Posted by: poet kate hutchinson | July 25, 2014

Nailing the Narrative Voice

storyteller_by_andrianart-d49dxywDo you prefer your story narrators to be truthful and frank, like a best friend? Or do you prefer them snarky and sarcastic? Maybe a whimsical and flighty tone is your preference. Or perhaps poetic, or melodramatic, or simple and matter-of-fact.

Nailing the narrative voice – that’s the issue.

At the moment, it’s the issue that’s keeping me awake at night.

I don’t have this problem when I write poetry. Each poem is its own little package, and each one comes to me with a pretty clear point of view and narrative tone, tending toward the serious.

But writing memoir stories – this is a whole different animal.


My prose voice tends to be more down-to-earth and literal, with plenty of humor sprinkled in. Storytelling, for me, is always easier when I can find the humor of the situation. My natural voice when writing prose tends toward lightness. This is most likely because storytelling is most often an oral exercise, a social past time, and more entertaining when it evokes laughter.


8 Renoir-woman-readingMy poetic voice tends to be much more introspective, lyrical, metaphoric, and serious. Maybe that’s because I know my poems – if they are read at all – are likely to be read quietly and individually than spoken aloud in a group. People who read poetry tend to enjoy thoughtfulness and don’t mind looking at the world seriously for the short time it takes them to read a poem.


But memoir writers really need to find a way to relay the serious and the humorous in the same situation – often. So how does one balance the tone in such a voice?

It’s not enough to simply alternate between serious and humorous from memory to memory. That would come off to the reader as jarring, sounding like two different books.

No, what I’m seeking is a way to fully blend the two styles into one true, authentic voice that can handle both the heavy, philosophical ruminations AND the more light-hearted or outright funny stuff – all in the same story. Sometimes in the same paragraph. Or sentence.


article-1371582-0B6C7D3A00000578-942_634x420Even a tragic story or one with high drama needs some levity here and there. When you read Dickens, you find yourself laughing on one page and crying on the next. Even Hamlet jokes around a lot in between his thoughts of suicide and murder. All the best storytellers have figured this out.


And that’s why they’re our best storytellers. It takes incredible skill – that magic touch, if you will – to pull it off.


I’m working on it. I will write and write and write and write . . . and if I’m lucky, I’ll figure it out before my brain turns to mush or my hands are too shriveled to hold the pen.



Photo credits:


Bill Cosby: public domain

Painting, “Woman Reading”:  Renoir, public domain

Nicholas Cage in “Nicholas Nickleby”: The Daily Mail




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