In one of the most effective TV advertisements for tyres of recent years — bear with me, this is relevant — viewers are encouraged to guess which is the most critical safety component in a vehicle. The air bag? The suspension? The steering? The brakes? Only the tyres — concludes the advertisement — are in contact with the road.
In a story of any kind, it is the narrative voice which is directly in contact with the reader. Everything else is second hand. Narrative voice is crucial to the feel of a story, and yet it is largely overlooked. We teach creative writing students about narrative stances — first person narration, third person limited, third person omniscient, and so on — but not about the narrative voice itself. In this article, I attempt to redress the balance.
The notion of narrative voice is counter-intuitive for many modern people. We are the first generations to have had more contact with story through television and film than the written word. Aside from early examples, and a few deliberate aberrations, fiction TV and film are narratorless. Film students are taught from the beginning to ‘show not tell’ — a piece of advice frequently and entirely inappropriately transferred to fiction.
TV and film are their own medium, and have evolved appropriately to largely avoid the narrator. Written fiction cannot exist without one. Writers who think they are writing in a televisual style are often blind to the conventions of narration which they’re adopting.
The stuff everyone already knows
In case you missed this session at school, or just want a refresher, the thing that everyone already knows about narration is the narratorial stances. They are:
- First person narrator — the ‘I’ narrative, often regarded as the most immediate, though with no plausible evidence that this is the case. Robinson Crusoe.
- Second person narrator — the ‘you’ narrative, generally only used in riddles, jokes, and in stories within stories, where one character addresses another. Hercule Poirrot telling the assembled crowd of suspects what each of them did.
- Third person limited narrator — the ‘he’, ‘she’, or ‘it’ narrative where the narrator is like an ordinary storyteller telling a story they have heard or observed first hand. Pride and Prejudice.
- Omniscient narrator — a narrator who knows everything, and tells the reader whatever will make the best story. The omniscient narrator is often described as the least successful, again, without any particular evidence to support this. JRR Tolkien, Charles Dickens.
If you had a slightly better education (it’s never too late to catch up), you may also be aware of:
- Frame narrative — a story-teller inside the world of the book recounts the events either to the reader or to another character. Wuthering Heights, Nostromo.
- Stream of consciousness — without much in the way of help, the reader is given access to a stream of the character’s thoughts. William Golding’s The Spire.
- Philosophical narrator — a reflective narrator who is as interested in discussing with the reader as in telling the story, common in French, such as Le Petit Prince, Du côté de chez Swann (In Search of Lost Time)
- Ironic narrator — an ongoing ironic, sometimes even snide, narration which lets the reader in on the joke which is concealed from the characters. Henry James, Jerome K Jerome, but many other English writers make use of it occasionally.
- Naturalistic narrator — an ‘objective’, case study approach to narration. Emile Zola.
- Faux documentary — the reader is presented with what appears to be a set of documents, perhaps including newspaper reports, encyclopedia entries, academic papers. More often seen in short stories, or as quasi-fiction, such as conspiracy theory pseudo-factual books.
- Confessional — a form of short story that Edgar Allen Poe and Arthur Conan Doyle occasionally employed, where the story is presented as a deathbed confession or similar
- Epistolary — the story unfolds through a series of letters.
- Unreliable narrator — the reader becomes gradually aware that the narrator does not understand the story he is recounting, although there are enough clues for the reader to decipher it. William Golding’s Pincher Martin.
- Multi-narrator — this has become increasingly popular over the last thirty years, with chapters being written from the point of view of different narrators giving a first person account.
Additionally, you probably know that narratives can be past, present or future. In English, the past tense is by far the most common. Young Adult novels, such as The Hunger Games, have increasingly used present tense narration. Future tense tends to be confined to prophetic narratives, or stories-within-stories. In Latin, authors often move from past to present to introduce immediacy. This is relatively uncommon in English, though CS Lewis occasionally tries it.
You may be interested to know that English grammar isn’t anywhere near as clear cut as you were taught in school. Grammar was always taught based on Latin grammar, and English was described as if it were the same. Latin has genuine tenses — future, present, perfect, imperfect and pluperfect. English, like most Germanic languages, forms its tenses by adding in supplementary verbs. ‘I will go’ and ‘I shall go’ are both future tenses, at least, according to Latin grammar, but ‘I must go’, ‘I might go’, ‘I could go’, ‘I should go’, ‘I would go’, ‘I ought to go’ and even ‘I’d like to go’ are all structured in the same way, but don’t have separate names (some are conditional or subjunctive), or, at least, aren’t usually taught as having them. What is more, ‘I am going’ can be a future tense or a present tense.
All this is a useful refresher, but does not do any more than clear away some undergrowth.
The sound of the matter — stance, tone, perspective and personality
The Sherlock Holmes stories are written from five narrative perspectives: Watson as reteller, Watson as participant, Sherlock Holmes as reteller, and Sherlock Holmes as first person narrator, and story-within-a-story. Only a very few stories are written from the perspective of Holmes. The Valley of Fear is the most extensive example of story-within-a-story, where there is a full novella as told by one of the participants.
