22 Using Narrative Voice

Having looked at narrative voice (first or third) and defined narrative summary (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 TELL.

Let me put that another way…

Not all narrative summary is TELL. 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 TELL.

Well, that’s not true. In fact, the opposite is true. 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 backstory.
  • Narrative summary is for describing actions, locations and people.

It is, therefore, not narrative summary that is your enemy, it is TELL.

So what’s TELL?

Well, TELL is stuff you put into the narrative summary that is something other than ‘describing actions, locations and people’.

TELLING in the narrative summary is one of the following:

  • The character’s back-story – This is when the narrator TELLS the reader about something that has happened in the past.
  • Non-described action – This is when the narrator TELLS the reader about action. For example, ‘the boy was sad’ is TELL, while ‘the boy sobbed, tears streaming down his cheeks’ is SHOW.

Let me just dwell on the ‘non-described’ action for a moment. It’s been said that narrative summary should contain action, so how is non-described action now TELL.

Look at this example:

A beautiful woman walked down the crowded street.

Description?

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

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

The Next Level

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 technique we’ve looked at so far in this book is pushing you towards 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 technique called The Camera Test! However, if your entire novel contains only description, then you are missing one of the most wonderful aspects of novel writing.
This is that novels have the ability for the reader to gain an insight into the writer’s interpretation of life. The writer, using the narrator, is able to 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 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 TELL.

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

This is not TELL, 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.

What this does is sets 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 read what a character is thinking.

There’s four little technical points consider when using narrative summary to present a character’s thoughts:

  1. Thoughts are always in the present. They are a reflection of the current events.
  2. Thoughts are not a way to present backstory. They are not a way to give the reader a vital clue about the plot. They are a way to add context to a character and their reaction to the current events.
  3. Thoughts are not a way to present emotion. They are not a short cut from describing/showing how a person is reacting to an event.
  4. 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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