Narration and Tone

Topic Progress:

Genre fiction, broadly speaking, is a kind of writing that privileges plot over writing style. The narration is frequently a free-indirect style, which describes both characters’ actions and thoughts, but also is omniscient—describing events that no character can see. The narration also withholds information, purely to serve the plot—as a movie or TV show would cut away from a scene, right before we see the killer’s face, genre fiction deliberately manipulates the plot to artificially create suspense. The ‘narrator’ knows things the reader doesn’t, and withholds those things for no other reason than entertainment. But genre fiction is fun! Michael Crichton, Stephen King, Dean Koontz—the frequently write in a way that is largely transparent; their language is low on metaphorical import, high on active description. And you read them, not for the poetry of their language, but for the power of their plots. What’s that mysterious orb at the bottom of the ocean? Who lives in the dark tower on the horizon? Is it aliens or the rapture? (If it’s Koontz, it’s the rapture. Spoiler alert). But there is a disposable hollowness to a lot of genre writing. You do not often find people going back to re-read them. That’s why they are sold in airports, next to the single-use neck pillow and bottled water. No offense, genre fiction, but you’re a one night stand, not a relationship. This is not to say there is nothing between Jurassic Park and Ulysses. There is a vast and exciting world of fiction that approaches plot-driven stories—about murder and crime, the supernatural, science fiction, etc.—with an eye to the poetic possibilities of language. Genre with heart, so to speak. The difference is in the narration. Pick up a book and you can pretty much tell. The question is, what kind of narration do you want?

Free-indirect third person is a popular technique—almost the default of modern literary fiction—that allows you to describe actions and set scenes, while also ‘peering’ into the heads of your characters, but also retaining some agency to make commentary or wax poetic as an authorial voice. But there are other options. The first person, which is challenging, is the most psychologically acute way to sketch a character. And I recommend you both do some first person writing, even if only as an exercise that never leaves your laptop or sketchbook. The first person can be tiring to write, especially in action scenes, because you need to keep one hand on your character’s tone of voice and the other hand on the events. You can’t just say what happened, you have to describe them the way your character would see them. The payoff is that your reader truly gets inside the head of your creation, for better and worse. Here’s a quick example, from Gore Vidal’s very funny and thoroughly exhausting Myra Breckinridge:

I am Myra Breckinridge whom no man will ever possess. Clad only in my garter belt and one dress shield, I held off the entire elite of the Trobriand Islanders, a race who possess no words for “why” or “because.” Wielding a stone axe, I broke the arms, the limbs, the balls of their finest warriors, my beauty blinding them, as it does all men, unmanning them in the way that King Kong was reduced to a mere simian whimper by beauteous Fay Wray whom I resemble left three-quarter profile if the key light is no more than five feet high during the close shot.

Gore Vidal keeps this up for the entire novel. It is a brilliant tour-de-force that can be a little taxing, like have someone as bombastic and excessive as Myra inside your head for hundreds of pages. But Vidal’s novel accomplishes a massive amount of psychological mapping, something that simply would not be possible in the third person. And, of course, there are subtler first person narratives. The point is, you as the author have to truly disappear into the voice of your character to write effective first person fiction. There is also the strange and quite rare second-person, of which I and almost no-one else is a fan. Here’s the opening to Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights Big City:

You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time in the morning. But here you are, and you cannot say the terrain is completely unfamiliar, although the details are a little fuzzy. You are at a nightclub talking to a girl with a shaved head. The club is either Heartbreak or the Lizard Lounge. All might come clear if you could just slip into the bathroom and do a little more Bolivian Marching Powder…

McInerney also keeps this up for the entire novel, and the effect is somehow tranfixing: the reader ends up talking to their own self, in a voice that is not their own, but that—over the course of the novel—seems to become their own. If first person gives you an intimate look into a character’s psyche, second person puts you behind the wheel. It’s a strange effect, and difficult to pull off and sustain. But, if you find that you have a story to tell and it won’t fit into first or second person, maybe—just for fun—give this one a shot. And give McInerney a read if you haven’t. It’s worth it. Lastly, I want to say that—regardless of the formal type of narration you use—the biggest impact on your work will be the style of your narration. Will it be understated, cool and ironic, or bombastic and comical? 


  • Myra Breckinridge by Gore Vidal
  • Bright Lights Big City by Jay McInerney 


Choose an opening of a work and rewrite the first 500 or so words in a different tone. If the tone is comical, make it serious. If the tone is removed or distant, go closer into the character’s perspective. If the pace is fast, try slowing it down and vice versa. When you’ve rewritten the opening, look for another 500 words section of the narrative and rewrite the tone in the same manner as your new opening. Lay the rewritten sections aside for a few days. When you come back to the rewritten sections, ask yourself honestly if the original tone or the revised tone are working better. 

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