What’s on the Bookshelf: Narrative Voice

I read a lot—from New York Times bestsellers to indie authors just breaking into the business. I’ve seen narrative styles that cross the board with tense and POV, as well as in the content: The thicker novels with more discussion and analysis of inner thought and pain than any amount of character interaction; the mid-novels that are fast-paced, but balance description and analysis (my favorite style); and then the books that are all dialogue with limited description.

Finding your voice is one of the toughest things any author experiences, and there are so many things that affect it. Here are three areas to look at to keep your reader engrossed:

1. Show, don’t tell

One of the main issues I see in writing is overuse of adjectives. Yes, readers want to see your characters and see the story. However, when you disrupt the flow of the story to throw in that the main character is a blond with startling eyes and then describe exactly what he is wearing right down to his tennis shoes … as you can see, the length alone has thrown off the flow of the previous sentence. If you throw off the flow, you pull your reader from the story.

A better way to approach description is to subtly work it in. Don’t launch into the descriptions of clothing unless it’s necessary: Your character is picking at the cufflink on his jacket because he’s uncomfortable, or your character is fidgeting with her skirt, crossing and uncrossing her ankles because she’s not use to wearing formal wear. Let your character observe and react; the descriptions should work in naturally. Don’t just throw in adjectives to fill out your word count.

2. Shifting Tenses/POV

We all have our favorite tense (present, past, etc.) and point of view (first, third, etc.). The problem is that authors, as they write, will sometimes miss that they are shifting tenses from past to present, or point of view in the middle of a scene. What is important for an author is to maintain tense and chosen POV throughout. Don’t shift between POVs or tenses. Keep it consistent so as not to disrupt the storytelling. Remember, every time you disrupt the flow, you give your reader an out. Too many outs, and you’ll lose your reader entirely.

3. The balance between talk and narrative

I’ve always favored a balance between dialogue and description. If you dive too deep into narrative, it’s easy for the reader to lose track of the story, and if all you write is dialogue, your reader cannot see the story.

No matter where you sit as an author on the spectrum of “thickness,” remember it’s all about flow. Often I see authors repeating facts and details in the attempt to add more thought and description. A better approach would be to eliminate the repetitiveness. When doing so, it cleans up the voice of the novel. We don’t all have to be Hemingway or Austin or Dickens with our narrative, and we’re not when we just fattening up the novel for the sake of fattening it up.

On the other side of that coin is the limited description. I’ve seen the minimalist approach work for a lot of authors. It makes the novel fast-paced and full of action. However, I’ve seen this done to the determent of the novel with only he said, she said and a sea of quote marks. A little can go a long way, but description, movement and reaction are necessary in rounding out the storytelling. So, don’t just write 50,000 words of dialogue. Your reader won’t get past the first few pages if that’s the only way you engage them. You don’t have to slip into Dickensesque prose, but a side of potatoes with the meat goes a long way.

Because every writer is unique, there are no hard and fast rules that say, use X amount of adjectives, or description, etc. What works for me, won’t necessarily work for another author. However, the trick is to find the balance in your writing and not disrupt the flow of the writing. After all, if your reader is going to get lost, they should be getting lost in the story.