A Distinctive Narrative Voice

This is a phrase sometimes found within publisher or agent rejections, which calls for the author to possess a more distinctive narrative voice. This can be difficult, however, especially when the author has already tried hard to develop a unique voice and style.

So, what does a distinctive narrative voice mean?

Narrative voice is sometimes mistaken for author’s voice, because people think they mean the same thing, but there’s a subtle difference between them. Narrative voice relates to the characteristic and unique way an author writes and conveys his or her words through characters (i.e. actions and dialogue), the narrative and the description, but it also refers to the point of view of the storytelling.

Author’s voice, on the other hand, refers the author’s own personality, style and tone. So although they are similar, they have different functions, and both authorial voice and narrative voice should be distinctive enough to stand out to make your writing interesting.

This is one thing that can set you apart from other authors. It can be the difference between a mediocre story and a great story. The stronger it is, narratively speaking, the better your chances are of being noticed by agents and publishers. 

If you find that an agent, publisher, editor or beta reader has asked for a stronger narrative voice, it means that the narrative style, characterisation and POV need strengthening in order to help the story.  It’s a common rejection point in manuscripts.

Why is it not strong enough?  There are several things that can weaken narrative voice.

Correct use of POV is important to retain a strong narrative voice, because it tells the reader whose story it is and from whose perspective it is told.

Does the POV jump around from character to character mid scene?  Not writing POV correctly can confuse the reader because they won’t know whose story is being told.  In third person multiple, POVs can change from character to character, but it must be done correctly, with either a new scene or a new chapter to begin that viewpoint. The reader will find it much easier to follow the characters and the story, but more importantly, they will know whose story is being told, even if you have multiple viewpoints.

Is enough of the story told through the eyes of your main character? 

It’s important to ensure that most of your scenes are told through the eyes of your protagonist and that most of your chapters are from his or her viewpoint. Writers often make the mistake writing chapters that don’t have the main character as the focus most of the time throughout the novel. This weakens the narrative voice - it will confuse the reader because they won’t know whose story it is.  And because the main character isn’t at the forefront of most chapters and scenes, secondary characters sometimes inadvertently take over the story.

A strong narrative voice depends on a strong, capable character that is always the main focus of the story, so ensure that most of the story belongs to that character.

Is there enough description to support the story and the characters?

This can be a major flaw for some writers. If there isn’t enough description to lift the story from the page, it may mean the manuscript is rejected. All stories need description; otherwise it isn’t a story worth telling – it’s a fundamental writing element.

First time writers tend to overload the narrative with too much direct exposition – i.e. too much telling and not enough showing. This is quite a common problem with beginners because they’re not always sure how to write strong description or they’re not confident with the ‘showing’ part of it, but it’s important to get it right. If you are in doubt about writing description, then practice, practice, practice. Read lots of other books to see how other authors approach it. That way, you’ll gain an insight how it should be, and it will help you confidently write better description.

Novels have become more complex over the decades, and well-placed description is a way of layering the story for the reader, but more importantly, it helps the reader imagine they’re there, within the story, with the characters, in that moment. Description makes the story and provides a stronger narrative voice, and in so doing, a distinctive one.

So next time you’re given advice on creating a distinctive narrative voice, remember to make sure your POV is right, that it’s told through the viewpoint of your protagonist, and that most scenes and chapters focus on that character and most importantly, make sure you have strong description to capture your reader’s imagination.


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