Tag Archives: narrative voice

Narrative Voice: Beliefs and Attitudes #amwriting

Today’s post is the final installment of the four-part series on narrative voice, or an author’s style. Over the last two weeks, we’ve discussed how the way we use punctuation, and how the habitual choice of words shapes the tone of our writing. Every story, poem, newspaper article, or song has a recognizable fingerprint: the author’s voice and style.

a writer's styleThe final aspect of narrative voice or style arises from our deeply held beliefs and attitudes. We may or may not consciously intend to do it, but our convictions emerge in our writing, shaping character and plot arcs.

Our values can be seen in the contrasts we employ in the setting and how we portray the layers of society. They are shown in the arc of growth we give each character, changing for good or bad as the story progresses. As a reader, I believe the characters are the story, and the events of a narrative exist only to force growth upon them.

The way a world is portrayed reflects the author’s innermost concerns and values. The author might have considered them at length or might not. Possibly they couldn’t explain them. However, these core values remain beneath the surface and influence how the written characters see their world. They shape a narrative’s actions, and reactions.

The hero embodies what the author considers right and moral, and the antagonist embodies the author’s perception of wrongdoing.

Some authors see good and evil as black-and-white. One is good or evil, with no middle ground. Often a simple story of good and evil is precisely what I want.

Other authors are more aware of the gray area between and write wonderful novels exploring that concept. Sometimes I’m looking for that sort of story.

the hobbitWhether or not we are aware of it, our societal and religious beliefs emerge in our writings. Subliminal fears of climate change, worry about a world on the edge of economic collapse, and our hopes for a better society come out in our plot arcs and world-building. How they appear may have nothing to do with real life, but they add color to our worlds.

In many ways, writing is undertaking a pilgrimage. We go on pilgrimages for many reasons, often in search of moral or spiritual wisdom. Sometimes we go to a location that has significance to our beliefs and faith. Other times, we undertake an inner, symbolic journey. Creating a world and writing a society involves delving into our principles and values.

People are often changed by a journey to a different place and seeing how other people live. We evolve as human beings through our experiences and interactions.

Writing has the same effect on us as a journey. In the process of writing, we explore experiences that affect our emotions and challenge our values. We usually don’t realize it, but writing helps us identify our beliefs and firms our understanding of our own moral code. It’s as if we are brainstorming our principles and philosophies.

the hobbit movie posterWe each grow and develop in a way that is unique to us. Sometimes we are hardened by our life experiences, and our protagonists have that jaded sensibility. Other times, we accept our own human frailties, and our protagonists are more forgiving.

J.R.R. Tolkien wrote fantasy showing the evil the world was capable of in the first part of the 20th century. He also laid bare his hope for a better future. He understood how the masses are swayed by charismatic leaders and how tenuous the difference between what is right and moral and that which is expedient and easily glossed over can be.

He understood how societies lie to themselves and justify their actions.

In the Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkien put a face on the Engine of War. In our real world, the Engine of War is an evil that seems unstoppable, an endlessly hungry entity made up of faceless soldiers acting on commands given by faceless leaders, committing unspeakable violence against faceless people.

Tolkien had been a soldier in one of the most horrific conflicts in history – World War One. He wrote about his experiences and how they had changed his values but framed them in fantasy. Bilbo is yanked out of his comfortable middle-class existence. Over the next year, he experiences many things. Where once our hobbit was a little xenophobic and slightly disdainful of anything not of The Shire, he discovers that other cultures are as valuable as his, meeting people of different races whom he comes to love and trust. He experiences the loss of friends and gains compassion.

When Bilbo returns to the Shire, he is a different person than he was when he ran out his front door without even a handkerchief.

Whether we write fantasy, literary fiction, comedy, sci-fi, or romance—our characters must be changed by their experiences. Their long-held views of morality must be challenged or put to the test. How they are changed by these experiences is up to us.

Most of us don’t intentionally write to preach to people, but the philosophies we hold dear do come out.


The One Ring, Peter J. Yost, CC BY-SA 4.0

The works that I love are those in which the events are the catalysts of personal growth for me, the reader, as well as the protagonist. In the process of writing, we might find ourselves looking at things differently. Our deeply cherished views might be challenged – and how will we react to that?

