from me. For this one, after so long fallow, that "away from me" is the most important thing to achieve.

I'll figure that out when I get there. The story might tell me what to do.

narrative voice is quite important, something of a sparkplug for my writing.
And it's something in which I've consciously invested little. Key word there is "consciously."

I recently went back into some old things that were shown in an old workshop. One old piece just shook me. I'd forgotten that one. One of those "I wrote that?" pieces.

I went and dug up the reviewers' comments. Embarrassingly effusive 10/10 across the board. But one reviewer spelled it out for me, told me what I'd done and how it affected him, pointed to every little thing that was winding him up.

Know what it was? The narrative voice. I'd done it without thinking, Set the reader on edge. Waiting for a bus was never like this.

To quote that reviewer from 21 years ago:
"... His inability to concentrate and constantly watching for a bus one in particular, led me to believe there was a monumental occurrence about to happen. It ran through my mind it was revenge, then anger, then a murder, a mass murder... and then the [three years absent] seventeen year old daughter made her entrance."
Yeah. I think got this.

...Cormac Macarthy's The Road - there's one with a clear voice that's in third.
I'm so glad you mentioned this. That bleak narrative voice still haunts me, years later. I pulled it from the shelf this morning and skimmed it. Yeah. That's the ticket. I don't need the grimness, but the closeness, the coloration. It's all there. The voice made the tale. It's a brilliant example.

I also pulled up his "No Country for Old Men" and "All the Pretty Horses" to skim and compare. "Sparkplug," indeed!

I also took a peek at "Klara and the Sun" -- gone forgotten within my To Be Read mountain -- and, yes, there it is, even though first person, the narrator's voice colored everything just the way I'd want for that sort of tale. (And it's an AI, which is even more interesting.)

Have you tried Close Third Person Limited? That's my preferred perspective (POV) - it's like the reader is sitting between the character's ears, listening to their thoughts and experiencing everything they do. It allows you to write in that character's voice, yet step out to narrate and describe the world they're living in.
Precisely what I am needing for this one. All along it's been an issue of distance and not voice.

And I've just got get over the fact that I'm way out of the usual for me. I'm just going to focus on what I need from him and not even pretend I understand everything about him.

Invisibility can be your problem. One of those things that's great for technical papers but lousy for narrative purposes. By disappearing yourself out of the text you remove the things that make the difference between a readable writer and a favorite.
And I think it's my natural tendency to be "invisible" that has soured me about my lazy consistent "default" voice. And so why complain about something completely under one's control, eh?

it's soulless and makes you realize the lead vocalist isn't that great.
Made me chuckle. Still does.

it is very important to 'be' that character, because that will set the tone of the story.
And this was off-putting at first, because there's no way in a few weeks for research needed to be comfortable with "being" this foreigner. But I've since realized I need only those parts interfacing the exterior situation. And that's a human situation, if I play it right. Humans are easy, no matter where they are from.

my character is already next to me.
Isn't that the loveliest time? When I'm in that space things are great.

Break the rules, go wild, try new things,
Heh! My own cheering section! This story is certainly "new" for me. We shall see what comes of it.

I haven't made an earnest start on, because I just cannot get the narrative voice down
Man I hear you. It's like considering a weaving. If you start fundamentally "wrong" it means pulling the whole thing apart and starting over.

(Aside. I like your blog. I steal in there, inhale the mingled perfume of wisteria and magnolia, and sit beneath the willow with the shiitake and box-breathe until I have to come back to life. Like my own secret garden.)

Thanks everybody. You've really helped me on this.

[2021-08-14 0029]
 

robertn51

Friends of WF
I impatiently wait for snippets of your story, in your own time
Thanks @KatPC

Since I am a "scorer" in the August LM I figured I should also submit something to it. (Not comfortable judging others' work without my own being accessible for critique)

But the story that came to me from the LM prompt instantly ballooned beyond the LM's word count limit. I was so happy to see the words coming again. I indulged it.

If all goes well, I'll post this thing to the Workshop by the end of the month, when the August LM scores are revealed.
 

Tettsuo

WF Veterans
Must I create an invisible character -- the narrator -- and let them tell the tale?

Thanks
Yes, do this. You don't have to be the narrator personally. Your agenda is neutral because your concern is about telling the tale. If you manufacture a character with an agenda or a certain way of viewing the world, you can make an interesting narration.
 

Sir-KP

Senior Member
I guess it's part of the art of writing? :p

I mean, yeah, the horror of realizing that your third-person narration voice sounds the same as your first-person narration voice from previous work. I feel you. :p

The prose and the small things like how long winding we are at explaining things makes it obvious. I have that problem.
 

robertn51

Friends of WF
Ah. You've found me. Again.

Still spreading your good will, too, I see. Consistency is a virtue. And you are, if nothing else, consistent.

How's your buddy @MorganaPendragon25 these days?

I guess it's part of the art of writing? :p
Oh yes. An art. Something to be nurtured, practiced, and shared. Excellent guess. A very good guesser over there. Good work. The community needs a good guesser.

I mean, yeah, the horror of realizing that your third-person narration voice sounds the same as your first-person narration voice from previous work. I feel you. :p
The putative "empathy" is a nice deflecting touch. The protruding tongue dilutes your message, though. Looks like panting? No, but thanks.

I'm pretty sure my words could be twisted any which way one desires. A nice twist there. Good word skills. Have you read the August LM story "The Muttering Sophosopher"? Whole thing seems to fit nicely into this situation some how.

The prose and the small things like how long winding we are at explaining things makes it obvious.
Ah, that shape-shifting "we." Sweet. Thanks, but I never joined the panting club. However, the long-winding is even better when it's a long-winded writer's kind of habit.

Also it seems to take more words to communicate a nuanced and complicated idea than it takes specific so-inclined others to smash and tear someone's something down to nothing.

You've noticed that, surely. The abject nothing being wrought?
I have that problem.
There's a start.

Here's to a new beginning.
 
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TheMightyAz

Mentor
Yes, invent an invisible character and write from their perspective. I have Jacobs who writes with cynicism, bite with literally no humour at all. Then I have Josephine, who is dark and cynical but does have humour. When I write any short story, I inhabit the main character and write from their perspective, but elements of Jacobs and Josephine tend to sneak in eventually. I'm currently working on MY voice, which is based on particular criteria, a list of traits I want it to have and how I want it to feel.
 
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