Take your favourite book from its shelf. Sit down, make yourself comfortable. Turn off your phone. Now, before you go on to the rest of this article, open your book and read the first few pages.
There. Now think back to when you were reading. We always ‘hear’ a voice in our head when we read. I want you to consider what that voice sounded like. Was it an all-knowing voice, coldly observing and narrating what happened to the characters – much like the authoritative voice overs for Discovery Channel documentaries? Or was this voice involved, excited about what happened? Did the voice belong to one of the characters in the story, or was it commenting from outside the fictional world in which the characters lived? Could you guess anything about the voice’s gender, its political preferences, its age? To whom did the voice address itself?
This voice is called the narrative voice. This narrative voice is of huge importance for storytelling, especially verbal storytelling (i.e. oral or written). You need to choose your narrative voice carefully, because it needs to fit the story you tell in order for it to be successful. In this article I will discuss several choices regarding the narrative voice you need to make when you begin your storytelling.
Tone of voice
The first choice we need to make is our tone of voice. Is the narrative voice very explicit, commenting upon what’s going on in the story, giving his or her own opinion, establishing a relationship with the reader? Or does your storytelling call for a documentary style voice – a hidden narrative voice, almost disappearing into the background while the characters and their actions take centre-stage?
And to whom does the narrative voice belong? We call this the narrator, the one who tells the story. Now, it’s of course you, the storyteller who tells the story, but that doesn’t always mean you’re the narrator too. We have two types of narrators: narrators-inside-the-story and narrators-outside-the story.
Narrators-outside-the-story have not experienced what the story is about. Please note that this doesn’t mean that the narrator cannot say “I” to refer to themselves. A narrator can say something like “Now I shall tell the reader how it happened” or “I don’t think she should have acted like this”, but if the story is something they haven’t experienced, they’re still a narrator-outside-the-story – just one with a very explicit narrative voice. This is the type of narrator you need if you want to represent the feelings and thoughts of your character: only an 'all knowing' narrator-outside-the-story can look 'inside the heads' of your characters.
Narrators-inside-the-story come in two shapes: a narrator who is also the main character of the story; or a narrator who has witnessed the deeds of the story’s main character. The first type can be found in a lot of stories: it is basically somebody talking about something they’ve done. The second type is less common, but can make for fantastic storytelling. The Sherlock Holmes books by Arthur Conan Doyle are a good example: Sherlock Holmes is the main character, but the narrator is dr Watson, his sidekick: it is Watson who tells about Holmes’ heroic deeds. It’s a great trick, because Watson can be surprised by Holmes’s ingenuity, his unorthodox methods, and his cleverness; something that would never be possible if Holmes himself were the narrator. The witness-narrator is one of the great underused narrative tricks in storytelling.
If we combine the types of narrators with the types of narrative voice, we end up with four types of possible narrators.
· Narrator-outside-the-story with an explicit narrative voice: comments upon what’s going on in the story, expresses opinions, etc.
· Narrator-outside-the-story with a hidden narrative voice: the documentary-style voice.
· Narrator-inside-the-story who is the story’s main character
· Narrator-inside-the-story who is a witness to the deeds of the story’s main character
(The narrators-inside-the-story always have an eopenly present narrative voice, of course, because they are characters. However, we can always foreground their tone of voice more or less, especially with the witness narrator.)
A very good exercise is trying to tell (parts of) the story you’re writing (or someone else’s text – what about that book you read at the beginning of this article?) using each of these types of narrators. Don’t think you can only have different types of narrator in fictional storytelling. Try doing this with a newspaper article and you’ll see how exciting it can be to try different types of narrators in non-fiction too! As you discover how your story changes with each type of narrator, you will also get a feel for when to use which narrator. In the end, this will make you a more effective storyteller.
And by the way: Don’t forget to put your phone back on!
This is the third post in a series of seven articles about storytelling.
Read the other articles here:
1. The Four Elements of Storytelling
2. Ten Esential Building Stones for a Good Story
3. Telling Your Story With the Right Voice
4. Guide Your Audience!
5. Telling Your Story With the Right Point of View
6. Why Your Story Needs a Moral Dilemma
7. The Fifth Element of Storytelling