29 January 2018

How to find the right narrative voice for your novel

lucy c
by Lucy Courtenay Writing Tips

Children’s and YA author Lucy Courtenay is a client of Curtis Brown agent Stephanie Thwaites. In this special guest blog, Lucy tells us how she came to write her new YA romantic comedy Movie Night (newly out from Hodder Children’s Books) as a dual narrative – and why she generally prefers writing in first person in her novels. We think that finding the right narrative voice for your fiction is one of the most important parts of your planning process –  whether you’re writing for children or for adults … 

A character has to be more than just a name and a physical description. They need emotions and issues and passions and fears; standpoints, distinctive damaged bits and histories. You need to hear as well as see who they are. You want them to peel themselves off the page and whisper in your ear: “I love the guy over there but I can never tell him” or “I’m the kind of girl who opens her mouth without thinking” or “I’m super effing sweary in all possible effing situations” and then you want to know why they are these things and what difference it will make to the plot you are writing for them.

One way to hear a character’s voice is to put yourself inside their head, behind their eyes, and write from a first-person point of view. It gives you insight into all your character’s most secret wishes and desires, however dreadful or stupid. You become someone else, completely and wholeheartedly, making all their mistakes and reaping the consequences. Spying relentlessly on their internal monologue.

I took a first-person approach with my main character Delilah in The Kiss. But when settling down to write Movie Night, I realised that there had been limits. Everything that happened in The Kiss had to happen in Delilah’s eye line. No secrets, no stuff behind locked doors. Much as I loved writing her, I decided that I didn’t want to spend an entire book in the company of one person again for a while. I do enough of that in real life. Why wear one hat, I thought, when you could wear two? And so I decided on a dual narrative for Movie Night. Well – it would be truer to say that the idea decided for me. It came out right away as two voices. I couldn’t see any other way of writing it. I had to be Hanna AND Sol, and see where it took me.

Dual narrative is a great fit for romantic fiction if you are a megalomaniac who wants to hear the innermost thoughts of both protagonists. Two toy boxes of egos, subconscious minds and conditioning to play with; two whirlpools of mistakes, blinkers and feelings. The chance to be the girl AND the boy. Neither character can see the other’s thoughts, but you, the writer can. Oh, the storytelling mischief you can cause!

So I had Hanna, dazzled by a useless ex-boyfriend, working out who she was and what she wanted from her life. And Sol, paralysed with love for Hanna, facing down over-protective parents and making secret films. Hanna was one thing, and so Sol became the opposite. I knew right away that Hanna talked a lot and used no punctuation in her text messages, ever. I knew she was insecure and over-reliant on friends and boyfriends for self-worth. In direct contrast, Sol was going to spend almost all his time inside his own head and punctiliously punctuate everything. I gave him battles with sharing his thoughts out loud, and Hanna battles with keeping her thoughts to herself. Secrets everywhere! Misunderstandings, windmill tilting, outfit changes!

What are the pitfalls? You might get confused and forget which voice you’re using. Be disciplined. Give one character a chapter, then the other. Give yourself time to become immersed in each alternate life and versions of events. Play up your characters’ differences. Don’t skimp, and you’ll be fine. I wasn’t far into writing Movie Night before I could no more imagine Hanna thinking Sol’s thoughts than me thinking my dog’s. But if you struggle to separate the strands, try literally wearing different hats as you write the different sections, or sitting in different rooms. Be two people. The writing genie can make it so.

I enjoyed writing dual narrative so much that I wanted to use it again for my next book, Girl at Sea. Only to discover that two voices weren’t enough this time. I needed three. I don’t know where this is going to end. But think of all the hats…

To purchase Lucy Courtenay’s latest novel, Movie Night, click here. And you can find out more about Lucy and her books by visiting her website 

If you want to learn more about how to write for young adults or children, apply for our 3-month online creative writing course with experienced tutor and author Catherine Johnson: 

Writing YA and Children’s Fiction with Catherine Johnson (deadline for applications is Sunday 4 February).

We are also offering three low-cost six-week online creative writing courses on how to write a novel:

Starting to Write Your Novel (deadline for enrolment is midnight on Mon 5 February).

Write to the End of Your Novel (deadline for enrolment is midnight on Mon 5 March).


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