Can You Make Your Narrative Voice Sing?

Telling a story is very much like taking a picture. You choose the elements you want to include and decide on the perspective.

For instance, imagine you’re writing a story where three very different singers – let’s say, Tony Bennett, Willie Nelson and Janis Joplin – are each singing “Itsy-Bitsy Spider.”

Interesting concept … right?

I’m sure you can hear how each of them would interpret the song, making it his or her own by imprinting it with his or her unique style.

The plot doesn’t change at all from singer-to-singer; we know that persistent little arachnid will get washed out of the spout, yet will eventually triumph over adversity.

But each version’s style is determined by the singer’s tone of voice, which notes are emphasized, the tempo and the background music.

A writer has to do the same thing with words to establish style.

Which is a long way to go merely to point out it isn’t necessarily what you say, it’s the way you say it.

That’s the narrative voice.

If your story is written in the first-person, like most of mine are, the relationship you’re developing is between the narrator and the reader. Whether you want the reader to like, dislike, admire or loathe the narrator, the most important thing is to compel the reader, to keep them turning pages.

Take this excerpt from my award-winning novel ONE WAY STREET:


    As soon as the Medivac left and our cover-fire slackened, the NVA began to probe our position again from both sides.
    We had no air support as we made our way back to the top of Hill 882, where we regrouped and formed the most nervous night perimeter I ever hope to be in. We were short of just about everything, from ammunition to grenades, and weren’t supposed to be resupplied until the next morning.
    “Can I ask you something, Blake?” I said to a weary-looking Thompson when he took the position next to me.
    “Sure,” he said, adding, “Wish I could light up a fag. I really do need a cigarette.”
    “You and me both.”
    “Barrett, you don’t smoke,” Blake said.
    “Yeah, I do,” I replied. When he stared at me I added, “But only when I’m scared.”
    He chuckled a little, but still sounded nervous, “I take it your knees haven’t stopped shaking,” he said.
    “I don’t know,” I said, “my ass hasn’t stop leaking long enough to find out.”
    He broke into a loud, whooping chortle, which he tried hard to stifle. The next man in the perimeter shushed him. Blake was silent for several moments, looking from the stars in the dark sky to the safety on his M-16. “Think we’ll be OK?” he said in a whisper.
    “I wish I knew,” I said, as I reloaded my own M-16. “But I wouldn’t be giving us very good odds.”
    “I was afraid of that.” Blake’s eyes looked up at the jungle without raising his head. “Was that what you wanted to talk about?”
     I’d almost forgotten the question I’d asked him.
    “No, I was just thinking about a guy I used to know,” I said, “a friend…but you wouldn’t know him…so never mind.”
    “What was his name?” Blake turned to look at me. He had blacked his face for camouflage and muddy streaks were caked on top of it. He could have been a clown, if he smiled. Or the devil himself, if he was angry.
    “His name was Albert Parker,” I said, “He used to live right across the street from me.”
    “Good guy?”
    I thought about it a moment. “Yeah,” I said, looking over at Blake, “a really good guy.”
   “You said he used to live across the street. Did he move, or something?”
     “No,” I said, “he died.”
    “Aw, that’s too bad, man,” Blake said. He adjusted his bandolier and started to lean back against the mound of dirt behind us. “What’d he die from?”
    “Coming over here.”


Even though it is all coming from the perspective of the character Barrett, hopefully you can hear the dark undertones of the situation. It’s also my hope that you’re just dying to know what happens next!

This often used POV has no restrictions as to whose perspective you use to view the fictional world. Often it seems to be a know-it-all voice outside the specific time of the story. The clearest example I can think of is the opening of Charles Dickens’ A TALE OF TWO CITIES:


It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way.


In this POV, the intimacy is formed with a trusted narrator who isn’t really part of the story. The narrative voice has a wisdom about the world, and the reader must trust that this voice will continue to comment on events and put them in perspective.

Either way, always remember, description is a tool to enhance the story, the same way a frame enhances a painting. If the frame is too ornate or large, it overshadows the artwork.

It’s like stepping on the gas pedal of your car; only do so in relation to how fast you want the car to go … and remember that great Stephen King quote: “Description begins in the writer’s imagination, but should finish in the reader’s.”

* * * * *

Gentle Readers, my books have all garnered some terrific reviews. You can see all of them by using the Amazon link below. Check them out. Better yet, buy one and read it. You just might like it.

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You’re invited to visit my author’s website, BROKEN GLASS to hear the remarkable radio interview about my novel “Blood Lake” on The Authors Show. You can also like my Book of Face page, find me on Goodreads, or follow my shorter ramblings on The Twitter.


Comments posted below will be read, greatly appreciated and perhaps even answered.

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2 Responses to “Can You Make Your Narrative Voice Sing?”

  1. Ron Herron Says:

    As always, Bob, glad I could help.


  2. Bob Wonnacott Says:

    Thank you, Ron. Your examples really brought out the differences in narrative voices. It is much clearer to me, now, to see the difference. Thanks for your words of wisdom!

    Liked by 1 person

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