Putting on Your Writing Skin to find your Narrative Voice

One of our readers wrote to us after the last blog to say that he was trying the foreshadowing techniques that we had described and wasn’t sure they were working so well for him. We wrote about how Erik Larson created suspense in his book, IN THE GARDEN OF BEASTS, (posted 11/14) by hinting at what was to come. This technique works really well for him, but writing is not a one-size-fits-all endeavor. You are always limited by your narrative voice.

When people talk and write about narrative voice, they use terms like first person, third person omniscient or third person limited. We have, ourselves, blogged about voice in these terms. But when you come right down to writing a story – fiction or non-fiction – voice is really a matter of inhabiting the skin of the person who is telling the story. This person could be you, the writer. It could be a character in the story. It could be some sort of God-like creature, who knows and sees all. You, as the writer, have to start by putting the skin on your voice. Then you have to fill it in.

If you are writing from the point of view of a particular fictional character, the task is hardest. You have to define that character: age, sex, circumstances, motive for telling the story, family background, friends, neighborhood, education, speech, looks – everything. You have to bring that character alive in your mind so that you can speak through him or her. You have to know whether that character is telling the story as it happens or from some later date which you also have to define. The more successful you are in doing all this, the better your narrative voice will be. Think how well J.D. Salinger must have known and understood Holden Caulfield.

Even if you are writing from a God-like point of view, you have decisions to make about what this voice is, where it is coming from, what its tone is and whether it inhabits the mind of a particular character and shares her/his point of view or hops (be careful with this) from head to head. Even an omniscient narrator has (or doesn’t have) a sense of humor, a certain set of knowledge and a particular way of talking. Does this narrator know what is going to happen or is this narrator just reporting things as they happen?

Erik Larson seems to be writing from his own point of view so the skin he is wearing is his own. But even that required a set of decisions. He had to decide which Erik he was going to be. We all assume different roles in our lives. Which one are we going to choose to write our book? And what does that say about who we are writing for and what we hope to convey and what attitude we will take?

Larson could hint at what was to come in his book because he established he had done the research and knew what was going to happen. His narrative voice allowed him to hint at what was to come. Your narrative voice may be telling the story as it happens in which case the future is unknowable until the end of the book. Or, if your voice is the God-like one, it may be disruptive to break in with what is essentially a promo for the rest of the book. It depends on the voice.