By Mahala Church
Writers use numerous tools to improve the experience for our readers. Voice is one of the important ones that hook a reader into you story. It’s a key component agents and editors look for on that all important first page. Think about a book you particularly liked, and more than likely, it was the voice of the protagonist that drew you inside.
Imagine you are sitting at your favorite coffee spot, telling a friend a story. The way you tell the story is quintessentially you. You don’t stop to think about how the story sounds. The visual and verbal cues you get from your friend help you time the rhythm of your story and play up or down certain parts of it. That is exactly what you want to capture in the voices of your characters, especially your protagonist.
Cadence, volume, socio-economics, colloquialisms, country/state, time in history, age, ethnicity, profession, book genre, all contribute to voice and a character’s internal narrative and dialogue.
In my creative writing classes, I give each student a teddy bear and send the two away to have a conversation and record what the teddy bear tells them. This gets new writers into the habit of listening to their characters.
Dialogue – Valuable Tool
Dialogue keeps readers in the character’s head; writers have to know their characters very well or readers will be lost. Dialogue must be:
Spontaneous and lifelike. Think Shrek, Donkey, Spock, James Earl Jones, Chef Julia, Phillip Marlowe, Hercule Poirot, Dirty Harry. Did you hear their voices? I used a blend of Martha Stewart, Minnie Pearl, and Eleanor Roosevelt for a character, and it worked beautifully.
Good dialogue uses the words, dialects, and syntax* that fit the character: education, gender, profession, age, history, and area they live to “flesh” them out.
* The arrangement of words in a sentence. Yoda’s syntax is different than yours. “I saw that she a cookie ate.”
Reading your dialogue aloud is a good way to test it. Clichés in narrative are a cheap way to write, but using them in dialogue brings the character to life.
· He was as red as a beet. (Can’t you be more creative?)
· “You are the color of a pickled beet,” she said.
Use dialogue to express a character’s emotions and attitudes (anger, sarcasm, humor) without wasting paragraph after paragraph to explain with narrative. Usually descriptive tags aren’t necessary, but if the dialogue leading to the sentence doesn’t clarify it, an explanation is needed. Look at the difference in these three:
She sneered. “You’re wrong as usual!”
She smiled. “As usual, you’re wrong.”
She patted the girl on the back. “You’re wrong. Let me show you.”
Dialogue breaks up blocks of narrative and keeps the reader involved. The words, the length of the sentences, the punctuation are all excellent tools to intensify danger and build tension.
Head kept a steady, painful beat
Pain in my tooth drilled into my jaw
Her small, chubby hand reached for me
Blood ran from the gash
Two boys balancing on one bike made my heart sing
Smell of iron led me to what I didn’t want to see
Scent of peaches tickled my nose
Salty ocean breeze lifted my spirit miles before I saw the beach
Her glass shattering voice startled me.
Casey’s frantic barking frazzled my nerves.
Sirens blared in my head and I saw red right before…
Salty and sweet were the tastes of my grandchildren
Day-old coffee jangled my nerves
Biscuits dripping honey and butter
Show Don’t Tell – Why?
Show, don’t tell is a restrictive guideline that doesn’t fit every situation. Choice gives writers room to stretch their creative muscles. Both telling and narrative summary, like exposition and backstory, have a place in the writer’s toolbox. The Harry Potter series is a good example of telling and then showing.
The opening of Chamber of Secrets tells rather than shows and works perfectly to ground readers in the story. Rowling then reverses things and “shows” us what she means by that statement.
“Not for the first time, an argument had broken out over breakfast at number four, Privet Drive.”
Rather than tell us that Harry’s summer has been oppressive, Rowling shows readers. Harry’s owl, Hedwig, is locked in her cage, his school things locked in the cupboard. She shows us rather than telling for page after page, letting us see what Harry’s family has done to him and his possessions.
Show your readers through the five senses, and tell them with dialogue, using a voice that is “just right” and introduce them to your character. Then take them on a journey through the life of your book!
Mahala Church is a freelance editor and writer for Written Word, her company that focuses on authors and other small business types who clamor to stay ahead of the pack. She pens weekly blog posts for a diversity of clients, and reaches out to writers through Barefoot Writing Academy, a division of Written Word, leading workshops, teaching classes, and providing individual mentoring. A published author of winning short stories, non-fiction, and book reviews, she lives in the crazy world of rescued dogs, kids, and turtles, one of whom prefers strawberries with his grits. www.lyricalpens.com.