I am the author of three middle-grade children's books, and I blog on the side. My favorite topics are movies, writing, and pop culture.
Who Should Be the Narrator?
One of the first decisions that an author makes when writing a new book is deciding who is going to narrate the story.
Is it going to be:
- The main character (The Catcher in the Rye)?
- A supporting character (The Great Gatsby)?
- The writer themselves (A Series of Unfortunate Events)?
- Or an omniscient voice who sees, hears, and knows all, even events that haven’t happened yet (Pet Sematary).
Writers have been known to get creative with their narration.
- The Choose Your Own Adventure books are written in second-person to literally put the reader in the main character’s shoes.
- Stephen King’s Carrie is a mixture of fake book excerpts, newspaper articles, court documents, and third-person narration to tell the story from multiple sources.
- As I Lay Dying tells the story from multiple character points of view in different voices.
The possibilities for narration are endless, but the final decision has to be the best fit for your book.
Narration can make or break a novel.
For instance, the Junie B. Jones children’s series wouldn’t be nearly as funny and entertaining without Junie’s spunky descriptions and the feelings she shares directly with her audience. Her stories would lose something in being told through the detached prism of a third-person narrator.
A narrator who melts into the background isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but poor narration choices can make for some bad writing. Below are some tips and ideas for creating the perfect narrator for your story.
Are You a Strong Verbal Storyteller?
People who can tell great verbal stories are at an advantage for creating a strong narrator for their written work. If you can hold an audience’s attention in real life, use your techniques to put your storytelling abilities on paper.
Whether or not you’re a good storyteller isn’t always something that you can judge for yourself. You may think you’re interesting, but what does your audience think?
Here is a short checklist to get a sense of what kind of storyteller you are:
- Do you have good stories to tell or experiences to share?
- Do people always ask you to “tell the one about the…” to someone who hasn’t heard it before?
- Do you get the intended response when you’ve finished telling the story?
- Are you telling stories appropriate for your audience?
- Has anyone ever told you that you would be great at stand up or TED Talks?
- Do you remember to include the essential details without droning on and on?
- Do you stick to the truth unless you’re telling a joke or admitting that you’re exaggerating?
- Do you use different (appropriate and understated) voices for different characters?
- Does your audience stay focused on you instead of your surroundings?
- Does their expression change as the story twists and turns?
- Does your audience grow as you are telling the story to a small group of people?
Knowing the right length, timing, and audience for your story is crucial in good storytelling. It’s why comedian memoirs are always so entertaining, and it’s why motivational speakers can tell relatable tales in epic, creative ways. They have already perfected their narration verbally by observing cues from their audience, course correcting when necessary, and constantly practicing. So, their unique voice easily comes through in their writing.
Are You a Better Writer Than Speaker?
Of course, just because you’re a poor public speaker or verbal storyteller doesn’t mean you can’t write a good story. Some people are naturally better at writing down their thoughts than speaking them aloud.
If this describes you, use this strength in your narration. Break out the colorful language, dive deep into a characters’ psyche, pull out every bag of tricks that you know, and focus on your narrator and your extensive knowledge of the world that you have created in your head.
Remember the following techniques when writing your narration:
- Always be aware of your narrator and their role in the story.
- Keep a consistent tone with your narrator. They shouldn't crack a joke at the end of the story if they haven't been funny earlier in the story.
- Tell backstories that will convey characterization or a past history that will come into play later.
- Jump in and out of perspectives, from being perched on a character’s shoulder to exploring their thoughts and feelings to explaining what is going on around them or in another location that will affect them later or help set the atmosphere of the location and mood.
- Draw from your favorite stories, and pay homage with a specific storytelling technique. Is your narrator unreliable as in The Bell Jar? Are they hiding truths from the reader as in Gone Girl? Do they stop to address the reader in asides as is common in classic Roald Dahl novels? Write in the style of the stories that you like best. It will keep you interested and help to set a definitive tone to your work.
