The Art of Fiction: Look Who’s Talking

September 1, 2004
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Coyote Morning by Lisa Lenard-CookThe Art of Fiction: Look Who's Talking

by Lisa Lenard-Cook

September 2004 

Coyote Morning, a Novel by Lisa Lenard-Cook Buy This Book via Amazon.com

Lisa Lenard-Cook is a regular columnist for Authorlink. She is an award-winning published author and writing instructor. This is another in the series, The Art of Fiction. Watch for her insights every month on Authorlink.

 

"The term narrative voice does not refer to the author's style." —Lenard-Cook

 

Concept, character, plot, and setting are all easily understood, even by those who haven't grappled with them in their own narratives. But point of view, person, using language as a story element, style, revision and rewriting, and narrative voice, the topic of this column, are what separate the published from the unpublished, and the pros from the amateurs.

The term narrative voice does not refer to the author's style. Rather, it's an authorial decision about how to tell a particular story. When we talked about person last time, we covered the "who" aspect. Narrative voice considers the "how" of your narrative.

The Sky's the Limit

Just how much your speaker "knows" determines the point of view of your fiction. Your narrator may have a limited point of view, which, like first person, offers immediacy and a personal connection, or an omniscient point of view, which offers not only a panoramic sense of what's going on, but can climb inside every character's head, tell us what's going on everywhere, and offer commentary on all of it. You may have heard omniscient point of view referred to as "the fly on the wall," a comparison that's always amused me, as I can't imagine flies taking an interest in those dull humans, nattering on and on.

Contemporary readers are often put off by omniscient point of view, but can't always pinpoint precisely why. There are a number of reasons for this. First of all, as readers, we like to be given the "clues" to character and motivation that a more limited point of view offers, rather than have a narrator "tell" us everything. Second, the distance of an omniscient point of view feels old-fashioned or stagy to contemporary readers. While this is the point of view of nineteenth century novels, what worked for Tolstoy and Austen no longer works for Tan and Atwood.

Contemporary novelists who wish to show more than one limited point of view may employ a number of devices. They may use multiple limited, or shifting point of view, in which different speakers tell us different parts of the narrative. While this method is generally discouraged by editors and agents, it can be a wonderful way to broaden your story.

Another way to bring other points of view into a limited point of view narrative is to write outside the story. Letters can arrive (or, still more au courant, emails). Readers can overhear any conversation the narrator overhears. Using these various devices still gives the reader the sense of personal connection afforded by first person narration, but s/he also gets some of the outside knowledge offered by third person narration without the didacticism.

 

". . . all decisions about narrative voice . . . will determine how your reader connects with your speaker" —Lenard-Cook

 

Remember When?

One last type of speaker to consider is the reminiscent narrator, who looks back at the events in your fiction with narrative distance. Some examples:

"Last night I dreamed I went to Manderly again," begins Daphne Du Maurier's classic, Rebecca.

Here are the first few lines of Penelope Lively's Booker Award-winning novel Moon Tiger: "'I'm writing a history of the world,' she says. And the hands of the nurse are arrested for a moment; she looks down at this old woman, this old ill woman."

And then there is this favorite opening from an American classic: "When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow." Scout's a woman by the time she "speaks" To Kill a Mockingbird, and the knowledge this reminiscent narrator brings to page is part of what makes the book so compelling.

Like all decisions about narrative voice, using a reminiscent narrator will determine how your reader connects with your speaker. If your speaker needs narrative distance in order to tell his or her story, a reminiscent narrator will be your speaker of choice.

 

". . . consider narrative voice in a different way." —Lenard-Cook

 

Try This

Choose a fiction you started, then abandoned after five or so pages. Read it through. Why did you stop? Chances are, you ran out of narrative momentum because your speaker ran out of things to say. Now you're going to get the narrative going again. You have three choices:

Have your speaker send someone outside the story an email. It doesn't have to be about the story. It can be about anything. Have another character in the story pick up the story where you've left off. Have someone from outside the story discover it. Have them tell it as they see it.

Each of these possibilities encourages you to consider narrative voice in a different way. But, even more important, one of them may well get your stuck story moving again.

 

About Lisa Lenard-Cook Lisa Lenard-Cook’s novel Dissonance (University of New Mexico Press, October 2003) won the Jim Sagel Award for the Novel, was selected as a 2003 Book of the Year by the Pima County (Arizona) and Cincinnati Public Libraries, and was a Book Buzz selection of the Ramsey County (Minnesota) Public Library. Her newest novel , Coyote Morning, is published by UNM Press. Lisa taught writing at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado throughout the 1990s, and now writes and teaches in Corrales, New Mexico. Visit her website, www.lisalenardcook.com for information about upcoming classes, appearances, and for writing inspiration.

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