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ServiceScape Incorporated
ServiceScape Incorporated
2018

Everything You Need to Know About Narrative Voice Techniques


The narrative voice, or as it is more commonly known, the point of view (POV), is an essential element in storytelling, as it determines the character with whom the audience will sympathize. It also informs them of the narrator's perspective and is essential in shaping their understanding of the story's events.

It allows the reader to view everything from the stance of a character and/or narrator, including their feelings and experiences. The narrative voice is an essential element of the telling as it allows the reader to relate to the character telling the story and understand the motivations and desires of other characters, as well.

Think of POV like a pair of glasses that you give your audience. In order for them to see what you're seeing clearly, and in the best possible way to experience it, you need to give them the best pair of lenses to do that. Those lenses are the different types of narrative voice.

This post will delve into how to identify different types of narrative voice and which pair of "lenses" would best suit a particular piece of writing.

The narrative voice is a lens through which the audience sees the story
Photo by Valentin Salja on Unsplash

First Person

In first person point of view, the story is being told from the perspective of the narrator.

Pronouns:

  • "I"/ "we"
  • "me"/ "us"
  • "my"/ "our"

This narrative style is one of the most common POVs in fiction. All events in the story are filtered through the eyes of the narrator and the readers experience the story or account from their perspective. Therefore, it is the type of narrative voice that is able to immediately connect with the audience yet is limited to one perspective and is biased by default.

Best suited for:

Autobiographies (fiction and non-fiction) or personal accounts

Examples:

Charles Dickens' David Copperfield, J.D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye, and F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby.

Siobhan said that I should write something I would want to read myself. Mostly I read books about science and maths. I do not like proper novels. In proper novels people say things like, "I am veined with iron, with silver and with streaks of common mud. I cannot contract into the firm fist which those clench who do not depend on stimulus." What does this mean? I do not know. Nor does Father. Nor do Siobhan or Mr Jeavons. I have asked them.

Second Person

In second person point of view, the story is being told from the perspective of the audience.

Pronouns:

  • "you"
  • "your"

The second person narrative is less frequently used than the first or the third. In this type of perspective, the story is told as though the reader is the character telling the story. Thus, the audience becomes the driving force of the story, immersed into the action instantly. Second person point of view gives the writer a shot at being different in that the tone surprises the reader, and gives them a more personal way of experiencing the story. It is the most difficult to execute among all the types of narratives, but it can be done.

Uses:

Most commonly used in instructional writing, such as recipes and manuals, or any writing requiring a step-by-step procedure; novels.

Examples:

Italo Calvino's If on a Winter's Night, a Traveler, Edward Packard's Choose Your Own Adventure series, Jay McInerney's Bright Lights, Big City and Lorrie Moore's Self-Help.

Your mother has encountered this condition many times, or conditions like it anyway. So maybe she doesn't think you're going to die. Then again, maybe she does. Maybe she fears it. Everyone is going to die, and when a mother like yours sees in a third-born child like you the pain that makes you whimper under her cot the way you do, maybe she feels your death push forward a few decades, take off its dark, dusty headscarf, and settle with open-haired familiarity and a lascivious smile into this, the single mud-walled room she shares with all of her surviving offspring.

Third Person

In third person point of view, the story is being told from outside a single character's perspective.

Pronouns:

  • "she"/"he"
  • "her"/"his"
  • "they"/"it"

The third person narrative is perhaps the most commonly used perspective. It used when the narrator is not a character in the story and is therefore, on the outside looking in. It offers the audience some distance from the characters of the story. It has three sub-types, which I will cover below.

Best suited for:

Novels and historical documentation.

Third Person Limited

When the narrator only knows what the characters know and only follows a single perspective at a time and thus, has limited knowledge of the events. It is similar to the first person narrative as it is restricted to the knowledge, perspective and experiences of a singular character.

Examples:

J.K. Rowling's Harry Potterseries, George Orwell's 1984 and George R.R. Martin's A Storm of Swords.

The American and the girl with him sat at a table in the shade, outside the building. It was very hot and the express from Barcelona would come in forty minutes. It stopped at this junction for two minutes and went to Madrid.

Third Person Multiple (Multiple Perspective/Multi-Narrative)

According to Donald Maass, Multiple viewpoints provide diversion from, and contrast to, the protagonist's perspective. They can deepen conflict, enlarge a story's scope and add to a novel the rich texture of real life… Our lives intersect, collide and overlap. Subplots lend the same sense of connectivity to a novel. They remind us of our mutual need, our inescapable conflicts and our intertwined destinies.

This type of narrative voice allows the narrator to follow several characters in the story, switch between them and recount the story from different viewpoints. This style is tricky, as it can confuse the audience easily. But it is possible, as long as:

  • Each change in POV is clear (the writer can use section or chapter breaks).
  • There is an inherent thematic reason in the change (for example, in Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse, Woolf uses multiple perspectives to emphasize themes of expectation and judgment between sexes).
  • The change should serve to move the story forward. These shifts in perspective are considered subplots and are therefore crucial to the intrinsic nature of the story. The change must reveal an important aspect of the plot or the main characters significant enough in progressing the story.
It can be tricky to write a story from multiple points of view
Photo by Clem Onojeghuo on Unsplash

If you feel that you should write in multiple POVs, a few important questions to ask are:

  1. Is it necessary to tell a story that really must be presented in the eyes of multiple characters?
  2. If so, why?
  3. How many stories are you trying to tell?
  4. How are they all linked together or how do they all intersect in order to unify the overarching story arc as a whole?

This article gives great advice for writing in multiple POVs, which is still considered a limited perspective, as the narrator is not all-knowing and is confined by the characters he/she follows.

Examples

A brilliant one is the historical method, which is used by historians to verify and form historical narratives about accounts in the past by using primary sources and evidence such as archeological artifacts. Historians follow multiple accounts in order to prove and confirm the occurrence of an event.

Other examples

George R.R. Martin's A Song of Fire and Ice series, Paolo Coelho's The Witch of Portobello, Roberto Bolano's 2666, and Vladimir Nabokov's Pale Fire.

Third Person Omniscient

In this point of view, the narrator is all-knowing and is unbound by the limited perspectives of the characters. The narrator knows the goals, motivations, intentions, back stories, inner thoughts and emotions of everyone in the story, and therefore, becomes god-like. The narrator is able to provide a precise and intuitive telling with an interconnected knowledge of all the events.

Examples

Gabriel García Marquez' One Hundred Years of Solitude, Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, and Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina.

Elizabeth, having rather expected to affront him, was amazed at his gallantry; but there was a mixture of sweetness and archness in her manner which made it difficult for her to affront anybody; and Darcy had never been so bewitched by any woman as he was by her. He really believed, that were it not for the inferiority of her connections, he should be in some danger.

So, which narrative style should you use? There is no correct answer, as long as each character and subplot serves to move the story forward. Every narrative can be told from multiple standpoints. Making the decisions concerning how many stories are being told, how many characters are necessary for the telling, and how they all intertwine to unify the world of the story is one of the great tests of a writer's creativity.

Ultimately, the writer's tasks are to think about the limitations of each perspective, determine which feels most natural to the story, take cues from the POVs of different works, and focus on the intention of the story in order to assess which narrative style would suit the telling best.

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