The Basics of Narrative Voice
  • 3-minute read
  • 8th August 2018

The Basics of Narrative Voice

“Narrative” refers to how a story is told. A “narrative voice,” then, is a voice that tells a story. This makes it important for authors to understand the basics! In this post, therefore, we’re looking at key aspects of narrative voice.

Grammatical Person

One key element of narrative voice is point of view. This is reflected in the grammatical person used. In most narrative writing, this will either be first person or third person:

  • First-person narration tells a story from the point of view of the narrator (i.e., using “I” or “we” pronouns). This will often be the main character in the story, but it could also be someone else recalling what they witnessed or a story they heard.
  • In third-person narration, the narrator isn’t the main focus of the story. They may be part of the story, such as an onlooker giving their version of events. But a third-person narrator may also be the disembodied voice of the “author” telling the story. Either way, they refer to characters with third-person pronouns such as “he,” “she,” and “they,” but not “I” or “we.”

While not impossible, it is unusual to use the second person in narration. This is because it involves addressing the reader directly, as if you were telling a story about the person reading it!

What Does the Narrator Know?

A narrator can be either limited or omniscient. A limited narrator knows only what they would know within the bounds of the story (e.g., a character recounting their version of events). An omniscient narrator knows everything that is happening in the world of the story.

First-person narrators are usually limited since first-person narration is subjective. But third-person narrators can be either limited or omniscient depending on their relation to the story itself.

Narrative Reliability

Another element of narration is how trustworthy the narrative voice is. A reliable narrator provides a straightforward, credible account of events. An unreliable narrator, on the other hand, tells a story that should not be taken at face value. This may be because the narrator is lying, misinformed, or even insane. The point of this is to:

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  • Make the reader question what they are being told
  • Show the reader something about the narrator

For example, an unreliable narrator may be trying to persuade the reader to sympathize with an unsympathetic character, such as Patrick Bateman from American Psycho. Or it can be used to show us how the world appears to the narrator, such as in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, where the story is told from the point of view of an autistic child.

Both good books, albeit in very different ways.

Combining These Elements in Narrative Voice

You can combine the elements above in various ways. As mentioned, for example, a third person narrator can be either limited or omniscient. You can also use different narrative voices in different parts of a story.

Try experimenting with telling your story in different ways. They key is finding a voice that works for you. To work out what type of narration to use:

  1. Think about what you want to reader to feel and think as they read
  2. Consider how you want the reader to relate to the narrator
  3. Work out what type of voice will let you achieve this

Whatever  you choose to do, though, remember that narrative voice is an essential part of storytelling.

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