I want to touch back on POV and voice again, because the last installment on voice was something of a master class. I wanted to write a post that’s a bit more basic, for those of you who are just getting started on your writing journey.
This post is an introduction to narrative voice and POV. Narrative voice is the hardest thing in fiction writing. It takes a lifetime of study and practice to master. We’re going to knock out the absolute basics, here, with examples, if you give me about twenty minutes.
Disclaimer: this will only put your feet in the starting blocks. If you write your entire life, you will still be learning new aspects of voice when you die.
POV, or point of view, is popularly construed as a choice between three options for your story’s perspective: first person, second person, and third person. You can find a bazillion blog posts on point of view and even several that will tell you “which one is best.” And isn’t that, um, handy.
Most of those posts break down like this:
- First person is written from your point of view: “I went to the store.”
- Second person uses you. “You went to the store.” Don’t use it to write a novel, ever, unless you’ve been contracted to write Choose Your Own Adventure books, in which case, go nuts. If you’re sold on doing it this way, for the love of God look at first person direct address.
- Third person POV tells what’s happening from an external point of view. “He went to the store.”
Bam! POV. First, second, third. Pick one, and you’re good to go, right?
You wish. Pour yourself a cup of coffee and find something to cry on. Nothing worth a damn is easy, and narrative voice is critical.
If your understanding of POV stops at the above definition–if you aren’t aware of any POVs past first / second / third person–then your novel (and frankly, anything you write) is very likely going to be a mess. This is a cold, hard fact, and I’m sorry. It sucks to hear, and it sucks to tell you. But you will never, ever, know what’s wrong with your writing until you know what you’re not seeing.
There are several different narrative voices resident inside each POV. You must choose one. It’s okay, I’ll help.
Think of narrative voices as sub-genres of POV.
In first person, there are at least six distinct narrative voices. I am not making this up. There are likely more.
- Subjective narration. This is the most common first-person POV in commercial and literary fiction. This is a narrator interjecting their own commentary while telling a story about something that happened to them. There are angles and shades to this, including the Unreliable Narrator, which is exactly what it sounds like. Alex in Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange is drunk for the entire book, and we know that he’s a sociopath on top of it. He’s as unreliable as a narrator gets. See also Moll Flanders, or the unnamed narrator of Palahniuk’s Fight Club.
- Interior monologue. This is less common, and there’s a trick to it: the audience for the interior monologue is the narrator themselves. The narrator doesn’t speak to the reader; the reader is looking into the narrator’s mind. If this sounds confusing, it’s because it is. But it’s powerful when it’s done well.
- Interior monologue with stream of consciousness. Less common still. This is interior monologue, but the writing flows as if it’s just words going through the narrator’s mind–there’s no way that this is possibly happening holy shit this thing totally happened and yet the words keep flowing OMG make it stop. There can be lots of run-on sentences. Again, this is spectacular when it’s done well. The Catcher in the Rye is interior monologue with stream of consciousness.
- Memoir. This feels a lot like subjective narration, and reads similarly on its face. And more confusingly, “memoirs” are often written in first-person subjective. However, “memoir” as a voice tends to be more emotionally and temporally distant, and generally more factual, than first-person subjective. It’s more of a stylistic consideration than a point of view in and of itself. It’s a feel thing, and it’s hard to dial in except that you’ll know it when you see it after you’ve read enough of it. Memoir voice is typically done in past tense, but often jumps around in time, as well, interjecting current considerations and follow-on effects into the narrative. The scenes in Garth Stein’s The Art of Racing in the Rain where the main character (the dog) is narrating about his family–the scenes where he is NOT the main character, but a peripheral character–are told in memoir. The scenes where the dog is central to the story are told in subjective narration. The Art of Racing in the Rain is one of the best recent examples of different voices inside one POV. It should be on every author’s bookshelf. It’s practically a textbook on voice.
- Detached. Memoir voice from even further away, emotionally and temporally. A narrator telling a story about something that happened to them either long ago, or far away. Rarely enters present-day, and rarely refers to follow-on effects. Detached often has a clinical feel. I don’t know of any examples off the top of my head where detached first person is used for the entire book, but I can see it being used, say, in a murder mystery where the narrator is a medical examiner and is writing clinically about a case. Maybe a really gritty detective novel could pull this off, but it might get hokey and gimmicky pretty quick.
- Cinematic. This is a relatively new one on me, but I’ve certainly seen enough of it in genre fiction and especially among fledgling indie authors, and I’ve heard the term a few times, so I finally asked. As I understand it, cinematic first person describes a writing style that is almost entirely action and/or description oriented, with minimal emotional or intellectual focus. No real deep dives into why things are happening or what they’re doing to the narrator emotionally, just a bunch of shit popping off for three hundred pages, typically in present tense. Cinematic fiction is bereft of all the stuff that makes a pile of words into a novel: characterization, chemistry, allegory, metaphor, imagery, tension, hope, loss, triumph, contingencies of rhetoric. All that writer shit goes out the window. I don’t know if this kind of fiction is written as a conscious choice, or if the term “cinematic first person” developed as a way to politely describe the writing style of people who don’t like to read. If you don’t read, you can’t write.
