A Choir of Words: Understanding Voice in Storytelling

How does one differentiate between two impressionist artists like Monet and Van Gogh? Well, aside from seeing their signature on their work, each artist has their own particular style of impressionism that anyone who has studied the arts would recognize. Similarly, writers also have distinct writing styles that we define as voice

The writer’s voice is part of what makes two authors in the same genre unique and how some writers make themselves instantly recognizable to the well-read. But what is voice and how does one accomplish it? 

What Is Voice? 

In literature, “voice” refers to the rhetorical mixture of vocabulary, tone, point of view, syntax, punctuation, and rhythm that makes up phrases, sentences, and paragraphs within a work. Novels can have multiple voices, including the author’s, the characters’, and the narrator’s. Together, these all make up the overall voice of a story. 

Author’s Voice vs. Character’s Voice

Tone, word selection, sentence structure, and punctuation all comprise the author’s voice. This voice makes each author unique and is how we differentiate Jane Austen from Emily Brontë or Stephen King from Shirley Jackson. 

Character’s voice, on the other hand, is conveyed through the author’s voice whenever the author expresses a character’s individual thoughts, personality, and speech style. Each character’s voice should be different and easy to distinguish. Readers should know when we are in one character’s head over another, which is where point of view comes in. Depending on the author’s voice and what best benefits the story, point of view will be essential to each characters’ voice.

Things like point of view, story structure, and pacing make up what’s referred to as narrative voice, which plays a key role in character development, reader engagement, and conveying the important themes and emotions of the story. A strong narrative voice can elevate the impact of the story, creating a more memorable experience for the audience. 

One other thing to note about voice is that it’s not just used in literature. While we may be largely referencing and speaking to the writer’s voice in this article, even movie directors have distinct “voices” or directorial styles that they use to better tell their cinematic stories. The same ideas expressed here can be used across all kinds of storytelling genres. 

Points of View From All Perspectives 

As mentioned before, the perspective from which a story is told, also known as point of view, makes up a portion of the narrative voice. There are four kinds of points of view, which can be broken down as such: 

First Person

The first type of perspective uses “I” or “we” as pronouns within the story, implying that the narrator is also a character within the story. They are often but not always the main character in first-person narratives.

This point of view is especially effective for stories that seek to fully immerse the reader in the narrator, making them feel as though they are seeing the story and its entire world through the character’s eyes. First person narratives lend themselves to a closeness between the narrator and the reader, and thus can also be used to provide a very close, one-sided, and perhaps unreliable perspective throughout the story. If you wish to tell a story wherein certain aspects are hidden from the reader until the exact right moment to reveal them, first person is a good choice for a narrator’s voice. 

First person narratives can sometimes be tricky to get right; if done poorly, readers may find themselves confused or bored by such a limited perspective. However, this kind of narration provides great opportunity for introspection and internal transformations. Stories that focus on one particular character and their personal journey over the course of the story may find that first person point of view is the best choice. 

Famous examples of a first person narrator used well include The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon, and Yellowface by R.F. Kuang. In F(r)iction, you can check out Summer Home by Brett Riley for a great example of first person narration. 

Second Person

This unique point of view addresses the reader as “you” throughout, making the reader feel as if they are a character throughout the story. Second person is often used in epistolary writing but is not a popular form of point of view in general. It is exceedingly tricky to get right and feel natural rather than gimmicky. However, some famous novels have managed it, including If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino and The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern. You Die In the End by Nicole Hebdon also uses second person effectively. 

Only use second person if you’re sure it will add to your story rather than take away from it. Sometimes, it is a great way for an author to get at a particularly personal subject by addressing a “you” directly in the text. 

Third Person Limited

This point of view uses the pronouns “he,” “she,” “it,” “they,” and any other identifying pronoun that applies to the character to tell the story. Unlike in first and second person, the narrator remains outside of the story but they are limited to expressing one character’s thoughts and experiences at a time. Perhaps the most popularly used perspective, third person limited offers more flexibility in terms of storytelling than first and second person while still allowing for a level of unreliability and closeness to the narrator throughout. You can tell your story from multiple perspectives using third person limited, but you have to change up the perspective and character’s voice each time you do. 

Examples of third person limited POV from popular novels include To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, 1984 by George Orwell, and A Song of Fire and Ice by George R.R. Martin. Check out The Forgiveness Machine by Joy Baglio from F(r)iction for an idea of what this point of view looks like in flash fiction. 

