Unifying Your Narrative Voice

In first-person narrative, your character tells the story. In third-person narrative, an unidentified narrator tells the story.

First or third-person, you need to know your narrator to make sure it’s a unified, consistent voice.

That’s a little easier with first-person because you’re developing that character for us. In all but the unreliable narrator*, your third-person character is whole at the start of the story, just unseen.

Hallmarks of the invisible narrator include:

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Imagine if bruises weren’t invisible.

  • Trustworthiness.
  • Competence.
  • Consistent vocabulary, reading level, rhythm, narrative distance, and word-choice.

Trustworthiness is achieved by accurately telling the story, placing reveals in the proper order (when the reader needs and not after the fact), and not spieling off into irrelevant prose. The trustworthy narrator is concise and complete, but not pedantic or over-explaining. This is also true for the first-person narrator.

The competent narrator understands the subject matter, using appropriate language correctly. In a sci-fi novel, the narrator has to competently handle the concepts and technology of the story. They psychological thriller must have an insightful narrator who can relate complex concepts with an approachable style, but clear understanding of it. For the first-person narrator, competency may begin low and build to competency, which is an effective storytelling device and sometimes may tell you if your narrator should be first- or third-person.

Trust and competence are like butlers; they are noticeable only when a mistake is made. (There’s a story about a director struggling with a supporting character, a butler, who was finding every means to take the spotlight. The director finally asked him, “John, are you playing a good butler?” “Why, I’m playing the best butler!” “Excellent. Great butlers are invisible. Make it so.”)

Use of language is often visible in a tingling kind of way. You never want your prose to pull the reader out of the story, yet you do want the occasional thrill at the back of the reader’s mind. This is done with the occasional, consistent metaphor. “His heart pounded a paradiddle on the snare drum of his chest.” Paradiddle is a musical term, suggesting the narrator should stick with artistic metaphors. She should NOT throw in nautical metaphors unless the story is suddenly in an oceanic setting. That doesn’t mean metaphors must always be musical. No character is a single thing, however, consider that few people are several major things. So your narrator may have other, minor, metaphors and similes, but it would be wise to make most of the metaphors artistic in this case.

Hemmingway kept his word choice to one or two syllables. Ted Geisel was challenged to write a book with only single syllable words, and Dr. Seuss was born. Consider the texture of your words. Crunchy, spikey, edged words should be used as seasoning… not too much; not too little. Sticking to a consistent rhythm makes deviations of the rhythm more powerful. Long sentences and large paragraphs can begin to shorten to increase pace and shave to a punch!

Narrative distance refers to how close to the characters and actions the narrator is. Can the narrator hear the character’s thoughts? If so, relating those thoughts need to be consistent. Is the narrator warm or cold? Warm means close; cold means distant, that is, the descriptions are clinical, not insightful.

A couple caveats:

  • You can use different narrators based on the chapter’s major character as long as it’s the same narrator each time for each character (don’t use more than a couple narrative voices). In shows and movies, certain characters have musical themes that play when they are the focus. Same idea here.
  • Unreliable narrators first appear to be trustworthy and competent before showing their true colors as a liar or incomplete narrator who withholds vital information. With an unreliable narrator, it can be the only narrator (except in rare cases). Writing a good unreliable narrator is difficult to pull off.
  • One of your first editing jobs is to evaluate the consistency of your narrator. Get this right and your story will probably fly.

Think about your favorite stories and examine the narrator. A great narrator will make you fall into the story despite your intent to analyze. Now go find your narrator.

Oh, for More Yesterdays!

This post is about Yesterday, the movie. IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN IT, DO NOT READ FURTHER.


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And I was never a fan of the Beatles, but I love this movie!

I loved this movie. Jack Mallek awakens in a parallel universe where the Beatles never existed. As a frustrated musician in his own failed career, Jack claims to have written and plays the Beatle’s hits as his own and becomes famous as the greatest singer/songwriter in the world.

Burdened by guilt and oblivious to his best friend’s devotion to him, Jack slowly discovers the differences between the two worlds.

