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I feel I need to justify this blip of a brain-fart I dropped on this morning’s Twitterati.

In fiction: remove description, remove dialogue, remove setting, remove action, remove any other essential element to push to the story forward (yes, I know everything should push the story forward, btw), and what do you have left?

Small and tiny fragments of narrative voice.

Not ‘authorial voice’ (this should always be suppressed/removed completely during editing), but the voice of the narrator. Narration is an effective tool every writer should have a good grasp of. It can make the reader feel warm and cosy as soon as they slip between the sheets of your paperback.

In 3rd person pov, narrative style is easy, because there’s an outside (narrator) looking on (telling) the story. In 1st person pov, this is much harder / impossible because the ‘voice’ is the character/protagonist. Every character should be a different voice and obviously, there should be little to no ‘narrator’ at all (the narrator is the protagonist, obviously).

This means 3rd pov has a branding advantage. A consistent narrative style must be present across a single book, and should be there across a series of books, and can even be present across everything that writer wants to write in that genre, until such a point where they want to write something completely different (involving time/setting/world/genre/story/characters).

How to develop a narrative voice?

Consider this sentence: 

The two brothers burst into the café and screamed at the baristas, ‘This is a robbery. Get down on the floor.’ They pointed their guns in the faces of the nearest customers and threatened again and again until everyone complied.

Here’s the same version with my narrative style layered all over it: 

The two brothers bundled into the café, ears thumping, and screamed in falsetto unison, at the baristas, ‘This is a robbery. Get down on the floor.’ The steel and palm sweat of the gun-oil barrel felt hot, over-gripped like a desperate hold from monkeying across a goalpost. They pointed their guns in the faces of the nearest customers and threatened again and again until everyone complied.

Ok, you get the gist. What is the difference? I’ve tried to colour my (second) sentence with my narrative style (in bold). I’ve flavoured my word choice for (personal) fun and (story) effect. This is an acceptable form of bloat, of purple prose, which could be cut out if an overzealous editor insisted and a weak author complied.

I could have written anything I choose or left these additional bits out entirely. My choice. Good or bad.

Now fill an entire book 80k words plus with this same stylistic ‘voice’ and readers (who enjoy it) will really get into it, deepening their enjoyment, and hooking them further into the style and characterisation. Span that over multiple books and you’ve got a narrative brand readers will hopefully want more of.

That’s the power of deliberate narrative voice in the 3rd person.

A writer can develop a natural narrative style over years of writing, or, like an actor, we can create one, and write in that style from day one. It’s not impossible, and I think it should be encouraged.

As I mentioned earlier, try the same thing in 1st person pov and it doesn’t work. The ‘voice’ should be the voice of your protagonist. That voice should be their voice, not yours. Yes, you can carry that voice across multiple books, but you can only do that if you take that character too. If you don’t, the reader will be confused. Probably because your characters all sound the same! Not good.

This is the reason why I’m writing in the 3rd person, working at my narrative style/voice, pushing weakest self to wrestle with this thing and get better at my craft. I already know I’m better at writing in the 1st person. Writers need to work on their weaknesses as well as their strengths, and that’s what I’m doing.

Am I wrong? Do you know of a narrative style written in the first person which can/does span multiple books, genres, and which readers recognise and love from a specific author? If so, let me know. Or if you have any thoughts on narrative style/voice, I’d love to hear about it in the comments/twitter.

Mark 🙂