- Say what you want to say. Let the narrator share your view of the world that you have built as well as the real world that you inhabit. Use your narration to share your philosophies, challenges, lessons, and advice. Leave your legacy in your pages.
Editing for Narration
During the editing process, a book is read and reread dozens of times. One of those times should be read strictly for the narration. You need to know if the narration is aiding or obstructing your story.
You want the narration to work well with the pacing, tone, and plot. Telling a story from one character’s point of view while other crucial characters in the story are off doing other things critical to the plot is going to limit you to what you can show, how the characters interact, it will ultimately thin out your story.
Also, check to make sure there is no passive voice in your narration. Using passive voice is an easy mistake to make in your writing because it’s how we tend to speak, and it is the format that comes easiest when crafting a new sentence. But you can get more creative and detailed with your writing when you’re forced to remove the telling actions and focus on showing them.
- Don’t say: “He started opening the door for the stranger when his sister hurriedly rushed in to stop him.”
- Instead, try: “The stranger’s face appeared through the doorway as he pulled it open just as his sister rushed into the room and slammed it back shut.”
Work on strengthening your descriptive actions when editing for narration. Tighten it up. Inject quirks and characterization into your characters’ movements and expressions, and paint a clear picture of the scene for your audience.
Some other things to check for when editing for narration:
- Is your narrator its own character (either actively or passively involved in the story), is it you, or is it a God-like figure?
If the first, figure out how this character speaks. If it’s you, write the way you speak. If it’s a God-like figure, don’t forget to weave in and out of the characters’ thoughts.
- Is the narration too stuffy? Could the energy be punched up?
Example: Instead of saying, “Shy Lucy returned home from summer camp a different girl,” try, “Most people in town had never heard Lucy say more than two words aloud, but when she came home from summer camp, she had more stories to tell than the public library.”
- Are the word choices too juvenile for an adult story or too adult for a younger person’s story?
Example: Don’t describe the main character of your middle-grade novel as looking “lustfully at their freshly iced birthday cake” or use teen-speak in a crime thriller unless your main characters are teens or you’re creating some kind of spoof.
- Does the first person narration match the personality of the character who is telling the story?
Example: If your main character says funny things but doesn’t narrate their story in an equally humorous tone, there’s going to be a disconnect between narrator and character.
- Is it obvious that the misspelled/mispronounced words in the narration are not actual errors but meant to help bring out the narrator’s specific dialect and word choice?
Example: Do you want to spell out the words that a character with a French accent speaks phonetically, and if so, can you do it without the reader stumbling over the words or making the character sound less intelligent than they are just because English is their second language?
- Is the narrator biased, and is that okay for the story that you are telling?
Example: Your third-person narrator should get inside the head of your villain without injecting their own personal views about their behavior, no matter how evil they are.
- Are you over-explaining details that are apparent in the characters’ actions/motivations?
Example: “She put potholders on her hands before she took the take out of the oven so that she wouldn’t burn herself on the hot pan.”
We the audience know what potholders are for. You don’t need to explain why she put them on if she’s baking.
Grab Your Readers With Your Narration Style
In the end, we write because we have good stories to tell. Take pride in those stories by giving them a narrator who either shares your ability to tell a tale or one who represents the deep, passionate person inside who has trouble expressing these ideas face to face. Put the time into choosing a narrator, shaping their character as you would any other, and revising to make their words as strong as they can be. After all, they are steering the ship, but it’s up to you to make sure they are pointed in the right direction.
© 2019 Laura Smith
Laura Smith (author) from Pittsburgh, PA on May 30, 2019:
I think that's a really strong angle to take. It closes the gap between reader and author.
Alan R Lancaster from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire) on May 30, 2019:
Interesting standpoint you've created here Laura. I'm tempted to regard 'third person' narrations as more to do with some 'god-person' who oversees the world and all that's in it. In my books or stories I'm the one who's directly involved and tells a story as it happens. That way it keeps some immediacy; direct involvement in other words. My main character gives you dialogue and happening as it goes along to 'chivvy' the telling. How do you feel about that?