Historically, the authors whose works resonate down the centuries had opinions about politics, religion, and society in general. Their views were written into their work, sometimes more bluntly than others. Those values and motifs are why certain novels are considered classics despite having been written more than one or two centuries ago.

Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte – Wikipedia challenges Victorian morality and addresses mental and physical cruelty, including domestic abuse.

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens – Wikipedia addresses society’s view of who is responsible for poverty and challenges the idea the poor are impoverished because they are lazy and deserve it.

The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien – Wikipedia depicts how greed and selfishness are insidious and can destroy even good people. The Desolation of Smaug warns us against repeating the tragedies of WWI, which of course, we did, and do, and will do again.


Dustcover of the first edition of The Hobbit, taken from a design by the author, J.R.R. Tolkien.

The Hobbit – An Unexpected Journey, Theatrical release poster © 2012 New Line Cinema, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, WingNut Films, Distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures, Fair Use.


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Narrative voice: more words and how we choose them #amwriting

We all use the same words to tell the same stories.

Words-And-How-We-Use-ThemWhy do I say such a terrible thing? It’s true. All stories are derived from a few basic plots, and we have only so many words in the English language with which to tell them.

Plot Archetypes as defined by Christopher Booker in his work, The Seven Basic Plots:

  1. Archetype MeaningOvercoming the monster
  2. The quest
  3. Voyage and return
  4. Comedy
  5. Tragedy
  6. Rebirth
  7. The Rule of Three

The words we habitually use to show a scene will be recognizable as our voice. I know a lot of words and their alternatives, and I try to learn new ones every day. But I often find myself stuck when pounding out a first draft, using a particular word over and over. My brain knows what I’m trying to say but can’t be too creative.

Fortunately, this sin is noticeable when I get to revisions, and that is when I hunt down the synonyms, alternative words that mean the same thing.

Words with only a small number of alternatives become problems for me. This happens in my work with the word sword. The other options for the word sword are many. Unfortunately, most describe a specific type of weapon – epee, rapier, cutlass, saber/sabre, etc.

Unfortunately, my swords are only broadswords or claymores. Thus, I am limited to sword, blade, weapon … you get the drift. The lack of alternatives does one good thing, though – it keeps me from indulging in long, drawn-out fight scenes.

Other words cause problems too. Sometimes, the thesaurus available in my word-processing program doesn’t offer me enough substitutes to make a good choice.

ozford-american-writers-thesaurusFor that reason, I have the Oxford Dictionary of Synonyms and Antonyms and Oxford American Writers’ Thesaurus near to hand. I also have a book called Activate, written by Damon Suede, a thesaurus of verbs, actions, and tactics. I refer to these books when I must search for an alternative to a word I am leaning too heavily on.

Which happens far too often.

Memory is a mushy thing. I prefer a hard copy reference book rather than the internet, as I remember what I read on paper better than what I read on screen. However, the internet is a perfectly reasonable cost-free alternative. I get sidetracked too easily when doing research on the net. Hard copies of reference books encourage me to do the research and get back to work.

So, we know that we all tell stories with fundamentally similar plots, and we all must use words with the same meanings.

But we sound different on the page. Why is this?

The way we habitually write prose is our unique voice. The word I select might mean the same as the one you use, but I might choose a different form.

When we write, we build a specific image for our readers. We select words intentionally for their nuances (distinctions, subtleties, shades, refinements, etc.).

We use words that convey our vision of the mood, atmosphere, and information. You and I may be writing the same plot, but my vision of it is different from yours.

Let’s write a story about a hero who finds a magical object and an evil entity who wants possession of it.

J.R.R. Tolkien may have used that plot in the Lord of the Rings, but what we write will be ours, not his. Your words will show the hero in a setting and communicate an atmosphere completely different from what my words express.

How do our word choices add depth to world-building? An example might be sound or color. How do you show an intense sound or color? Loud is a word that works for both sound and color.

Thunderous conveys more power than loud, even though they mean the same thing in the context of sound.

Lurid conveys more power than loud, and in the context of color, they mean the same thing.

Let’s look more closely at the word loud:

  • oxford_synonym_antonymNoisy
  • Boisterous
  • Deafening
  • Raucous
  • Lurid
  • Flamboyant
  • Ostentatious
  • Thunderous
  • Strident
  • Vulgar
  • Loudmouthed

These are only a few of the many options we have to work with. The website www.PowerThesaurus.com lists 1,992 alternatives for the word loud.

