Voice: I Know It When I See It

Like most of you, I follow several blogs. In my case, it’s an odd mix of high-level sailing news and stories about, well, story. There are also plenty of blogs I don’t follow; they probably contain great information, but they lack a certain consistency in presentation and tone.

The writing world calls this consistency “narrative voice.” (It’s a bit different from authorial voice, which I’ve written about before.)

Strong Like Bull

The books I finish always have a strong voice, too. Fiction or non, regardless of subject matter, that’s the key to keep me turning pages. Without a personality to hold it all together, my mind begins to wander and I soon put down the story. (Unless it’s for book group, of course.)

Narrative voice has famously been described by agents and editors as “I know it when I see it,” because it’s very hard to pin down. Using only the simple building blocks of word choice and order, it has a lot of work to do: first and foremost, it must conjure up a world that we can “see” on the big screen between our ears. Next, it has to make us care what happens in that world, usually by introducing a main character in some sort of trouble. It also has to include just the right level of detail; too many will distract us from the big picture. 

Then, once this voice has us hooked, it has to continue to do all that stuff in a similar and consistent way, all the way to The End. Novels most often disappoint somewhere about a quarter to a third of the way through; right where the editor ran out of time, or decided the rest was good enough. Because usually it’s the editor who polishes the narrative voice into something consistent enough to be trustworthy. 

But Subtle, Too

When I lose myself in a good story, I usually forget that there is a narrator who is distinct from the point of view character. Sometimes it’s obvious, of course—narrators talking about their characters as if looking down from a great height. But the stories that really grab me have a narrator who keeps the POV characters so close, it’s easy to think they are one and the same—until that key detail is dropped in, something the character wouldn’t comment on, which we need to “see” because we’re not actually in that world. Narrative distance can make the difference between understanding what’s going on and getting lost. But too much space between a narrator and the story usually comes off as cold, and who wants to read a cold story?

There are countless conscious and unconscious choices that go into a strong, consistent, voice, and I definitely “know it when I read it;” the much bigger challenge is to create that same narrative voice in my own writing. Selecting the right detail will help the reader “see” the scene I’m building, but just stringing together bits of information isn’t enough; it also has to make you care what happens next.

Sailing blog, writing how-to, magazine article, or book; the only thing that will keep me reading all the way to The End is narrative consistency. In other words—it’s all about the voice. 

Need an Example?

Below are six sentences, picked at random from—yes, the early—pages of Ferry to Cooperation Island. I’ve bolded the text that is included by the narrator for reader clarity; James wouldn’t need to explain any of it to himself. 

Nobody knew why Joe’s ancestors had chiseled granite blocks and piled them into a square-edged ten-foot tower. It had already stood up to a hundred years of hurricanes and winter gales—as well as the kids, both native and white, who’d tried to climb it. James leaned against the outside face, where he’d be hidden from any passersby. Not that too many people came down this way, now that the island’s tribe had dwindled to three. He could breathe here, think things through…

But before he could find any answers, a woman’s voice interrupted.

Read Chapter 1

Got a good example of a strong, consistent, narrative voice? Share it in the comments below, or send me an email. And thanks for reading, all the way to The End!