In third person, I can think of at least six voices off the top of my head.
- Limited. AKA “close third.”
- Limited third objective: This is the most popular voice in genre fiction. Period. Close third is king right now. 99% of current fantasy and science fiction in third person is written in close third. Fifty years from now, literature professors will say, “This book was written in the early 21st-Century style: i.e., limited third person narration.” In close third, each scene is told from the POV of one character and one character only. It’s only acceptable to change characters from scene to scene. The trick to this is that, to make it effective, each new scene has to be written in a voice that’s unique to the character who’s seeing it. Not just word choices, either; everything the character sees, thinks, notices, etc. has to be unique to that character. It’s generally attempted by commercial-fiction writers as their first books, because it’s likely the primary style that they read. It’s a lot harder than it looks, though. I’ve said this in the previous piece on voice, but one of the surefire tells that a new author hasn’t got the chops, yet, is when they write in close third and every character sounds, and thinks, the same. To really nail down close third, you need to have each character read differently to the audience. The reader should be able to know who’s narrating any given scene without you ever having to title the chapter with the character’s name. (By all means, title the scene with the character’s name, but you shouldn’t need to.)
- Limited third subjective: This is the “Deep POV” everybody’s so excited about right now. “Deep POV” (which is limited third subjective, but as best I can figure it was named by someone who hadn’t been to college and thought they’d discovered it) removes any distancing words from the POV character’s observations and thoughts. No “he thought,” “he saw,” etc. It’s a type of subjective narration, just in third person, and limited in viewpoint to one character per scene like limited third objective.
- Now, personally, I’ve noticed that several “big” authors who write in close third tend to start in limited third objective using those framing and positioning words (“he said,” “he thought,” italicized internal monologue, etc.), and then slowly remove them as the stakes go up in the scene, “tightening the lens” into limited third subjective, so to speak. Just something to think about. I’ve only ever seen indies writing in strict limited third subjective for an entire book. And it bores the shit out of me, but that’s just me. It gets eye-bleedingly repetitive after about three pages. Whatever. I guess the kids like it. You do you.
- Omniscient. The Big Daddy. The Mother of All Voices. Omniscient third is how novels used to be written. Omniscient is third person, but told through a character who is not in the story. It can feel like first-person–especially in omniscient third subjective–but there’s no “I” anywhere in the narration. Omniscient is freakishly difficult, and the realm of the furrow-browed, pipe-puffing author puttering about in a cherry-paneled study and grumbling about removing that comma or possibly putting it back.
- Omniscient third objective: The majority of high-dollar commercial fiction is written in omniscient third objective. The narrator is invisible, all-knowing, and has no judgment vis a vis the story. The narrator knows what’s happening with each character and has no problem telling you so. The narrator also explains things to the reader, directly and matter-of-factly. Tom Clancy, Michael Crichton, Dan Brown, Harry Turtledove, Fonda Lee, I could go on for hours.
- Omniscient third subjective: In omniscient third subjective, the narrator is a character telling the story directly to the reader. In this respect, it’s almost–ALMOST–first-person subjective narration, except, as said above, the narrator never says “I.” (And don’t you dare try to.) The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and The Princess Bride are written in omniscient third subjective. Dragon’s Trail and The New Magic are written in omniscient third subjective. Likely, this entire series will be. Likely, everything I write will be. I spent thirty years learning how to write in omniscient third subjective; I’m not going to stop, now. This is also why I’m on a two-year release cycle. It’s fucking hard.
- Frame narrative. A story within a story. Often, this is set up with a series of letters telling a story in and of themselves, or a first-person chapter or setup going into a third-person story. I’ve seen this attempted in some LitRPG/Gamelit recently using emails or SMS, but each time, it was abandoned quickly, with the framing as a prologue. (We’ll get to why abandoning your narrative voice damns your soul to eternal torment in just a moment.) The classic example of frame narrative is Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. A more recent example in fantasy is Patrick Rothfuss’s The Name of the Wind.
- Cinematic. Christ, here we are, again. This is everywhere right now. Cinematic third person is an entirely action/description-driven third-person narrative. This happened. That happened. This happened. That happened. Cinematic third is what results when someone who has never read a book decides, after seeing a movie or watching a TV show, that they’re going to write a book. There is no other explanation for its existence except that God hates readers of books and wants us to be sad. Don’t write in cinematic anything.
So, those are your voices within POVs.
It’s important to understand the array of voices resident within each POV, because the voice you choose for your story–and you can only choose one; we’ll get to that in a minute–determines what information the reader is going to get. The unique information that each voice construes determines how the reader is going to understand the point of the story.
