Mechanics of Writing: Narrative Voice

I wanted to write a post, when I first started this blog, about genre and word choice. On how each genre tends to have its own “style” of writing which contributes to overall atmosphere of each genre. Given how infrequently I write/publish posts on this blog, it’s no surprise that I’ve proobably reconsidered that idea. It’s not bad, but it was incomplete and my views on word choice in writing have shifted a little.

Instead, I came across a thread on twitter that touched on the “beginner writing rules” and how they aren’t necessarily good. It’s well worth reading but there are some points in there that I want to expand on some more.

So instead of word choice, I want to talk about narrative voice and how prose contributes to story.

I’ve spent the entirety of my teenage years in writing communities online and spaces like those tend to veer toward advice that leads to ultimately very plain, very minimalist language. To parrot Jeannette, this isn’t inherently a bad thing.


It’s easy to read and it’s very fast-paced; it’s absolutely a valid decision to make, but it also tends to remove some of the artistry of the prose itself. When everyone’s writing is the same, minimalist, plot-heavy prose, how do you make your writing stand out? These rules exist almost to make the medium itself transparent – it’s quick and easy to consume, like a movie, but it lacks the capabilities of what language can do.  We’ve become so scared of purple prose that we’ve forgotten what prose is capable of.

(It came, then, of little surprise that after a year of trying to publish, the story I did end up selling was one where I finally started to break away from the minimalist, efficient language I’ve had drilled into my head for years)

Language is the tool of literature. Rules such as “no adverbs,” “show don’t tell,” “only use active voice” restrict the flexibility in language and, when applied indiscriminately to any and all writing, misses a lot of the “points” of these rules.

“Telling” is not inherently bad. It’s a tool like any other, and removing it entirely can lead to a lacking of introspection and deeper characterization. The trend of foregoing telling in favour of showing may have come from a rejection of the verbosity of the writing of the 19th and early 20th centuries, but the result of that is also a rejection of writing that does not fit this new, minimalist standard.

These “rules” should be understood at their roots, and we should learn why they were repeated over and over to beginners in the first place. After all, there is plenty of good, published writing that breaks these rules. They are rehashed to beginners because beginners often make the same mistakes, but they’re simplified down such that they seem like they are the End All Be All of writing advice.

Take the “rule” regarding adverb/adjective use. In writing, adjectives and adverbs force the reader to reference knowledge beyond what’s given in the writing. And while using a single word to describe something isn’t inherently wrong, it forces the reader to rely on implications of the word and forces the reader to stop the narrative and recall what the adjectives/adverbs are trying to imply.  None of this is to say, never use adverbs/adjectives, but it does mean they should be used with thought. It’s a bit meta, sure, but it brings us back to the use of language as a medium and while it may be a bit heavy to explain to a young writer just starting out, I can’t see why something like this should be avoided when talking to older writers who are also just beginning. They can handle it, we don’t need to simplify everything to the point where nuance is forgotten.

So, what does this have to do with narrative voice?

In this case, I’m referring to the voice of the narrative, not the voice of a character – I want to draw attention to the voice a writer uses when shaping a narrative, how the language is used to draw attention to emotions and senses. The narrative voice can be thought of as the tool used to create and execute tone, atmosphere, and themes. The narrative voice is the presence of the author, even within the voice of a character; that the minimalist, realist mode of writing is not the sole style that writing can take on.

Narrative voice can be developed through the breaking of these “rules”; where in visual arts we have very popular, hyperrealistic drawings/paintings, distinguishing artists from each other them becomes very difficult. It’s when we step away from the rules of realism and allowing ourselves to understand the tools that our media provides, that we can create something unique to ourselves as creators.

Two extreme examples of strong, unusual narrative voice (though I do recommend them with caution): Leonard Cohen’s Beautiful Losers and Elizabeth Smart’s By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept. They both have their merits, I’m not particularly fond of either, but they are, again, extreme examples of using narrative voice to tell a story, where the author’s hand is either heavily present (Smart) or evident in a meta way (Cohen).

(For a more readable, but still clear example of this, I recommend Cathrynne M. Valente’s Deathless)

Narrative voice does not need to be void of characters’ voices, and trying to break away from the tight, bare, and hyperrealist narrative style does not mean to sacrifice the presence of your characters. But informing your use of language can also inform your decisions regarding your characters’ voices, opening yourself to another tool that can be used to convey your story.

It becomes important to distinguish, perhaps, the differences between the levels of verbosity, god forbid you fall into the trap of the dreaded purple prose. Verbosity is not inherently inefficient, but efficiency is also not inherently positive. Context remains important to the core of informing which scenes will benefit from being verbose, and which will benefit from the fast-paced, almost-invisible bare bones writing. Purple prose is a certain level of verbosity, where the language becomes almost pedantic; and while the idea of necessity can also be one of those oversimplified “rules”, purple prose is almost always unnecessary.  It is over-the-top prose for the sake of being over-the-top.

But still, this is a tool just like anything else with language. Is your narrating character verbose and dramatic? Are they extravagant or pedantic? Surely even then the dreaded purple prose monster is fitting for your writing.

Your level of verbosity will have an effect on your pacing. An action scene is probably not the place fitted for verbose introspection and the reader will not feel the weight of a character in mourning if it is bare and efficient. Deciding how and where your narrative voice will manifest depends greatly on the overall narrative as a story and series of events.

And this is where these bits of advice get turned into “rules” and the rules become law of the land. “Don’t do [thing] when you write [type of scene]” turns into “don’t do [thing] when you write, period.” When everyone abides by these “rules”, when everyone veers toward the minimalist, it becomes difficult to distinguish people’s voices. Characters and plot are important, but just as beautiful language cannot hold a narrative all on its own, language is the medium of storytelling; to reduce it down to its barest parts when telling these stories of characters and plots, you lose layers upon layers of tone, and atmosphere, and theme that very well may have been included.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s