Narrative voice is the voice of the narrator in a story.
Every novel, especially those written in the first person, tells the story from a specific point of view. If you’ve chosen a point of view for your story that is specific, you may find that it is complicated and difficult to keep the story only to their viewpoint. If done well, your narrative voice draws the reader into the story. The details of the thoughts and dialogue work together to make the narrator a sympathetic or likable character.
But if the narrative voice is put together thoughtlessly, your reader may bore quickly, dismiss the narrator and possibly discard your book.
Last week, I blogged about 13 mistakes you could be making in narrative voice. This week? I have twelve more potential mistakes. Never fear, there are plenty of ways to avoid them.
You may get the age wrong. If you are writing from the point of view of a teenager or a child, you may be tempted to make them sound too much like an adult. Even if you know precocious children, make an effort to listen to kids that age to fit their words to their age.
You may get the dialect wrong. Within certain parts of the country, certain idiosyncrasies come out in speech. You can play around with this, generally, without too much trouble. But if you’re going to lay your “y’all” on thick, or throw in a few “fogettaboutits,” you may want to consult someone who grew up in that area.
You may be too committed to standard English rules. Dialogue is messy. People rarely speak in grammatically correct ways. If you keep your dialogue to precise, well-written sentences, your characters will be stiff and dull. If there’s anywhere to get away with breaking the rules of grammar, it’s in dialogue. Have fun with it.
“I am not an angel,’ I asserted; ‘and I will not be one till I die: I will be myself. Mr. Rochester, you must neither expect nor exact anything celestial of me – for you will not get it, any more than I shall get it of you: which I do not at all anticipate.” ―Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre
You may have too much interior dialogue. Interior dialogue is a lot like backstory. Authors think they need it and readers skip over it. Mark up every place that you have interior dialogue and cut as much out of it as you can. Limit it to questions only. Or omit altogether and see if it’s missed at all.
You may make all your characters sound the same. Your characters should sound distinctive. Ideally, you can remove all of the dialogue tags from the draft and tell who says what. Even if it’s not that obvious, you can add individuality by adding catchphrases, stuttering, repetition, whining, commands, excuses, or one-liners.
You may have the time wrong. I am not a historical fiction writer for one reason: I don’t like research. But if you choose to write in a specific time period, you must be sure that your character speaks like they would then. Teen girls from the 1920s didn’t say, “Awesome!” If you take the trouble to find out what they did say, your dialogue will be interesting and authentic.
“Which of us has not felt that the character we are reading in the printed page is more real than the person standing beside us?” ―Cornelia Funke
You may put in your own cultural preferences. Because I am a middle-aged white woman, living in New England in the 21st century, I run the risk of making all my characters sound like middle-aged white women living in New England in the 21st century. To make my dialogue sound authentic, I need to consider the culture, education, and status of my characters. These are certainly revealed in dialogue, so they should be correct.
You may make feisty unlikeable. One of the problems with reading dialogue is that we can’t accurately communicate tone or inflection. What may sound feisty and flirty to you could come across as crabby and unlikeable. This can put a distance between you and your reader. Ask your beta readers if they interpret your dialogue in any way other than what you intended. And then fix it!
You may tell the reader too much too soon. Heaven help the writer who fills their dialogue with too much exposition! While you do want to be clear, and you do want your reader to know what’s going on, it’s hard to write exposition. I suggest you make your reader work for important information. Assume your reader can fill in the blanks. If you scale way back, you can always add. Your beta readers can help you if you have gaps that need to be filled.
“There is, I believe, in every disposition a tendency to some particular evil, a natural defect, which not even the best education can overcome.””And your defect is a propensity to hate everybody.””And yours,” he replied with a smile, “is willfully to misunderstand them.” ―Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice
You may have too much pondering. This is similar to interior monologuing, but pondering raises the bar on navel-gazing. A character who does too much of this can be boring, monotonous, and come across as a whiner. Your narrator’s deep ponderings should only be expressed if this is really critical to the plot. It’s far better to have not enough of this than too much.
You may take your reader down too many rabbit trails. While it is likely that your character is deficient in attention, too much stream of consciousness can be a turn-off. The world already has a Virginia Woolf. Consider whacking some of those tangential thoughts down into the briefest of distractions. Your reader will appreciate it.
You may reveal emotions that should be saved for later. Hopefully, you plan in the great scheme of your story to have your character grow and change. Their emotional state should grow too, this means that in their narration, they should intensify at a reasonable, steady rate. The last big climactic moment, about 2/3 in, is where the pinnacle of your character’s emotions are expressed. Too soon before that and you’ll have nowhere to go.
To have a strong narrative voice, you must practice. Write, write and rewrite.
The result of your hard work could be a Scout Finch or a Nick Carroway — two prominent voices in literature whose uniqueness told unforgettable stories.