Here’s what the movie did right:

  • Fresh, interesting concept that could be a lot of fun.
  • Jack Mallek is Indian but this is never brought out as a focal point. It just is. Nice example to people with social concerns; don’t make it a thing, just put it out there.
  • It’s clean. No swearing, no nudity, no sex, yet works on multiple levels.
  • Rising tension presented by two people also from his world who know he’s faking it. We know about them for a long time before they confront Jack – and it’s a complete surprise (or at least not what Jack and I expected).
  • The “fun & games” of the movie were Jack’s rise to fame, him trying to remember the lyrics, his guilt, and his dawning realization that he loves Ellie.
  • This is billed as a romantic comedy, yet the romantic build is slow simmer rather than a focal point.
  • The writer/director understood that Jack needed to think the leap was worth it. He did so in a unique and surprising way. The door opened on someone other than I was expecting!
  • To reiterate an important point: Confrontations were telegraphed… we KNEW what was going to happen, yet what took us by surprise wasn’t just a twist, it made more sense than what we were expecting!
  • When the romance aspect came to head the first time, timing wasn’t right. Second time, timing wasn’t right, third time timing was right, but it didn’t matter, it was going to happen. The writer skillfully built two parallel story lines that weaved in and out before coming to a satisfying end.
  • The means of the parallel world switch was never revealed. So much so that many people think time was rewritten rather than Jack being in a whole other world. Had they explained the workings, it:

A) Would no longer have been a romantic comedy, and

B) No sequel would be necessary.

That’s right, the writer gave himself an opening for a sequel. What is that opening? If Jack is in a parallel universe, then he switched places with that world’s Jack, so that world’s Jack is now on our world. What’s happening to him? What’s wonderfully crazy about this sequel opportunity is that it doesn’t have to be the same genre. It could be something else entirely: sci-fi, suspense, psychological thriller or psychological comedy (more likely).

Response to Yesterday is mostly positive, though the critics think it was too simple, lacked depth, lacked gravitas. Translation, it was too clean.

I think the world needs more clean stories, more clean movies, more clean TV shows. I would love more movies like Yesterday.

Don’t Forget to Participate

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Feel the Fear — Analyze Later

As writers we are natural observers. Last week we talked about mining your life for ideas. It’s not just events you need to be looking at, but emotions.

To be fair, the only emotions you can analyze with any hope of being accurate are your own. You can guess at someone else’s, but for that actual feel, you only have your own.

Last week we found out our sweet little dog had advanced diabetes. He’d lost a bunch of weight, and though he looked good, he felt awful. You never can tell with dogs. He never complained, he was just listless, couldn’t jump onto the couch anymore, but still, when the kids came home from school to say goodbye, he rallied and put as much energy into his welcome as he could. Emotions were high in our house. Denial, anger, blame… it was written all over everyone’s face. Yet their actual experience? I only knew mine. At the vet’s, every pet I had leaped around in my heart. This one, Thunder, was the sweetest dog we’d ever had. My hand was on his chest when his heart stopped beating and mine broke.

All that to say, first experience your emotions, later analyze them with a little distance. Don’t try to analyze your emotions as you’re feeling them in response to an event (there may be times you should, but we’re talking life’s ups and downs, not pathology). Just as in quantum physics, the observer changes the observed. Trying to overlay intellectual analysis over emotional reaction will rob you of the emotion. Be human and feel first. Analyze later.

What, exactly should you analyze?  Actions that stem from emotions. A story suffers when the feeling is described, instead, show it. What are your emotional markers? Do your eyes tear up? Does a vein throb? How do you cry – in hitches? In wracking sobs? What does it look like when you hold back? (I absolutely know there is nothing wrong with crying; I will also do everything in my power not to. My jaw will hurt, and my face feels rubbery from the effort, but tears are for alone time. Yeah, it’s messed up, but it’s me.)

People who suffer from PTSD or anxiety have triggers. Touch a trigger and they’ll go off. They won’t make any sense until you understand what they came from. Want me to go off? Throw me into water that is dark beneath my feet. Dread steels over me. Let’s just say it’s a good thing my shorts would already be wet. While this isn’t truly a trigger, it’s close. I freak out because anything could be coming up from below. Yes, I’d almost drowned once when I couldn’t see the ocean floor, but it’s really knowing all the things down there.

