How To Find a Unique Narrative Style

My biggest critic, my mother is my average reader, is beautiful and I love her. She finds every type-o.

One of the most difficult tasks of writing a long novel is the ability to create a narrative style that is unique, flows well, and remains consistent throughout the 50,000 words or so required for a novel.

It also must be a style that catches a reader’s eye from the first few pages.  I have listed a few tips as to how a writer might achieve this:

1.  Regionalism – Where do you live?  As I have traveled around the United States, I have listened to a variety of accents and heard a multitude of colloquialisms.  If you have spent very much time with someone from a local area who has a unique sound to their voice, try to write the narrative as if they are telling the story.  My dad had a very interesting cadence to his voice and have used his “voice in my head” to write several short stories.  I find it to be consistent and interesting.

2.  Movie Actors – If I want a particular sound to the narrative I will rent or borrow or buy movies that include one actor/actress and then watch them to hear how that actor/actress speaks.  I love James Earl Jones, but sometimes that voice is not the voice I want for my novel’s “sound”.  Find an actor or actress’s voice that you like and then try to hear that voice speaking the narrative of your novel.

3.  Authors – There are many unique authors out there with very powerful and unique narrative voices.  Charles Portis has “[a] comic skill …characterized in many ways, which can be loosely amalgamated into [an] idea that Portis delivers to us [as] obsessive, often humorless eccentrics that produce unself-conscious monologues over the course of fruitless quests, all in a deadpan tone that doesn’t give so much as a wink to the reader.” (The Unofficial Charles Portis Website)  I love the way he narrates a story so much that I want to emulate his comic style.  I do not copy it, but find that I can learn much from reading his books.  Another is Neal Stephenson who wrote Snow Crash and several other cyberpunk novels.  He also has a comic voice that is both gripping and sardonic at the same time.  Here’s a line from Snowcrash:

Most countries are static, all they need to do is keep having babies. But America’s like this big old clanking smoking machine that just lumbers across the landscape scooping up and eating everything in sight.

Many writers become step-children of the writers they enjoy, and I am a writer born from Portis, Stephenson, Tolkien, Scott Card and Faulkner.  The trick is to find a writer you love and learn from them.  Learn the technical and rhetorical reasons why you like them so much and then do your best to emulate their greatness.

4.  Listen to Critics – You need to have other people read your work, people who understand the importance of narrative voice, people with a degree in English preferably, who will give you good pointers, criticism and analysis that will then help your own narrative voice.  This will not be done through casual meetings but regular weekly conferences.  If you have to pay them, then so be it.  If you happen to have several colleagues who will help for free, then use them by all means (get them chocolate or whatever gifts you can muster).  But above all listen to them.  Think of people with degrees in the English language as uber-readers.  Average readers like my dear mother will be honest if they don’t like something and have specific talents (like finding type-os – thank you mom), but the educated reader who specializes in English will be able to see the nuts and bolts of what you have written and many times will be able to help you find a way to tighten them.

If you have any other tricks and methods to finding a narrative voice, feel free to comment below.  It would be great to hear from others on this subject.  I’ve been writing solidly for 25 years, but there are always new things to learn.  Please help us all out.

Published by Roger Colby, Novelist, Editor

Roger Colby is a novelist and teacher who has taught English for nearly two decades. He is also an avid reader of science fiction who feels, like many other sci-fi readers, that he has read everything. He writes science fiction for the reader who is looking for the next best thing, something to excite them into reading again. This blog is his journey as a writer and his musings about writing. He also edits manuscripts for a fee and is an expert at helping you reach your full potential as a writer.

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