Narrative voice – help please….

The most common complaint I am hearing from those that I have shown the blessed (bless-ed?  CURSED) debut novel (fragments, don’t get excited Laurence), is that I am making it a bit harder to read than it should be – in a technical sense.

My problem is this (Tom is the main character):

  • I (narrator) want to talk about Tom in the third person, for when I can’t do show not tell.  Also, I need a third person narrator to help shift some of the scenery and characters around.  Tom will however be in most if not all scenes.  In my head, the narrator is simply a camera that can see into Tom’s head, and presents the world as Tom sees it, while occasionally panning out of his head to give context.
  • Tom often thinks of himself in the third person.
  • Tom has an internal monologue kind of chuntering away the whole time.
  • Tom also has clearly defined ‘thoughts’ that are ‘heard’ above the monologue – or at least should be distinguished.

So – with all that in mind, I’m writing a lot of this:

A. Tom considered the valise.  He wondered where it should rest.  ‘No rest for the wicked.’  He wasn’t wicked though.  Tom’s valise rested.

Hang on.  That’s too contrived.  This (from memory) is nearer a ‘live’ example.

B.  Tom’s Universe winked at him in the darkness.  He tried to gather his thoughts.  He failed.  They were too sticky.  ‘Like… like…like meringue.’

The problem is slipping in and out of his head.  But each time I try to clarify what is internal-general, what is internal-specific and what is simply borderline autism, it tends to make it a mess for the reader.   Do I need the quotes around meringue?  (Now there’s a sentence one doesn’t get to write every day).  There are also logical / world inconsistencies that the reader simply has to accept – ie the Universe, while the reader knows what it really physically is, has ‘living’ properties for Tom.   What I’m trying to avoid is this:

C. Tom imagined that the shapes moved in the darkness.  He was confused and couldn’t make sense of things.  He visualised his thoughts as similar in consistency to a meringue.

Do you think it’s ok to simply have this instead:

D.  Tom’s Universe winked at him in the darkness.  He tried to gather his thoughts.  Failed.  They were too sticky.  Like… like…like meringue.

Sigh.  Not a biggie really.  But I’m a little worried that it will not really turn out as I intended.  I’ve just read ‘The Gargoyle’ and the author uses a typographic device to achieve the same thing – his inner demon / snake is represente in text as block-cut texts.  It’s just that it feels like the story will lose some of the identity-based issues if I present Tom in any other way.

But then again, if no-one reads it because they keep having to double-check which ‘voice’ is speaking, then it’s all moot, n’est-ce pas?

MOOT MOOT!  Bon mots for boon moots.  Moon boots for mon bots.  If a bot were a foot that would have been perfect.  Foot moot boot.

But I digress.  I’m meant to be researching something for chapter 5.  Hush now.


  1. I understand the problem, I think. Except that I can’t see a problem. I just re-read chapters one and two as you provided them to me and I didn’t get bogged down in who was saying or thinking what nor was I baffled as to whether the narrative descriptions were from Tom’s POV or the universal narrator’s.

    I don’t like quotes around thoughts. That always strikes me as rather childish. Perhaps that’s unfair, but there you go. Typographic tomfoolery is best left to those who are excellently good at it. e e cummings, for example.

    Take this (D) for example:

    Tom’s Universe winked at him in the darkness. He tried to gather his thoughts. Failed. They were too sticky. Like… like…like meringue.

    It doesn’t need anything. No quotes, no italics. Sentences one and two are clearly universal narrative. Sentence three could be either but it’s obviously about Tom. Same for sentence four. The ellipses in sentence five make it 100% Tom’s personal internal narrative.

    Questions: would you share the internal narrative of other characters besides Tom? If you did, it could get very confusing. There’s nothing wrong with having scenes with no Tom in, but you just need to be consistent and avoid internal narrative.

    Or if you must, use some qualification. Like ‘she thought’.

    Niamh put the menu back into the plastic pizza-shaped menu holder and smelled her fingertips. Anchovies, she thought. That reminds me of…no, let’s not go there.

    Do you want me to link to this here blog post on my blog in case one or two other writerly types might care to share their learned opinion?

  2. Gosh. If I’d have known you were bringing company I’d have vacuumed a bit. Put some nibbles out. You know that kind of thing.

    Link away.

  3. Hello Larence’s friend Ivan.
    I started trying to say something useful. Then I realised you’re far better off waiting for another novelist to come and have a look. Me giving my opinion is basically akin to a passer-by sticking their head through your open window and shouting nonsense at you.
    Still, for what it’s worth, I think D is fine as it is.
    I don’t know whether I’d have understood that the ellipses make it clear this is Tom’s internal narrative without reading it in context with the rest of the novel. But I liked it anyway. And if the universal narrator spoke that way, ellipses and all, I’d still like it.
    If it had quotes around it I’d assume someone was speaking out loud.
    But as I say, that’s a reader’s opinion based on one sentence.
    Don’t worry though. I’m sure a novelist will come along soon and say something much more helpful.

  4. You jest, but the other day I discovered that on my birth certificate my name is actually spelled Michele.

    I’ve been spelling my OWN NAME wrong my entire life.

    My mom says that I’m right and it’s my birth certifcate that’s wrong because apparently my dad was in charge of filling out the forms and “he can’t do anything right”.

    Still. That’s a whole other story.

  5. Oh! Oh! Oh! Me, I know it. Pick me! Pick me!

    Read Stephen Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant stuff, he does this *all* the time, slipping in and out of the protagonist’s head, you’d think he’d slip over! Messy! Ugh!

    Never causes a problem. Unless you don’t happen to like his writing, but I do so that’s just totally okay.

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