A lot of the time, when you’re stuck for words and a story “isn’t working,” it’s a voice issue, and it can be solved by a rewrite in a different narrative voice. Seriously. It works almost every time. Story and voice are interlinked. (This is where, as an instructor for the military, I stomp my foot three times, which is our signal for “This will be on the test.”)
Say it with me: story and voice are interlinked. Your voice is your rear notch sight and your story is your front blade sight. The reader is the target. The point of your story is the round in the chamber.
If you don’t know the difference between the voices resident within POVs, and if you can’t recognize when you’re writing each, you can end up chasing your tail trying to write your novel, no matter how good your story is. You will waste a tremendous amount of your writing time attempting to tell the story you want to tell, and failing. We’re talking about years. I have to wonder how many would-be authors have novels sitting in desks or on hard drives that they abandoned because they simply chose the wrong voice–or perhaps they didn’t know that there were even voices to choose from beyond “first person” and “third person.”
If you don’t understand POV and voice beyond “first” and “third”–if this is all new to you–then it’s effectively a roll of the dice as to whether your story is going to line up with whatever POV/voice you end up naturally writing in, and therefore it’s sheer chance whether your story is eventually going to say what you want it to say. You might get lucky. It might serendipitously turn out okay. But it probably won’t. There are some big-name authors who instinctively have a feel for voice and didn’t have to study this. The hard truth is, you’re probably not that good. I know I’m not.
This matters because it is infuriatingly hard to read a story that wanders between narrative voices, and if you don’t know your narrative voices, you will wander all over the road without knowing it. Once you choose a voice, STAY WITH THE VOICE.
Shifting between, say, memoir and subjective narration in first person, or even adding stream of consciousness to an internal monologue, is jangling, even if the reader doesn’t know why. Changing voices inside a POV is akin to changing from first person to second person. Don’t do it unless you REALLY know what you’re doing, and you REALLY understand how the voice you’re shifting into will affect the information that the reader receives, and even then, only do it if there is NO other way to get that piece of information across.
And still, before you shift narrative voice, sit back, have a drink, go for a walk, and think about it, first. If you botch a voice shift, you will destroy your scene, and possibly your book. You’re juggling chainsaws, here. Even a reader who doesn’t know what voice is will understand that there’s something “off” about the writing: it will read as amateurish, or clumsy. They will likely never call it out as a voice problem, and they may not even realize that they didn’t like it per se, but they’ll look side-eyed at your novel after they read it, forever distrustful. They will. If you didn’t know about voices inside POV, and you have published a novel, readers have already done this to your book. I promise you. But that’s okay, because I’m going to show you how to fix it.
Stick with me; we’re in the home stretch.
To fix yourself, you as a writer have to not only know what the various narrative voices are, but you have to be able to recognize them when you read them.
The problem with this is that narrative voice is invisible when it’s done right, and that’s what makes it hard to learn and almost impossible to master without some kind of conscious and dedicated study. Most self-taught authors don’t understand voice, because they don’t see narrative voice. They don’t see it, because the authors who do voice well enough to be worth emulating make it invisible. You have to know what to look for. This is probably why you’re reading this right now and saying, “I didn’t know any of this.” You can’t. Voice is the rabbit under the table. You’re not supposed to see it.
I gave you some examples, above; start with them, and you’ll know what to look for. Reading makes you a better writer, but the more you know about writing, the better reading is going to make you. When you can recognize voice within POV, it’s like seeing the words on the page in different colors. The ability to identify narrative voice is analogous to having perfect pitch, except that it can be learned. Getting solid on narrative voice will improve your writing every bit as dramatically as developing perfect pitch would improve your singing.
There are plenty of resources for writing online, but precious little on narrative voice other than first / second / third–at least, half an hour of poking around didn’t come up with much. I don’t know why narrative voice is so overlooked, except that it seems the majority of this rush of new authors turning out ten thousand books a week are not professionally trained, educated writers. While that’s fine, somehow this critical piece of arcana has been lost, and it’s killing the craft. (When I talk about untrained writers, I’m not talking about writers who lack a formal education in writing; I don’t believe a formal education in writing is necessary. Self-education and self-study are still education and study.)
So, to recap: if you currently only understand your POV options as “first” and “third,” you will be doing yourself a world of good to study up on voice within POV and start reading for voice. It will improve your storytelling, it will improve your writing, it will improve your reading, and it may bring some long-dead ideas back to life. It will make you a happier writer, and therefore a better writer.
Enjoy. Keep writing. Do great things.
Thank you for this post! I’ve been searching for articles online on narrative voice and this is by far the best one that I’ve found. I was specifically looking for advice on how to make my narrative voice invisible, but I’m struggling to find more details so that I can study it on my own. Do you have more detailed advice, resources, and examples?