Following up on chapter one insights, these next three posts will focus on three specific aspects of the beginning of a story.
Your first chapter is the first words your writers will hear. As they read them, they’ll be attuning themselves to the story they’re about to experience. There are many details that will go into a first chapter, but there are three things that must be done deliberately to successfully hook a reader.
One, establish the narrative voice that will carry the reader through the story. Two is setting the stage, and letting the reader know some of the broad strokes alongside some of the details of the setting. Three is to introduce the protagonist, which also ties back to number one, the narrative voice.
This post will focus on narrative voice.
The narrative voice is going to be a combination of your voice as a writer, and the voice of your protagonist or main characters. In first person or close third person POV stories, there are two voices – yours, and the protagonist’s – that will influence each other on every page. In third person omniscient POV or in multiple character stories, your writer voice will need to stand out more and take precedent – because it will need to blend with multiple characters but still sound the same in some distinct way regardless of which character is currently in the driver’s seat.
What should also happen – especially by the end of your second or third draft – is for the narrative voice to be a seamless blend that sounds the same on the first page and the last.
I was reading an article on WritersDigest.com about an author’s journey finding their writing voice, and the trials and tribulations they faced and things they had to learn before they settled into their voice. It was an interview of Joseph Bates, who I’m not familiar with, but I thought the article had a lot of insight.
One of the things said was that for every writer, there are authors we admire. Stories that influenced us, and meant something more than just the words on the page. Many of us set out to writing because we have experienced that power of fiction and want to harness it ourselves. So from that experience of the power of prose, many writers – including me – want to write a story like the ones that resonated with us the most as readers.
The problem, as explored in the article, is that more often than not, the very things that drew us to certain stories are the exact reasons why they are unique, and in being unique, can’t be fully replicated. We read Harry Potter, or Game of Thrones, Pride and Prejudice, Romeo and Juliet – whatever the stories that you resonated with, even if they weren’t classics or best sellers like the listed here – their writers captured something that can only be captured because of the way they see, hear, and experience the world. And because we are not them, there will always be a part of that view that we as readers, fans, and enthusiasts can’t fully capture.
It’s important to know that making the attempt to emulate our favorite writers – whether it is their narrative voice, setting, characters, or the commentary they offered about the human condition – is where most writers, if not all, start out.
However, that means it’s just as important not to fight with ourselves when we discover that we can’t write the story that first captured our imagination. For one, it’s already been written, even if we have a great “what if” idea to revisit the story. And two, we would be shortchanging ourselves if we tried to restrict our writing voice or judge ourselves against the writers who influenced us, no matter the brilliance of their work. We aren’t them, and they aren’t us.
This year for NaNo I tried writing a romance story. I ended up writing a pair of characters who are at certain points in their lives that there’s very little motivation for them to change. The story became more about the things happening around them than what was happening inside them. And I realized that despite having an outline, and a very clear idea of the ABCs of the plot, setting, supporting and main characters, that I am not naturally inclined to write more about the interior feelings and motivations of my characters except as overly self-aware stubborn bastards. I like the idea of fluffy romance, and of characters who are the type to seize the moment to jump off a cliff because they might be happy at the end of the fall. But to write a story like that is not where my writing voice naturally goes.
The story I started to write isn’t exactly the one I’m naturally capable of writing. So although I intend to finish it, this experience has convinced me that I need to do some more work – and write more in general – to figure out what kind of story I can tell, and tell well, more naturally.
So to find your narrative voice, first realize that you aren’t going to find it without putting in the hours. Secondly, realize that whatever you want it to be, it will probably be different.
The good news is that as you grow as a writer, you’ll be able to explore more successfully outside your comfort zones. For instance, I know I can write sci-fi or fantasy type stories with much less effort than it’s taking to find my voice for romance. But once I find my romance voice, I’m certain it will help me tell better sci-fi and fantasy stories. It just might be a good idea for me to write a bit more in my comfort zone first, to flesh out my natural voice, before I try finishing a story that’s a bit of a stretch.
Writing more, and writing different things, will bring a clearer focus to your narrative voice. And the more you know it, the more your stories will flow from start to finish with the same tone on every page. As a writer, the goal should be to offer the consistency of narrative voice like a guide for readers, like an unnamed companion through the story. If you can offer them that, there will be a large chance that you’ll have converted a reader into a fan even before they reach the end.
Keep an eye out for the next post in this series, where we’ll explore setting and how it’s important to the first chapter and the story as a whole. In the meantime, thanks for reading.