How about the word “disruptive”? It’s a straightforward, blunt adjective. Maybe you don’t want to say it bluntly. Would you choose the word obstreperous or the more common form, argumentative? They mean the same thing, but both begin with a vowel and feel passive.

Hostileconfrontationalsurly—many common words convey the information that a person is being difficult in a simple but powerful way. The synonyms for disruptive express many different shades of meaning and might be more appropriate to your narrative.

Use your vocabulary but don’t get too creative. Do your readers a favor and use words that most people won’t need a dictionary to understand.

I don’t mean to say that rarely used words should be ignored. Our prose should never be “dumbed-down,” but we shouldn’t use big words just to show how literate we are.

ten dollar wordsMy Texan editor refers to those convoluted morsels of madness as “ten-dollar words.” A ten-dollar word is a long obscure word used in place of one that is smaller and more well-known. This is why I probably wouldn’t use obstreperous in place of disruptive, but I might choose rebellious or confrontational.

The problem is, sometimes, I can’t find the right words to show what I envision. I can see it but can’t express it. It annoys me to leave that scene and come back to it later.

Other times I have all the words I need, and those are the best days, the days I am glad to be a writer.

We imagine and assemble stories for other people’s entertainment. We paint those images with words carefully chosen to draw the most precise framework for the reader to hang their imagination on.

The real story happens inside the reader’s head.

The words we choose make the reader’s experience richer or poorer. As a reader, I live for those books written by authors who are bold when they choose their words.



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Narrative Voice: Balancing Verbs, Modifiers, and Infinitives #amwriting

We are drawn to the work of our favorite authors because we like their voice and writing style. The unique, recognizable way they choose words and assemble them into sentences appeals to us, although we don’t consciously think of it that way.

In Monday’s post, Narrative Voice, an Author’s Style, I mentioned three components of an author’s voice:

  1. How the habitual choice of words shapes the tone of our writing.
  2. How the chronic use and misuse of grammar and punctuation shape the pacing of our sentences.
  3. How our deeply held beliefs and attitudes emerge and shape character and plot arcs.

Words-And-How-We-Use-ThemToday’s post focuses on word choice. What do you want to convey with your prose? This is where the choice and placement of words come into play. Active prose is constructed of nouns followed by verbs or verbs followed by nouns.

Where we choose to place the verbs changes their impact but not their meaning. Also, the words we surround verbs with change the mood but not their intention.

But let’s look at how modifiers and infinitives fit into the written universe and visualize their place in our prose.

  • Modifiers are words that alter their sentences’ meanings. They add details and clarify facts, distinguishing between people, events, or objects.
  • Infinitives are mushy words, words with no definite beginning or end.

Both modifiers and infinitives are useful, and both have the power to strengthen or weaken our prose.

When doing revisions, I look at how I have placed my verbs in relation to nouns, modifiers, and infinitives in the first draft. My outline told me what the scene should detail but the words were written the way they fell out of my head.

Which tends to be in a passive voice.

WordItOut-word-cloud-4074543The second draft revisions are where I do the real writing. It involves finetuning the plot arc, character arcs, and most importantly, adjusting phrasing.

The tricky part is catching all the weak phrasing. Those of you who write a clean first draft are rare and wonderful treasures – I wish I had that talent.

When I find a stretch of passive phrasing, I reimagine the scene. I want to see how to strengthen the narrative and still keep to my original intention.

At times, nothing will work, and the scene must be scrapped.

A passive sentence is not “wrong.” No matter how active the phrasing, a poorly written sentence is not “better.”

Too many passive sentences slow the pacing, and readers don’t like that – but they do like a chance to breathe and absorb what just happened. So we mingle active and passive phrasing to keep things balanced.

And despite what the self-proclaimed gurus on Reddit might rant, good writing is about balance.

The ways we combine active and passive phrasing are part of our signature, our voice. By mixing the two, we choose areas of emphasis and places in the narrative we want to direct the reader’s attention.

powerwordsWordCloudLIRF06192021Some types of narratives should feel highly charged and action-packed. Most of your sentences should be constructed with the verbs forward if you write in genres such as sci-fi, political thrillers, and crime thrillers.

