Voice is the idiosyncratic speech and thought patterns of a narrator, establishing a persona. As the voice has so much to do with the reader’s experience of a story, it is one of the most important elements of a piece of writing.
For a long time the idea of voice in a novel had eluded me. It could be because until recently I was writing from the perspective of third person omniscient, and a lot of the work I was reading at the time was like this. The idea was to be as objective as possible, even though not all third person omniscient is necessarily like this, as described later.
It wasn’t until my A-level course in English Literature and Language, when I was introduced to the concept of the unreliable narrator, did I get a taste of what voice is actually like. Intentionally misleading the audience, not through omission, was exciting. It brought new meaning to works I had enjoyed before, when I had not realized the narrator could have been lying or biased.
Then, when I started writing novels in first-person perspective, I started to get a better idea of what the voice is like and how it affects the story that is being told.
Late last year I started writing a novel that I had no intention of writing, but the voice captivated me to the point that I couldn’t ignore it. While I had a vague outline of the plot of the story, it was the voice that really centred the work and gave it a spine strong enough stand on its own. Then once it was standing, the voice started moving my story in ways I hadn’t anticipated.
I couldn’t make my protagonist do something that went against her voice. Her voice cements her personality, and her personality becomes impossible to ignore. In some ways this means that writing dedicated to the voice keeps me faithful to the story I intend to tell.
If you are writing in first-person, for example, the narrative voice is the voice of a character – not the author. Their voice is layered by the character’s history, from social class to where they’re from. Even how they were raised can have an effect on they speak. This is reflected in the smaller nuances in the way they think (narrate), their manner of speaking, word choice, dialect and so on.
An example of this would the opening to ‘The Catcher and the Rye’ by JD Salinger.
“If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.”
The Catcher and the Rye
Holden’s character is quickly but effectively established in one sentence. In fact, pick any sentence of a first-person narrative and one should be able to feel the character voice.
Death in ‘The Book Thief’ by Markus Zusak is a character that does not interact with the rest of the characters within the book, but is an established character, thus making it a first-person perspective, rather than an omniscient third. From this perspective we learn that Death is tired and wants respite from taking souls, and that it is ‘haunted by humans.’ Unlike most omniscient narrators, which this voice is quite like in many respects, Death has a form and actively interacts with the world. Acting as an invisible character amongst the main story, observing what is happening, Death’s perspective is most unusual to read but could have potentially have been redundant without its interesting voice.
“I studied the blinding, white-snow sky who stood at the window of the moving train. I practically inhaled it, but still, I wavered. I buckled — I became interested. In the girl. Curiosity got the better of me, and I resigned myself to stay as long as my schedule allowed, and I watched.”
The Book Thief
The question here would be why Zusak decided to write from the perspective of Death. Not just any version of Death, but one that is bored with its perpetual existence. Most writers, myself included, would have immediately thought the protagonist, Liesel Meminger, should be the one that told this story.
Yet, that wouldn’t be the story that Zusak had in mind. By having the story in Death’s perspective, Zusak is able to bring about a new perspective on mortality. As ‘The Book Thief’ is set during World War II, death is an omnipresent theme that runs in the background, but the physical character, Death, adds depth to this destruction of life. It explains the reasons behind each passing, something that we as humans often wish for when we have lost loved ones, or when facing our own mortality. It portrays death not as something to fear, not as something malicious, but as something less distant or vague.
Not only that, by Death has thoughts and feelings, such as having a love of colour or becoming overexcited by an event in the story and revealing it early to the reader. Then apologising. Death is also bothered by humans’ perceptions of him, right down to the scythe imagery, and wishes it to be corrected. That is a lot of personality and detail for a character that could have easily have been written as a gloomy, neutral third party in a much grander story.
Adding the disillusionment of the reaper, and we have opportunity for our narrator to grow by the end of the book, not just the protagonist. This development is all established in use of language, and is often just a subtle shift in how Death describes something, such as a word, effects how a reader interprets the meaning.
These elements enable Zusak to write a very effective story about love and loss, and what it means to be human.
