Use an engaging narrative voice

Whether the narrative is written from the POV of a character or a narrator, it must be engaging. Narrative is everything in the novel that’s not dialogue or interior monologue. So it’s a big chunk of the work, and it must grab the reader. That’s why I caution against Generic Narrator Voice and why this item appears on the checklist:

The narrative voice draws the reader into the story.

Novice writers who have done most of their writing in school or business environments sometimes produce narrative that reads like a term paper or interoffice memo. It’s good, but not great.

It was December. Snow had fallen in the morning, and by afternoon the streets of Detroit were covered in brown slush. Tyler walked home from the bus stop. His feet hurt because his old shoes were too small.

Let me digress for a moment to point out that although the wases and weres in these sentences are not incorrect, they are also not terribly engaging. Critique partners will often pile on such verbs as “passive.” In the example above, only the streets of Detroit were covered in brown slush is truly in the passive voice. That is, the thing doing the covering (brown slush) is placed in the position of object rather than subject of the sentence. Brown slush covered the streets of Detroit would be an acceptable rewrite. Which one is better, though, would depend on whether you want the emphasis on Detroit or on slush.

Enough about passive. I could go on all day but I couldn’t say it as well as Geoffrey Pullum: “Mistakes Are Made (but Using the Passive Isn’t One of Them)”

winter street
Photo by Tibor Fazakas •

It was December is a perfectly acceptable phrase, but it’s neither active nor evocative nor emotive. I advise writers to rewrite sentences starting with it was or there were, not because they are wrong, but because eliminating those phrases almost always produces something stronger.

Tyler walked home from the bus stop is a perfectly serviceable declarative sentence. So is His feet hurt because his old shoes were too small.

Nevertheless, these all suffer from generic narrator voice. Watch what happens when we put this deep into Tyler’s POV and use his voice.

December in Detroit sucked. A morning snowfall turned the whole day cold and gray. Tyler trudged home from the bus stop that afternoon through streets buried in brown slush. The freezing damp seeped through the rips in his old canvas high-tops. The shoes, two sizes too small, pinched his toes at every step.

We retain December and Detroit and emphasize the alliteration by putting them closer together. Brown slush still falls in the emphatic position at the end of the sentence, but now Tyler is in the midst of it. Changing his walking to trudging gives it a different connotation. We aren’t told he’s wearing old, tight shoes, we feel it in the freezing and pinching.

You get the idea. Try writing a similar passage from the POV of an omniscient narrator, and then again from the POV of a character who loves winter.

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