These books seek to immerse the reader in the emotion generated by the action, so most sentences should lead off with noun – verb or verb – noun, followed by modifiers and infinitives. You will have more active phrasing than passive: push, push, glide. The reader will adjust to the pacing rhythm you establish if you are consistent.

In other genres, like cozy mysteries, you want to immerse the reader in the character’s emotions. You create a sense of comfort and familiarity by manipulating the mood. Perhaps you want to slightly separate the reader from the action to convey a sense of safety, of being an interested observer.

You want the reader to feel like they are the detective with an objective eye, yet you want them immersed in the romance of it. You balance the active and passive sentence construction, so the narrative is slightly more relaxed than a thriller.

Passive construction can still be strong despite being poetic. A poor choice of words makes a sentence weak.

Has someone said your work is too wordy? An excess of modifiers could be the offenders.

modifying-conjunctions-04262022What clues should you look for when trying to see why someone says you are too wordy?

  1. Look for the many forms of the phrasal verb to be. They are words that easily connect to other words and lead to writing long convoluted passages.
  2. Look for connecting modifiers (still, however, again, etc.).

The many forms of to be (is, are, was, were) are easy to overlook in revisions because we habitually use them in conversation. They’re kryptonite in the prose of an action-based narrative.

In the first draft, I keep in mind that bald writing tells only part of the story. Regardless of my efforts, it slips in. This is because I am telling myself the story at that stage of development.

When revising the first draft, I sharpen my prose. I try to paint active word pictures of the mental images I visualized when I first wrote them, but without going overboard. I change the wording to use words that begin with hard consonants. They sound tougher and carry more power.

We all approach creativity differently, and what works for me might not work for you. However, the more you write, the more you will find your preferences and writing style changing in one direction or another.

One more thing about wordiness: the number of conjunctions and connecting modifiers we use contributes to wordiness and sentence length. My first drafts are littered with run-on sentences—me telling myself the story. I look for them when making revisions because long compound sentences can be confusing.

It’s a struggle. I rewrite some sections several times before I finally make them palatable.

If you are interested in a bit of homework, take a short paragraph from your work in progress and rewrite it. Try to convey that thought in both passive and active voice. Then blend the two. You might learn something about how you think as a writer when you try to write in an unfamiliar style.

I have posted the following list of words before. I habitually use these morsels of madness in a first draft but wish I didn’t.

It takes forever, but I look at each instance and decide if they should remain or if they weaken the sentence. Ninety times out of a hundred, I change or remove them.

In the interests of keeping the post down to a reasonable length, this list is a picture. If you want to copy it, right-click on it, select “save as,” and choose either .jpeg or .png.



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Narrative Voice, an Author’s Style #amwriting

Every story, poem, newspaper article, or song has a recognizable fingerprint: the author’s unique voice or style. Voice and style consist of three aspects:

  1. The habitual choice of words shapes the tone of our writing.
  2. The chronic use and misuse of grammar and punctuation shapes the pacing of our sentences.
  3. Our deeply held beliefs and attitudes emerge and shape character arcs and plot arcs.

a writer's styleSome authors are forceful in their style and throw you into the action. They have an in-your-face, hard-hitting style that comes on strong and doesn’t let up until the end.

Dashiell Hammett perfected the crime noir novel with short, choppy sentences packed with power words:

Quote from TheMaltese Falcon:

MalteseFalcon1930“I’m going to send you over. The chances are you’ll get off with life. That means you’ll be out again in twenty years. You’re an angel. I’ll wait for you.” He cleared his throat. “If they hang you I’ll always remember you.” [1]

Other authors take you on a journey. They have a more leisurely, fluid style of writing. Neil Gaiman is poetic and thoughtful, leading you deeper into the story with each paragraph.

Quote from Stardust:

Are we human because we gaze at the stars, or do we gaze at the stars because we are human? [2]

When we first begin writing, our style is heavily influenced by the authors whose works we love. Our stories are an unconscious reflection of what we wish they would write.

We develop our own voice and style when we write every day or at least as often as possible. We subconsciously incorporate our speech patterns, values, and fears into our work, and those elements of our personality form the voice that is ours and no one else’s.

Developing a broad vocabulary is important because we are creatures of habit. When we want to express ourselves, we fall back on certain words and ignore their synonyms. This is where a good online thesaurus comes in.

oxford_synonym_antonymBut I prefer to keep my research in hardcopy form, rather than digital. The Oxford Dictionary of Synonyms and Antonyms is a handy tool when I am stuck for alternate ways to say something.