One example of not meeting character voice would be Anastasia Steele in E. L. James’ ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’. Not only suffering from the predisposition of being a puppet protagonist, Anastasia’s voice slips between her lacklustre American voice and that of her British creators’. This is why establishing dialect is so important.
If a character who normally says “ain’t” suddenly says “isn’t” it can genuinely throw a reader out of their groove, and momentarily ruin that suspension of disbelief. Of course, if an author themselves writes “isn’t,” it can be difficult to remember that small nuance when in the middle of a writing flow, or even overlook it during proofreading. These little details can be edited and cemented in later drafts.
Yet, this isn’t the only flaw with Ana Steele. That lack of spark in her personality rids the narrative of a distinctive voice. In a first-person narrative this shouldn’t be an issue, and yet it is.
“I scowl in frustration at myself in the mirror. Damn my hair–it just won’t behave, and damn Katherine Kavanagh for being ill and subjecting me to this ordeal … Reciting this mantra several times, I attempt, once more, to bring it under control with the brush. I roll my eyes in exasperation and gaze at the pale, brown-haired girl with blue eyes too big for her face staring back at me, and give up.”
Fifty Shades of Grey
While there is voice in the opening paragraph, with Ana’s use of the word “damn” twice in a row, it reads much like an add-on; an afterthought that does not suit the rest of Ana’s voice, and therefore builds up as the book carries on. It appears as an attempt to try to make Ana feel more fleshed out, and given the numerous criticisms into her bland character, it didn’t work.
Though I did previously state that voice can be added in later drafts, I will now punctuate that point by remarking how it is important to treat the voice as its own element – not a throwaway addendum.
Next:Third-Person Narrative Voice
Sometimes she writes. Sometimes she doesn’t. Either way, she’s not doing what she’s supposed to be doing.
In a narrative essay you tell a story, often about a personal experience, but you also make a point. So, the purpose is not only to tell an entertaining tale but also show the reason for the story and the importance of the experience.
Narrative Essays: To Tell a Story
There are four types of essays:
- Exposition - gives factual information about various topics to the reader.
- Description - describes in colorful detail the characteristics and traits of a person, place, or thing.
- Argument - convinces the reader by demonstrating the truth or falsity of a topic.
- Narrative - tells a vivid story, usually from one person’s viewpoint.
A narrative essay uses all the story elements - a beginning, middle and ending, plot, characters, setting and climax - all coming together to complete the story.
Essential Elements of Narrative Essays
The focus of a narrative essay is the plot, which is told using enough details to build to a climax. Here's how:
- It is usually told chronologically.
- It has a purpose, which is usually stated in the opening sentence.
- It may use dialogue.
- It is written with sensory details and bright descriptions to involve the reader. All these details relate in some way to the main point the writer is making.
All of these elements need to seamlessly combine. A few examples of narrative essays follow. Narrative essays can be quite long, so here only the beginnings of essays are included:
Learning Can Be Scary
This excerpt about learning new things and new situations is an example of a personal narrative essay that describes learning to swim.
“Learning something new can be a scary experience. One of the hardest things I've ever had to do was learn how to swim. I was always afraid of the water, but I decided that swimming was an important skill that I should learn. I also thought it would be good exercise and help me to become physically stronger. What I didn't realize was that learning to swim would also make me a more confident person.
New situations always make me a bit nervous, and my first swimming lesson was no exception. After I changed into my bathing suit in the locker room, I stood timidly by the side of the pool waiting for the teacher and other students to show up. After a couple of minutes the teacher came over. She smiled and introduced herself, and two more students joined us. Although they were both older than me, they didn't seem to be embarrassed about not knowing how to swim. I began to feel more at ease.”
The Manager. The Leader.
The following excerpt is a narrative essay about a manager who was a great leader. Notice the intriguing first sentence that captures your attention right away.
“Jerry was the kind of guy you love to hate. He was always in a good mood and always had something positive to say. When someone would ask him how he was doing, he would reply, 'If I were any better, I would be twins!' He was a unique manager because he had several waiters who had followed him around from restaurant to restaurant. The reason the waiters followed Jerry was because of his attitude. He was a natural motivator. If an employee was having a bad day, Jerry was there telling the employee how to look on the positive side of the situation.”