What is extremely interesting from our point of view is that the genial voice of Doctor Watson is the same whether he is reteller or participant — in other words, whether it is a first person ‘I’ narrative or a third person ‘he’ narrative. To slightly destroy the illusion, Holmes’s own writing style is only marginally different from Watson’s. Aside from the adventures themselves, many readers take a steady delight from the journal style of the narrative voice throughout.
Joseph Conrad tells many of his stories through the voice of Marlow, hero of Heart of Darkness, but no more than a raconteur in Lord Jim and Nostromo.
In The Name of the Rose, brother Adso is the narrator, but he is narrating from a much later point in his life than the setting of the story.
To the accustomed reader, each narrative voice is entirely distinctive. A passage from Kipling is instantly distinguishable from Jerome K Jerome or Saki. There are writers who can write with different voices — notably Tolkien in The Hobbit, the Lord of the Rings, and Farmer Giles of Ham, although he later tried (and failed) to rewrite The Hobbit in the style of the Lord of the Rings. However, once we understand that the three aforementioned books are written for different audiences, the change in voice becomes almost inevitable.
Like jazz, which you know when you hear it (or you’ll never know), it is invidious to try to break down the nuances of distinct narrative voice into constituents. However, for the writer experimenting with the craft, there are some observations we might make.
Aside from all the nonsense about the devastating importance of first person or third person (etc), the stance of the narrator in relation to the story is important. For a start, is the author the narrator? Clearly, in a frame narrative such as Nostromo or Wuthering Heights, the narrator is part of the story. However, even an omniscient or otherwise external narrator can have a different stance from the writer.
In the Narnia books, CS Lewis the narrator casts himself as a limited narrator, recounting the stories of Narnia which he has heard from the participants, though the illusion of this breaks down in The Last Battle. Lewis the narrator doesn’t know everything that happens. Lewis the author quite clearly does.
Not only narrative distance, but also narrative attitude is important. Marlow in Lord Jim is trying to understand Tuan Jim, and how he became the man he became. The narrator of Three Men in a Boat is having a jolly good laugh at the faults and follies of mankind, as exhibited by himself and his friends. The narratorial stance of Pincher Martin is judgemental, even nasty.
The tone of A Wizard of Earthsea, the Lord of the Rings and Dune is epic. Or is it? All three of these books have moments of epic — the beginning of A Wizard of Earthsea and the end, the Ride of the Rohirrim in the Lord of the Rings, and the beginning and end of Dune. None of them attempts to retain the epic tone for long, though: they move quickly into ‘plain’ writing, with as little authorial interference as possible. The Jeeves novels, by contrast, are written entirely through the words and styles of their characters.
From what distance is the narrator narrating? Great Expectations and The Name of the Rose are told from the perspective an on older, wiser narrator than the protagonist. The Left Hand of Darkness is written from the perspective of the narrator after the end of the story, so that there is a wistfulness because the narrator knows how it will end. The Lord of the Rings, on the other hand, despite the elaborate in-world provenance of the story, is told as a tale which is new to the narrator as he goes along — which is how it was written. Some perspectives will work better than others for particular stories.
Watson, Wooster and the storytellers of the Canterbury Tales all have very distinctive personalities which spill out onto the page whenever there is a break in the action. These are in-world characters who are consistently narrated. The narrator of The Hobbit, by contrast, has a distinct personality which is absolutely not that of Bilbo Baggins, despite the faux-provenance introduced in The Lord of the Rings. The narrator of The Hobbit is a genial storyteller, a scholar and a master of words, though not given to long bouts of poetry, except in songs. The Bilbo of the Lord of the Rings would have attempted to tell the whole story in verse. This inconsistency does not detract or distract.
Of what value to the writer?
It is possible to make a story distinctive in every way: amazing new plot, big premise, compelling narrative voice, outstanding characters, profound internal reflection, vivid description. War and Peace is probably the best example of this book-with-everything, although the Name of the Rose is probably in the same league. However, very few people who read War and Peace once read it twice, and, despite the best intentions, I have reread neither of them. On the other hand, I’ve read the Box of Delights twenty times, the Lord of the Rings fifty, Three Men in a Boat five, and the Narnia books more often than I can recount. The Box of Delights loses its way on narrative voice from time to time, the Lord of the Rings is very weak in terms of plot structure, Three Men in a Boat is not really about anything of great significance, and the Narnia books may have vivid characters, but they are neither profound nor unique — at least, not the human characters. The book that has everything probably has too much.
It seems to me that a really strong narrative voice will carry a story and make it thrilling, or a delight, or whatever you want, when the other elements are less strong. When others are strong, the narrative voice has to take a back seat.
I may return to this topic presently. In the mean time, this is something to think about.