If you’re writing a series, your character’s triggers don’t have to be explained in the book we first see it. If you aren’t writing a series, main character triggers do have to be explained. Imagine the tension is rising in the climax of your story and suddenly a trigger is sprung. CHAOS!  Cool. Even better is when a trigger is sprung and the character doesn’t jump because it’s been dealt with in the course of the story.

Your emotions and the actions of others can be analyzed. Your job is to show the emotion, not describe it (resist the urge, even in first person narrative). Just remember to feel your emotions first. We aren’t breeding psychopaths here.

Truth is Stranger than Fiction – or – Mining Your Days for Story

Where do ideas come from? Life, baby, life!

After an amazing week with family who live 3000 miles away from my home. There for the marriage of my beautiful niece, there was enough grist for future stories of all kinds. Sometimes you need to push reality a bit to create fiction, sometimes you have to pull it back.

  • Night before leaving, my flight was cancelled. I had to rebook to a full flight where I was wedged between two large football players in shorts, tank tops, and body hair. Ewwww!
  • Being cheap, I agreed to an online deal of low cost and the carrier picks the car. I was expecting a Ford Focus, or a Leaf, maybe a Smart Car. I got a convertible Mustang GT that growled like a lion, not a horse. SWEET!  But…. stop and go traffic for three hours (which should have been an hour), 30-degree weather which made putting the top down chilly (I did it anyway).
  • Family stuff which was rich with content and seeing my sister’s new house for the first time.
  • Waking up at 6 am to discover chaos as the wedding officiate and bridesmaid were both sick. My future niece-in-law stepped into the bridesmaid role and yours truly officiated the wedding. 😊
  • That afternoon, we troop to the winery where the wedding was being held and slip into the groom’s room, where a glass of $300 scotch was offered. Very, very smooth. The groomsmen had been drinking all day (you can see where this is heading).
  • Set up, figuring out the order of service, planning what I would say, and hanging lights…
  • An amazing service with just the right amount of humor and seriousness. They opted for private vows at the license signing for just the wedding party. Good choice, the bridesmaids were bawling and the groomsmen were drunk.
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Not this bad, really!
  • Followed by more drinking and appetizers (great crab cakes!).
  • Then a wonderful dinner, gelato instead of cake (oh my GOSH are we programmed for cake… I’ve been jonesing for cake ever since). And more drinking.
  • A beautiful toast by my other amazing niece, followed by a drunken toast by the best man.
  • Dancing. Very uncomfortable, drunken dancing (I can’t dance, not won’t, can’t, it’s a pain thing), but some women were not happy with that at all.
  • A car decorated with phrases and graphics that would make this blog X-rated…
  • As designated driver, I drove someone’s van home despite her assurance she could drive in that drunken condition and did it all the time. She gave up her keys willingly.
  • Driving a van with floor branches that crowded the cargo bay tickling my ears and the back of my neck.
  • The next day was wine tasting (4 good wines, 12 bad ones, in my opinion).
  • Then a blast of fish bake meal.
  • Some more family stuff the next day, and then I was flying out again. It was 9:05 am flight that I had to leave at 5:00 am to make.
  • Another full flight, this time sitting with a sweet pastor and his wife on the way to a church convention.
  • When I get home, it’s to a sick dog who we found out the next day has diabetes, so we’ll be saying goodbye to my sweet puppy (and the away kids are driving down as I write to say their goodbyes).

That was just a short week and there’s enough material there (and more I didn’t write above) to fuel realism in several future stories, perhaps in different settings, different events, different locations, but the seeds were found here.

Now, you may be the type who writes such things down so you have them when you’re ready to write. That’s fine. I prefer my memories to sink into the subconscious where they can percolate and eventually worm their way into my work. Either method works, but with mine, fictionalization is virtually guaranteed.

Mine your days, observe, analyze, and allow to steep. Your life is more like a story than you know.