Third Person Omniscient 

This point of view utilizes an all-knowing narrator who can access multiple characters’ thoughts and perspectives. Like third person limited, it also uses “he,” “she,” “it,” and “they” throughout the story but the narrator in this case can tell us information about the entire story from a bird’s eye point of view. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy is a great example of this, as the narrator can not only tell us what is happening throughout the story, but they can also read people’s thoughts and tell us about events that individual characters wouldn’t necessarily know. 

Third person omniscient is the ideal storytelling type for big, epic stories where hiding information from the reader would be more of a hindrance than a help. It can be ideal when there is a large cast of characters with separate storylines or when you are creating an entirely new world for readers to be immersed in—with an omniscient narrator, you can tell them just about anything at any time. Other examples of third person omniscient include Beloved by Toni Morrison, Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guinn. An example from F(r)iction: Disappearing Act by David Galef. 

Choosing an appropriate point of view for a story may come naturally, as most authors have one that they are especially comfortable with, or it may require a lot of thought as you consider what would benefit your story the most. Generally speaking, third person limited and omniscient tend to be the safer choices and first and second person should only be used in very particular cases. Always remember that the story itself must come first: if you cannot come up with a good reason to use a particular point of view, you probably shouldn’t use it. 

Other Types of Narrative Voice

Free Indirect Discourse

Many famous authors have an incredibly distinct and recognizable voice that sets them apart from other authors. This is especially the case for those who have invented or popularized particular writing styles. One such style is called free indirect discourse, the hallmark of Jane Austen. 

Free indirect discourse is a form of narration written in the third person that maintains some essential elements of a first-person narrator. Through it, an author can describe the inner workings of characters, revealing their private thoughts and emotions, while still remaining at an observational distance. It allows the author to head-hop from one character to another at their discretion. In this way, it is similar to third person limited, but it is distinct in that it allows the author to change perspectives within the same paragraph or even sentence. This makes it a form of third person omniscient, but compared to most uses of third person omniscient, it is more discerning in how and when to be omniscient. 

Today, free indirect discourse is used almost without thought, but during Austen’s time it was a new and emerging style of writing that she explored voraciously in her works. Here is an example of how it is used in Pride and Prejudice as Elizabeth contemplates her family: 

“They were hopeless of remedy. Her father, contented with laughing at them, would never exert himself to restrain the wild giddiness of his younger daughters; and her mother, with manners so far from right herself, was entirely insensible of evil. Elizabeth had frequently united with Jane in an endeavor to check the imprudence of Catherine and Lydia; but while they were supported by their mother’s indulgence, what chance could there be of improvement? Catherine, weak-spirited, irritable, and completely under Lydia’s guidance, had always been affronted by their advice; and Lydia, self-willed and careless, would scarcely give them a hearing. They were ignorant, idle, and vain. While there was an officer in Meryton, they would flirt with him; and while Meryton was within a walk of Longbourn, they would be going there forever.”

While this excerpt is clearly told from the point of view of an omniscient third person, that narrator is nonetheless sharing with us Elizabeth’s private thoughts and feelings on her family. 

Writing Style and Pacing

Along with point of view, style and pacing affect the voice of a story immensely. A story that moves along quickly, taking its audience from plot point to plot point with little time wasted feels actionable and hurried. A story that takes more time, lingering in certain spots and places asks the audience to slow down and enjoy the story at a most leisurely pace. Either choice can add to the overall narrative effect of the story and says a lot about the writer’s own style. 

Writing style also pertains to things like word choice, length of sentences, setting and character descriptions, story structure, and more. 

Speak Now

Voice is an essential and often misunderstood aspect of writing. Some aspects of an author’s voice are innate to that author. But voice can be curated and adapted when needed in order to bring out the overall narrative voice that will tell a story best. As you embark on your own writing journey, experiment with different narrative voices to see what best fits you. Read some of the examples we’ve provided to get a better idea of how to establish a strong narrative voice and make sure to tune in to our next blog in Facts of Fiction to discover your very own narrative voice.

Maribel Leddy

Maribel Leddy is a passionate writer, editor, and creative content strategist based in New York, New York. She graduated from Johns Hopkins University with a B.A. in Writing Seminars and has been with Brink since 2018. With experience in writing professionally for over five years now, Maribel enjoys crafting engaging, thoughtful, and well-researched content across a variety of topics and industries. For fiction writing, her favorite genres are science fiction and fantasy. She currently lives with her sister and their two cats, Cleo and Chai.

Image by Evgeni Tcherkasski from Pixabay