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How to Find Your Narrative Voice

A strong narrative voice gives your fiction a distinctive flavor and makes it stand out in a slush pile. But many beginning novelists struggle with finding their narrative voice, and some opt out altogether by emulating another writer’s voice. That’s unfortunate, since an original voice always makes other storytelling elements —including characterization, dialogue and plot—more memorable.

So what’s the secret to developing this elusive yet critical component of your fiction? Author and writing teacher Joseph Bates explains how to find your narrative voice in this excerpt from his book The Nighttime Novelist:

Find Your Narrative Voice

What happens when you find yourself wrestling with voice, even after you’ve discovered the right one?

This goes directly to one of those persistent, pervasive pieces of advice you’ll hear given to beginning novelists, the dreaded “find your voice.” But does that mean something different than finding the voice that your novel requires? Is there a distinction to be made between the novel’s voice and your voice? Or are they the same thing?

This is a difficult question to answer, not because there isn’t a clear answer but because the answer is not always one beginning novelists want to hear: You have natural narrative tendencies, the beginnings of voice, already within you, made up of certain proclivities in storytelling, ways of seeing and saying that make sense to you and come to you more easily than others … and these aren’t always the ways of seeing and saying you wish they were.

Occasionally a writer will set out to work on the kind of novel he admires, only to realize later in the project that the kind of novel he admires isn’t necessarily one he can write. You might have a good understanding of how the type of story works, and you may’ve read a million novels that do something similar, but understanding the approach doesn’t always mean that it’s one that will work for you. This is especially the case with those writers we idolize most; part of the reason a writer becomes a hero to us is that it seems like nobody does it like that person, that the author can’t be emulated. And then, like Don Quixotes chasing down windmills, we set out to do just that, to emulate the writer who can’t be emulated, sometimes spending years pursuing someone else’s vision rather than considering our own.

This is something I struggled with early in my writing career, trying to emulate writers I loved whom I had no business trying to emulate; my natural tendencies weren’t consistent with theirs. I assumed this was my own problem, that no other writers would be silly enough to fall into the same trap, but I quickly learned that this is common to the apprentice stage of writing. Everyone starts out trying to write like someone else, and eventually, through trial and error, we begin to realize what aspects of others’ writing make sense to us and why. The better our understanding of what we aren’t inclined to do as novelists, the better our understanding of what we can do, what works for us and makes sense. And through this process we begin to define our own style and voice.

You may already have an understanding of your natural tendencies in storytelling; if so, wonderful. But if not, let me reassure you that those tendencies are there, that your own voice is waiting, and wanting, to emerge. Finding your voice isn’t as simple as finding your car keys, unfortunately—it’s a process, again, of trial and error. Write without overthinking what happens, and take note of what patterns you see emerge in your work that might suggest your natural strengths in voice.

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