Who Tells the Tale? Narrative Voice by Jenny Jensen

June 19, 2019 by in category On writing . . . by Jenny Jensen tagged as , , , with 3 and 0
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Narrative Voice

 

The creative process is a mystery to me. I like it that way.  Not knowing how or why an author chooses a certain literary device makes every book I read a fresh experience. I’m not always wowed by the tale but I like to start with no bias. Just lately though, I can’t help wondering what drives so many of my clients to write in 1st person. I love a good tale told in 1st person but it’s the most difficult narrative voice to get right.

Up until the mid 20th century the lion’s share of novels were written in 3rd person. A quick glance of current literary prizewinners shows 30% written in 1st person (The Handmaid’s Tale, The Hunger Games, The Martian etc.). Current genre and commercial fiction is more like 50%. Clearly, this is the age of 1st person and I think I know why—energy, immediacy and intimacy.  While those three qualities attract us they’re also what makes 1st person hard to write well.

Be Compelling

The narrator has to be interesting enough to carry the reader through 200 plus pages of story. Basically it’s the only voice we hear so it better be entertaining. The character can be droll, hysterically funny, bitingly snarky, painfully deluded, even seriously insightful—as long as the energy exuded is compelling. Sometimes the narrator exists to showcase the main character. Watson is a rather deluded and bumbling narrator but we become fond of him. It’s his subject, Holmes that keeps the reader riveted. We want to stay for the whole ride.

1st person is both immediate and intimate. The reader sees the action through the narrator’s eyes rather than from the outside. It’s close up and personal so the reader has a sense of being present as the action takes place. With a compelling narrator and interesting plot it’s easy for the reader to feel they have a stake in the story. 1st person reads like a journal or a personal letter. The reader sees, hears and knows what the narrator sees, hears and knows. There’s no distance between us—all the more reason to craft a compelling narrator. The narrator speaks directly to us. Well done, 1st person is more exciting, more emotionally engaging and more satisfying than the viral YouTubes of laughing babies and crazy critters caught on camera. No wonder we love it.

Remove Filter Words

There is one cardinal sin when writing 1st person – filter words. They put a dampening distance between the reader and the action. Because we see, hear, smell, feel and know what the narrator does there is no room for distancing the reader.

For example:

“I even thought of doing something gossipy…”

Filter words removed:

“I considered something gossipy…”

I could hear…I thought…I felt…I sawchop away the filter words and close the distance. Good first person narrative is always from behind the character’s eyes.

Having put these thoughts down I think I’m going to read The Perks of Being a Wallflower (Chbosky). I love a good first person story. Do you?

 

~Jenny

 

Author Bio
Author Bio
With a BA in Anthropology and English I pursued a career in advertising and writing and segued into developmental editing. It was a great choice for me. I love the process of creating and am privileged to be part of that process for so many great voices — voices both seasoned and new. I’ve worked on nearly 400 books over 20 years, books by noted authors published by New York houses including Penguin, Kensington, Pentacle and Zebra as well as with Indie bestsellers and Amazon dynamos. From Air Force manuals and marketing materials to memoirs, thrillers, sci fi and romance, my services range from copyediting to developmental coaching. Having worked in advertising and marketing, I am always cognizant of the marketplace in which the author’s work will be seen. I coach for content and style with that knowledge in mind in order to maximize sales and/or educational potential. My objective is to help the author’s material stand out from an ever more crowded and competitive field.
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With a BA in Anthropology and English I pursued a career in advertising and writing and segued into developmental editing. It was a great choice for me. I love the process of creating and am privileged to be part of that process for so many great voices — voices both seasoned and new. I’ve worked on nearly 400 books over 20 years, books by noted authors published by New York houses including Penguin, Kensington, Pentacle and Zebra as well as with Indie bestsellers and Amazon dynamos. From Air Force manuals and marketing materials to memoirs, thrillers, sci fi and romance, my services range from copyediting to developmental coaching. Having worked in advertising and marketing, I am always cognizant of the marketplace in which the author’s work will be seen. I coach for content and style with that knowledge in mind in order to maximize sales and/or educational potential. My objective is to help the author’s material stand out from an ever more crowded and competitive field.
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  • Neetu Malik says:

    Hi Jenny, you’re right about the reasons writers use 1st person narration. It is both immediate and intimate, as you say. It becomes a sort of relationship between the reader and the narrator, and if the narrator draws the reader into the subject skillfully, he or she keeps them hooked!

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