Tag Archives: voice

Hearing Voices: The Story Speaks

How many voices do you run across in a yarn? Typically you run into three types. Sure, we got types. And they’ve all got to play in order to make a story sing.

In a previous post, I rambled on about the most obvious of voices, dialogue. More subtle, perhaps more cunning, is the voice of the story itself.

Every yarns has its own point of view, perspective, take. It’s the voice that sets the tone and creates the story’s narrative form. It’s the brain and the heart behind the story. It ain’t easily achieved, but the idea’s as simple as asking, “Who’s telling the story?”

Leave it as easy as that for the moment. Imagine someone else is telling you the story, imagine the possibilities, and wake up to all those possibilities. Who, exactly, is putting across your little adventure? Your eight-year-old grandchild? A rummy at the bar? Your main character from her jail cell? That effects everything, from the subjectivity to the vernacular to the point of reference. Is it told with a sense of humor or as dire as hard-boiled can get?

Think about the heavy contrast going from a story narrated by Mister Rogers to one related by Rod Serling. Your story has its own, peculiar voice. It speaks up from the very first word, the initial combination of words, the very weight or weightlessness of the first idea or description. Name your poison and lay it on.

Call me Ishmael. Some years ago–never mind how long precisely –having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen, and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off–then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.
Herman Melville, Moby Dick

Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.
Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way — in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.
Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities


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Hearing Voices: The Dialogue of He Sez, She Sez

How many voices do you run across in a yarn? Typically you run into three types. Sure, we got types. And they’ve all got to play in order to make a story sing.

The most obvious type of voice is character, and most obviously expressed by what a character literally says. Plenty of authors complain about it, claiming they have heaps of trouble with dialogue. I haven’t made a study of it, but I’ve read plenty of bad dialogue. You’d think we’d all be better at it ’cause we seem to be surrounded by nonstop yapping. But it ain’t the case.

I don’t believe in rules and I don’t believe in absolutes when it comes to plenty of things, writing included. But there are plenty of principles and guidelines to rely on.

1. What does the character sound like, verbally?

If it’s a contemporary piece, he won’t be saying “swell” an awful lot. He probably won’t be speaking in complete sentences. And there’ll probably be a whole lot of contractions. The choice of words, including slang, should be guided by more than time period, but also by the age of the character. Throw together a 20-something dame going to college alongside an 80-year-old broad who worked stand-up and they’ll almost be talking two different languages. Think about diction. Think about formal versus informal.

2. What does the character want?

We’re always motivated. Some more negatively than others. But we’ve always got something going on, something stirring up within our excuse for gray matter. It goes a lot deeper and gets a lot more complex, but the idea’s as basic as that mug trying to win over that blonde at the bar. What will he say, exactly, and how will he say it? In turn, the lady in the case has her own agenda and will respond appropriate-like. Maybe she’s waiting for her boyfriend, her girlfriend, a blackmailer. Maybe she’s got a cold, a run in her stocking, lead poisoning, three months to live. All of that will feed her response.

3. What you don’t say says a lot

There’s a few basics that strengthen prose. Active choices, etc. Omit words such as “will” and “can.” Cutting to the chase usually provides a whole lot more pop. In a similar way, leaving things unsaid often gives dialogue a crisper quality.

Sarcasm, for example. When it fits the character, this can evoke plenty of attitude while striking a contrary chord. If someone pulls a bonehead move, and you want a character to respond, what resonates more? Sometimes it’s shorter and sweeter to hit the nail on the head, but other times there’s a strength in opposites. Here’s a flat example:

“So’s I fumble for my rod and go all nervous and winds up shooting myself in the foot.”

“That’s pretty stupid.”

Even the simplest, sarcastic response is an improvement of unparalleled heights:

“So’s I fumble for my rod and go all nervous and winds up shooting myself in the foot.”


Maybe that’s no Pulitzer Prize example, but you catch my drift. Most of the time dialogue’s more powerful when a character gets their meaning across without saying what they mean.

Of course the bottom line is that it all has to play. The dialogue’s got to the fit the character and it’s got to serve the story. It’s got to move the plot along, set up or resolve a conflict, make for a little comic relief. It can introduce a new character or information or pivot the proceedings 360 degrees. Any or all of that.

Nothing to it, right?

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