Once upon a time…
Is there any better opening than that? Fairy tales are the first stories we hear. Even now, as grown-ups, we associate those four words with coziness and bedtime. From the safety of our parents’ laps or with the comforting weight of Mom or Dad next to us on the mattress, as children we embarked on voyages. We experienced peril and magic. We were both scared and safe. We got happy endings every time.
We were under a spell.
Technically speaking, once upon a time is an authorial voice speaking directly to us. It is saying pay attention. It is saying I have a story to tell you, and it’s important. It’s saying dream with me. It’s an invitation from a warm and confident voice, one we can trust, one in charge of the tale just as surely as our parents were, slowly turning the pages before our wide and sleepy eyes.
Every novel begins with a narrative voice that pulls us into the dream state in which stories instantly come alive—or not. Sadly, not every narrative voice quickly takes charge and assures us that it is okay to dream. All should. From the darkest horror to the frothiest comedy, novels can immediately put us under a spell but too often they don’t. The voice relating the tale is far off, timid, or false; a huckster’s voice selling us a sideshow trick or the phony intimacy of a presumptuous stranger.
What narrative voice will most effectively lull us into your particular dream? Regardless of your story type, setting, style, choices of tense and person, or your chosen distance from your characters, what does it mean for you to say to the rest of us, in your own fashion, once upon a time…
The most common narrative voice I hear in slush pile manuscripts is one that is documentary, objective, wholly visual in nature, reporting the movie in the author’s mind. This voice is cold; indeed, it is barely a voice at all. It may cause readers to “see” what is happening, but readers will not feel much with their yearning hearts. How can they? In a dry report, what is there to care about?
More experienced writers can be more artful but almost always default to the voice that they believe is required for their type of story. Thriller writers begin by evoking an air of menace. Mystery writers present us with puzzles. Spec fiction writers let us know that their story world is different. Romance writers jump into a pool of feelings. Regardless of story type, almost all authors strive to create some kind of worry or tension, for characters or readers, because after all what is a story but a problem?
More advanced narrative voices can be canny, grabbing our attention with something puzzling or unique about the story situation. This “hook” entices the reader onward with what is intriguing. That approach is fine enough, I have no quarrel with it, yet it appeals mostly to the mind. Hooks have a short half-life. Reader interest quickly dims because that level of intrigue is impossible to sustain.
What about warm and chatty first person voices? Intimate ones? Witty ones? Ones that talk directly to us, treating us like old friends who share everything with us? Is intimacy the key?
There’s no doubt that a close point-of-view, whether in first person or third, is the dominant narrative voice of our times. An intimate voice that reveals not just a character’s thoughts and feelings, but their whole experience of things, is hard to ignore. Intimacy may seem like an arm around our shoulders, an instant friend, but when that voice we hear is reticent, sour, snide, dire, ironic, or self-doubting we may be interested but we are not lulled. Intimacy by itself doesn’t relax us. We cannot be disarmed when we are uneasy.
That last point runs counter to our understandings. Creating tension is imperative, is it not? Grabbing the reader with a hook, a problem or if nothing else a voice that commands our attention ought to be the strongest choice, right? Not necessarily. Grabbing our attention is one thing. Lulling us into the dream state is another.
What, then, creates an instant lulling of the reader, but without sacrificing the intrigue or intimacy that makes us want to read on?
Let’s go back to once upon a time and what those four words convey. Pay attention! I have a story. It’s important. A lulling narrative voice takes charge in a welcoming way but doesn’t waste time. It presumes our willingness to engage, skips the set up, and goes straight to something critical. We are inducted into a privileged circle and are right away trusted with important information. We are off and running not with the plot, or even the person, but with our processing of what’s going on and what it may mean.
Have a look at some narrative voices, recent and not. As we meet them, how do they say to us…once upon a time?
By 1927 there were twelve girls who danced all night and never gave names, but by then the men had given up asking and called them all Princess.
“Hey, Princess, dust off your shoes? It’s the Charleston!”
Note the first two words: By 1927…it’s as if the author has been talking with us for a while already and we’ve finally reached the time in question. The narrative voice is authorial and the situation is magical: there are nameless girls called “Princess” who dance all night! They may be dancing the Charleston instead of a Chaconne, true, but we’re sipping bathtub gin in a what can only be some sort of speakeasy fairy tale.
I’d seen him before. Old guy was probably seventy-five. Maybe eighty. Gnarled, arthritic fingers. Four-packs-a-day voice. Cottony-white hair with yellowed ends. Wrinkled ebony skin. A high-mileage chassis. He wore threadbare, blue-and-gray striped pants that had previously belonged to a wool suit and a soiled white button-down that he’d fastened clear to the top. To complete the ensemble, he wore two-toned classic oxfords. The white was dull and cracked, but what remained of the black had been polished to a spit shine.
And his guitar was as road-worn as he. It was a Gibson J-45 and he’d strummed holes both above and below the sound hole, exposing some kind of bracing.
A reportorial opening? Yes, but one that is warmly observant. What does this first-person narrator feel he must tell us right away? I’d seen him before. In another tale that might have been a menacing statement but it is quickly followed by folksy observation: Old guy was probably seventy-five. This voice isn’t condescending, it’s compassionate. More than that, it’s the voice of someone keenly interested in a street musician as crumpled as a used-up cigarette pack, and a narrator who thinks we might be a little bit interested in that old guy too.
The first time Caesar approached Cora about running north, she said no.
A grabber? Definitely. There is tension. She said no. Questions are raised. Running north? From what? Also, things have already happened, we are only jumping in. Caesar has been provoked to approach Cora. How? We don’t yet know but we certainly are going to find out. This is a hook opening with an underlying urgency. Look closer, though. This opening line has more than plot intrigue. Something—or rather someone—is important. Cora. Caesar wouldn’t be urging her to run north if she didn’t matter.
In my younger and more vulnerable days my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.
“Whenever you feel like criticizing any one,” he told me, “just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages you’ve had.”
No plot grabber there. No action. Nothing to see. No enchantment, either, though the narrator’s “advantages” may promise us a story set among the wealthy. There’s a smidgen of tension but what tension exists is mildly expressed: Advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since. There is, however, a presumption of interest. The narrator is in no hurry to start the story. What he first imparts to us what is most on his mind: his father’s advice and believe it, advice from our fathers is to be heeded.
Pay attention! I have a story. It’s important. In some way or other those narrative voices are immediately telling us that the story to be imparted matters. It matters to the narrator and because the narrator begins with what is most significant, the tale becomes important to us too.
What lulls us into the dream isn’t magic, visuals, plot hook, or intimacy, though none of those things are bad. What lulls us is a narrator who is committed to the tale, confident in its telling, placing priority on what’s important, and who cares.
Pay attention! I have a story to tell. It’s important. Once upon a time…
What about your WIP? How does your narrative voice lull us into your dream? Care to share your opening? We’re in our pajamas and ready…
The narrative voices in order:
The Girls at the Kingfisher Club by Genevieve Valentine
Long Way Gone by Charles Martin
Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
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