This excerpt from The Climb also captures your attention right away by creating a sense of mystery. The reader announces that he or she has "this fear" and you want to read on to see what that fear is.
“I have this fear. It causes my legs to shake. I break out in a cold sweat. I start jabbering to anyone who is nearby. As thoughts of certain death run through my mind, the world appears a precious, treasured place. I imagine my own funeral, then shrink back at the implications of where my thoughts are taking me. My stomach feels strange. My palms are clammy. I am terrified of heights. Of course, it’s not really a fear of being in a high place. Rather, it is the view of a long way to fall, of rocks far below me and no firm wall between me and the edge. My sense of security is screamingly absent. There are no guardrails, flimsy though I picture them, or other safety devices. I can rely only on my own surefootedness—or lack thereof.”
The following narrative essay involves a parent reflecting on taking his kids to Disneyland for the first time.
“It was a hot, sunny day, when I finally took my kids to the Disneyland. My son Matthew and my daughter Audra endlessly asked me to show them the dreamland of many children, with Mickey Mouse and Snow White walking by and arousing a huge portion of emotions. Somehow these fairy-tale creatures can make children happy without such 'small' presents as $100 Lego or a Barbie house with six rooms and garden furniture. Therefore, I thought that Disneyland was a good invention for loving parents.”
The Sacred Grove of Oshogbo by Jeffrey Tayler
The following essay contains descriptive language that helps to paint a vivid picture for the reader of an interesting encounter.
“As I passed through the gates I heard a squeaky voice. A diminutive middle-aged man came out from behind the trees — the caretaker. He worked a toothbrush-sized stick around in his mouth, digging into the crevices between algae'd stubs of teeth. He was barefoot; he wore a blue batik shirt known as a buba, baggy purple trousers, and an embroidered skullcap. I asked him if he would show me around the shrine. Motioning me to follow, he spat out the results of his stick work and set off down the trail.”
This excerpt from “Playground Memory” has very good sensory details.
“Looking back on a childhood filled with events and memories, I find it rather difficult to pick on that leaves me with the fabled “warm and fuzzy feelings.” As the daughter of an Air Force Major, I had the pleasure of traveling across America in many moving trips. I have visited the monstrous trees of the Sequoia National Forest, stood on the edge of the Grande Canyon and have jumped on the beds at Caesar’s Palace in Lake Tahoe. However, I have discovered that when reflecting on my childhood, it is not the trips that come to mind, instead there are details from everyday doings; a deck of cards, a silver bank or an ice cream flavor. One memory that comes to mind belongs to a day of no particular importance. It was late in the fall in Merced, California on the playground of my old elementary school; an overcast day with the wind blowing strong. I stood on the blacktop, pulling my hoodie over my ears. The wind was causing miniature tornados; we called them “dirt devils”, to swarm around me.”
This excerpt from “Christmas Cookies” makes good use of descriptive language.
“Although I have grown up to be entirely inept at the art of cooking, as to make even the most wretched chef ridicule my sad baking attempts, my childhood would have indicated otherwise; I was always on the countertop next to my mother’s cooking bowl, adding and mixing ingredients that would doubtlessly create a delicious food. When I was younger, cooking came intrinsically with the holiday season, which made that time of year the prime occasion for me to unite with ounces and ounces of satin dark chocolate, various other messy and gooey ingredients, numerous cooking utensils, and the assistance of my mother to cook what would soon be an edible masterpiece. The most memorable of the holiday works of art were our Chocolate Crinkle Cookies, which my mother and I first made when I was about six and are now made annually.”
Tips on Writing a Narrative Essay
When writing a narrative essay, remember that you are sharing sensory and emotional details with the reader.
- Your words need to be vivid and colorful to help the reader feel the same feelings that you felt.
- Elements of the story need to support the point you are making and you need to remember to make reference to that point in the first sentence.
- You should make use of conflict and sequence like in any story.
- You may use flashbacks and flash forwards to help the story build to a climax.
- It is usually written in the first person, but third person may also be used.
Remember, a well-written narrative essay tells a story and also makes a point.