Writing Tips: Using Voice to Pull Your Reader Through a Story

If you’ve taken a writing class, you’re probably familiar with the Freytag triangle: a basic device that has helped writers structure their stories since time immemorial.

But what if you want to use other kinds of tools?

I found myself mulling over this question this spring, as I set out to revise a book-length project. I had plotted the project using three-act structure, but wanted to give my narrative even more propulsion. I wondered how I might accomplish this, and so I set out to read some books in which not much happens, but which feature compulsively readable narratives. Why were these narratives so addictive, despite the lack of action? I concluded that they were propelled by one essential element of fiction: voice.

Voice, which I’m using in this context to mean narrative style, might not at the outset seem like a tool for creating propulsion. But think about it: if you enjoy/are intrigued by/are horrified by the way a character sees and experiences the world, then you will want to follow him or her on their journey, even if said journey involves something as quotidian as heading to the grocery store for candy. Voice and narration can pull the reader along through humor; through the sharing of secrets (who doesn’t like to hear a juicy secret?); through introducing a reader to an unfamiliar world; or through sharp observation that makes the reader see either the story or his or her own life in a different light.


Here are three books whose sharp voice/narration helped me in my quest to create more propulsion in my project:

  • Milkman, by Anna Burns This Man Booker winner was panned by the New York Times as unreadable, but don’t listen to the folks over there. In this book, we get a tour of a paranoid, close-knit community in Northern Ireland during the Troubles from the vantage point of a teenage girl. The stream-of-consciousness narrative keeps us reading because the girl’s observations are so odd, so singular, and so darkly funny that we just can’t wait to see what she’s going to tell us about next; one detail that stuck with me is how, when she’s nervous or uncomfortable, she describes the feeling as a “reverse orgasm.” Plus, she acts as a tour guide through a world that most of us have never experienced, thus making us feel as though we’re privy to new, intriguing information, whether it’s a rant about how the women in her neighborhood feel about feminism or a description of the eerie no-man’s land that she calls the Ten-Minute Area.

  • The Idiot, by Elif Batuman What happens in The Idiot? Not much. The main character goes to college at Harvard, reads, develops a crush on an older boy, and visits Hungary on a summer exchange program. And yet I tore through this 400-plus-page book in two days, simply because I loved Selin, the protagonist and narrator. She’s incredibly intelligent in some respects (she’s a linguistics nerd, a compulsive reader who stubbornly believes that one can use language to bridge the gap between people) and heartbreakingly naive in others (her pursuit of Ivan, her crush, will cause the adult reader to cringe on several occasions). Her way of seeing the world is, like the narrator of Milkman, so unusual that I couldn’t wait to see what she would come up with next. Unlike in Milkman, where the narrator introduced me to an unfamiliar world, I was excited to see how Selin, who went to college in the same city where I lived for eight years, would describe familiar sights and experiences in her own slantwise way.

  • The Neapolitan novels, by Elena Ferrante I know that not everyone has been gripped by Ferrante fever, but you can count me among the stricken. I compulsively read this four-volume, 1000-page story back in 2016; I couldn’t get enough of it, despite the fact that all of the Mafia violence, toxic obsession, and abject poverty started to blur together after a while. Why did I love these books so much? First, this novel’s narrative shares many of the same traits as Milkman and The Idiot, especially the sharp observation and commentary. I’d add that the narrator is refreshingly candid, sharing thoughts about friendship, bodies, and the experience of being a girl and woman that don’t necessarily make her look great, but that feel real and true--whether those feelings deal with her jealousy, her judgments, or her critiques of those around her. While I was reading, I thought, “Wow, is it okay for someone to think that? I guess so, and I’m glad, because I’ve thought it many times myself!” Searching for truth and brutal honesty in a narrator’s consciousness can be an integral aspect of creating a compelling narrative.

Which books do you read when you’re studying compelling voice? Are there any characters or voices that you would follow to the ends of the earth?