23 Using Narrative Voice

Having looked at narrative voice (first and third) and defined narrative summary (the stuff the narrator says), we now turn our attention to using the narrator within the Show, Don’t Tell Methodology.

There’s one concept that’s essential for you to grasp if you are going to transform your writing, and that is … Not everything the narrator says is TELLING.

Let me put that another way …

Not all narrative summary is TELLING. Many people learning the Show, Don’t Tell Methodology get caught up in the narrative summary and seem to flinch away from the narrator’s voice. They become fearful that anything that they put in the narrative will be seen as TELLING.

Well, that’s not true. In fact, it is the opposite. The narrator plays an essential part in your story.

Let’s return to a rule of thumb that you can use when assessing your writing:

  • Dialogue is for moving the plot forward and passing along backstory.
  • Narrative summary is for describing actions, locations and people.
  • Therefore, narrative summary is not your enemy but TELLING is.

So what’s TELLING?

Well, TELLING is stuff you put in the narrative summary that is something other than describing actions, locations and people.

TELLING in the narrative summary involves one of the following:

  • The character’s backstory – This is when the narrator TELLS the reader about something that has happened in the past.
  • The actions not being described – This is when the narrator TELLS the reader about action. For example, The boy was sad is TELLING, while The boy sobbed, tears streaming down his cheeks is SHOWING.

Let me just dwell on the actions not being described for a moment. It’s been said that narrative summary should contain action, so how is an action not being described now TELLING?

Look at this example:

A beautiful woman walked down the crowded street.


No! This is TELLING. The author is TELLING the reader how the woman is beautiful and how the streets are crowded. The narrator must do the opposite and SHOW. The narrator should describe the woman and the crowded street.

Try it. Pop open a blank Word doc and write out a paragraph that DESCRIBES both the woman and the street.

Once you have grasped the basics of Show, Don’t Tell, there’s one more level of understanding that’s needed if you are to lift your writing to the highest level.

Much of the techniques we’ve looked at so far in this book are pushing you toward a very filmic style of writing. There are times when the technique is calling for a style of writing that seems to consist almost exclusively of dialogue and described action. I’ve even suggested a principle called the Camera Technique. However, if your entire novel contains only description, then you are missing one of the most wonderful aspects of novel-writing.

Novels give the reader the ability to gain an insight into the author’s interpretation of life. The author, using the narrator, can provide the reader with a unique way of seeing the world.
In short, a great novel will change the way you see the world.

Deep stuff, I know, but this is the secret sauce that will transform your writing from good to great.

Here’s an example to illustrate this point.

This comes from Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. It’s about ten pages into the book and comes just after the old man has caught a huge fish …

Then he began to pity the great fish that he had hooked. He is wonderful and strange and who knows how old he is, he thought. Never have I had such a strong fish nor one who acted so strangely. Perhaps he is too wise to jump. He could ruin me by jumping or by a wild rush. But perhaps he has been hooked many times before and he knows that this is how he should make his fight. He cannot know that it is only one man against him, nor that it is an old man. But what a great fish he is and what will he bring in the market if the flesh is good. He took the bait like a male and he pulls like a male and his fight has no panic in it. I wonder if he has any plans or if he is just as desperate as I am?

This is a perfect example of narrative voice being used to add depth but without TELLING.

Remember TELLING is either dumping backstory or TELLING the reader about actions or a character’s feelings.

The above example is not TELLING; it is narrative summary at its best.

Why? What makes this SHOW, not TELL?

The key comes in the opening two sentences:

Then he began to pity the great fish that he had hooked. He is wonderful and strange and who knows how old he is, he thought.

Those two little words, “he thought”, are magic.

What this does is to set up the remainder of the paragraph as the character’s thoughts. The narrator is not TELLING us what the old man is thinking; he is SHOWING us the character’s thoughts.

And this is the key … you can use the narrator to SHOW the reader what a character is thinking.

Even as I write this, I worry deeply that I have not explained the subtle difference here in enough detail.

If the narrative TELLS the reader the story, then you are in trouble. However, if the narrator, on occasion, SHOWS the reader what the character is thinking, then a world of magic is created.

Consider these four little technical points, when using narrative summary to present a character’s thoughts:

  • Thoughts are always happening in the present. They are a reflection of the current events.
  • Thoughts are not to present backstory. They are not to give the reader a vital clue about the plot. They are to add context to a character and the character’s reaction to the current events.
  • Thoughts are not to present emotion. They are not a shortcut from describing/showing how a person is reacting to an event.
  • Thoughts should be used cautiously. If used on occasion, to reinforce key issues, thoughts via the narrative summary can be very powerful. However, if overused, they lose their power very quickly.

In the next chapter, we will look at some real-life examples of narrative summary in action.


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