And it makes the perfect place to rest my teacup.

We all have “crutch” words. These are words we choose above others because they say what we mean more precisely, or they color our prose with the right emotion. Unfortunately, I can be repetitive with certain words when expanding on an idea. Having alternatives that express my idea does two things:

  • It often gives me a different understanding of what I am trying to say, which improves the narrative.
  • It makes my work less tedious. (I hope.)

modifying-conjunctions-04262022As we become confident in our writing, we learn more about grammar and punctuation in our native languages. We learn to write so others can understand us.

The great authors use those rules to energize their prose. They are knowledgeable about sentence and paragraph construction and the fundamentals of grammar—the aspects of writing we call mechanics. They write to industry standards. When they break a rule, they do it deliberately and consistently.

Our word choices are a good indication of how advanced we are in the craft of writing. For instance, in online writing forums, we regularly are told to limit the number of modifiers (adjectives and adverbs) we might habitually use.

We are like anyone else. Our work is as dear to us as a child, and we can be just as touchy as a proud parent when it is criticized. We should respect the opinions of others, but we have the choice to ignore those suggestions if they don’t work for us.

Our voice comes across when we write from the heart. We gain knowledge and skill when we study self-help books, but we must write what we are passionate about. So, the rule should be to use modifiers, descriptors, or quantifiers when they’re needed.

How we use them is part of our style. Modifiers change, clarify, qualify, or sometimes limit a particular word in a sentence to add emphasis, explanation, or detail. We also use them as conjunctions to connect thoughts: “otherwise,” “then,” and “besides.”

Descriptors are adverbs and adjectives ending in “ly.” They are helper nouns or verbs, words that help describe other words. Some descriptors are necessary. However, they are easy to overuse and are sometimes reviled by writing groups on a mission.

When I begin revising a first draft, I do a global search for the letters “ly.” A list will pop up in my left margin. My manuscript will become a mass of yellow highlighted words.

I admit it takes time and patience to look at each instance to see how they fit into that context. If a word or phrase weakens the narrative, I change or remove it. If that descriptor is the only word that works, I leave it. Ninety percent of “ly” words get removed.

Quantifiers are abstract nouns or noun phrases. They’re used to convey either a vague impression or a nebulous quantity, such as: very, a great deal ofa good deal ofa lot, many, much. The important word there is abstract, which shows a thought or idea that doesn’t have a physical or concrete existence.

In some instances, we might want to move the reader’s view of a scene or situation out, a “zoom out” so to speak. The brief use of passive phrasing will do that.

ozford-american-writers-thesaurusHowever, quantifiers have a bad reputation because they can quickly become habitual, such as the word very.

When I am laying down the first draft of a story, quantifiers, descriptors, and modifiers fall out of my head and into the keyboard. They are a mental shorthand that tells the story in only a few words, which is essential when we are just trying to get the story down before we lose our train of thought.

They are subconscious signals to our future selves that indicate an idea needs expanding and rewording for impact. They tell us to rewrite that sentence to strengthen it.

Limiting descriptors and quantifiers to conversations makes a stronger narrative. We use these phrases and words in real life, so our characters’ conversations will sound natural. The fact we use them is why they fall into our first drafts. But they weaken the story’s impact if we let them bleed over into the narrative.

neil gaiman quote 2Our narrative voice comes across in our choice of hard or soft words and where we habitually position verbs in a sentence. Where we automatically place the words in the sentence is a recognizable fingerprint.

Sometimes I read something, and despite how well it is constructed and written, it doesn’t ring my bells. Maybe I’m not attracted to the author’s style or voice.

That doesn’t mean I think the work is awful. It only means I wasn’t the reader it was written for.

Credits and Attributions:

[1] Quote from: the Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett, © 1930, published by Alfred A. Knopf. Fair Use.

Illustration, Original Cover of The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett, © 1930, published by Alfred A. Knopf. Public Domain.

[2] Quote from Stardust by Neil Gaiman and illustrated by Charles Vess, © 1999, published by DC Comics. Fair Use.

Illustration: Original Cover of Stardust by Neil Gaiman and illustrated by Charles Vess, © 1999, published by DC Comics. Fair Use.


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