Quiet Down: Moderating Your Narrator’s Voice

Acquiring Editors and Agents are always looking for a good voice in fiction. Now, there is a degree of subjectivity to this idea, but generally a good voice is one that you trust enough to stay with, even if the story pauses or takes an unexpected turn, and one that you enjoy listening to rattling around in your head as your reading. A good voice can have a quiet confidence that shows us the story as it unfolds but somehow manages to reveal choice personal insights about our key characters. A good voice can also come from an oddball with a distinct personality, who manages to tell us what’s happened, even as they are charming us into hearing about something that we might not have been interested in had it come from someone with a little less pizzazz.

A lot of writers enjoy playing with voice—putting all kinds of quirky spin on their narrator so that there are lots of precious or odd turns of phrase. The impulse is not a bad one. We like to listen to a narrator who is funny and says things that are unexpected.  It makes things interesting, even in the quieter moments of the story. But there is a danger in letting this quirkiness run away with the narrative.  Shoving in too many interesting asides can stymie the actual plot, distract or annoy your reader and undermine the pacing of your novel.  What you don’t want in a narrator is quirkiness for its own sake.

How can you avoid letting the quirk run off with your story? It’s not easy. If you’re too attached to the narrator, you might not even be able to tell when this has happened. So I’d like to offer a 3 stage process for keeping your narrator’s voice from being the loudest one in the room:

1. Read a couple of chapters out loud. You might not be aware of how intense the voice is until you actually hear it. Having it resonate against your walls will help make you aware of just how florid the prose has become.

2. Let someone else read it. If you have read a good portion out loud and don’t feel that the narration is overwrought, don’t let your word be the final one. You’re going to have to let  your book be read by someone else eventually anyway, so even if you’re not ready to let the whole thing go, give a few chapters up to a trusted friend and ask them for an honest opinion.

3. Rewrite a scene or a chapter with no affect. See what a chapter sounds like without any of your narrator’s idiosyncrasies. You don’t have to do this for the whole book. This will show you  how little of the “voiciness” you can get away with for the sake of telling the story. Then add back just the choicest little bits of character gradually. Once you have done this, you may be able to apply your new found spareness to the rest of your manuscript.

A good narrative voice can overcome a myriad of sins, but an overzealous narrator can also obscure some of the good stuff. It’s important to find the right balance.

Have you ever come across a narrator who’s really gotten on your nerves? Let me know about it in the comments.

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