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? [Read more…]