Quiet and loud narrative voices

One of the choices a writer has when telling a story is with their narrative voice. Although the voice can manifest itself in different ways during the course of a story, the premise remains central. The narrative voice has to grip onto the attention of the reader and maintain it throughout the story. But this is not an easy task to achieve.

The writer has various weapons in his armoury in the fight to hold onto the reader’s precious attention. After all, where is the story without it?

The author can insert questions in the reader’s mind – how did that body get there? Why is this person acting in an unusual way? But the voice of the story is perhaps the most important part. The narrative voice is not a simple idea to hold onto because the ‘voice’ can be established at a moment in the text, in such a wide variety of ways.

For instance, in Francoise Sagan’s famous novel Bonjour Treatise, the narrative volume and the style of the voice offers character in itself. It has a tone that is intimate, sensual and reflective. It draws the reader into the mood of the story it is creating. The novel starts with these (rather heavy) words –

A strange melancholy pervades me to which I hesitate to give the grave and beautiful name of sadness. In the past the idea of sadness always appealed to me, now I am almost ashamed of its complete egotism. I had known boredom, regret, and at times remorse, but never sadness. To-day something envelopes me like a silken web, enervating and soft, which isolates me.

Here the voice of the narrator is so characterful it even offers as a metaphor by which we can visualise it – as something that is wrapped in a silken web. Some might say that the words wrap the reader up in themselves as the piece continues, implicating them in the narrator’s sadness.

In stark contrast, in Jon McGregor’s If Nobody Speaks OF Remarkable Things; he approaches the voice in a very different way:

The rush of traffic still cutting across flyovers, even in the dark hours a constant crush of sound, tyres rolling across tarmac and engines rumbling, loose drains and manhole covers clack-clacking like cast-iron castanets.

Through the less meditative, short and rhythmic lines, and the use of alliterative ‘c’ sounds, this voice is noisier, bringing the scene to life in a way that grabs the reader again and again with each passing second. The sound level of this voice is characterising in a very distinct way compared to Sagan’s, with McGregor using the external effects of the busy city even at night and the rush of traffic across flyovers to show a narrator who is flitting throughout the scene, rather than one who places themselves square in the text.

The choice of narrative voice in regards to how distinct and noisy it is is crucial for the author to understand. Fast-moving scenes shorter and snappier sentences will offer a different voice to the longer sentences that will work well in more reflective scenes. The perception of the characters by the reader at various points can therefore vary. Different scenes require narrative styles to be distinct.

I therefore think it is important that the author choses their narrator carefully. Are they capable of altering their voice, depending on what the story needs?

Experimenting with different facets of the narrator’s voice will help you to find the ideal voice needed for your story.


Also published on Medium.

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1 comment for “Quiet and loud narrative voices

  1. 14 September 2017 at 4:44 pm

    I’ve never found a more characterful voice than that of Holden Caulfield – Catcher in the Rye – he still feels as if he’s someone I met once (I guess I did).

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