Voice in Narrative and Dialogue - A Contrast of Writing Styles

One of the nice things about being an author is that we can breakany rule we want. (I just did.) It's part of our job description.Language changes through usage -- definitions, spelling, grammar-- and authors can help it do this. But on the other hand, wehave to have some sort of agreement on the language or we won'tbe able to talk to each other.

When we as authors break a rule or two, it's not because we'reignorant. It's because we have reasons to break them. That's oneof the joys of writing.

Having said that, now I'm going to explain some rules. There aretwo types of writing in your novel. There is your narrative andthere is your dialogue. The rules for the two are not the same.

For example, comma use. In dialogue, it's not so difficult. Putin a comma wherever your speaker pauses in his/her speaking. Innarrative, you have to consult the style guides and hope that youand your editor, working as a team, can sort it all out.


A cop thriller like my VIGILANTE JUSTICE has a simple set ofrules for the narrative portion. Third-person, straightforwardwriting, light on adjectives and adverbs, easy to read andgrammatically correct. Sentence fragments are acceptable ifcommunication is achieved, and you'll note that I use them oftenin this article. Why? Simply because it's more effective thatway.

To a degree the genre will help you identify what's appropriate.For a cop drama, write in the dry style of a journalist. Forhorror, a bit of hyperbole may be acceptable in the most dramaticsections. For romance (not my genre), you can probably use lotsmore adjectives (swollen, heaving, throbbing, etc.) than you'dnormally dare.

When I wrote RISING FROM THE ASHES, the true story of Mom raisingmy brother and me alone, I tried to adopt a "childlike voice"early in the narrative. As the character of Michael thestoryteller grew older, I abandoned that childlike quality. (Anentire book of that would get old fast anyway.)

When I wrote AN AMERICAN REDNECK IN HONG KONG, the humoroussequel, I once again used first person narrative. But thenarrative of RISING is first person only in that it uses "I"instead of "Michael." Michael is only a camera. It still followsall the rules of "conventional" narrative. In REDNECK, I threwmost of the rules out the window.

I used what one author referred to my as "conversational" tone tomaximum effect in REDNECK. This fellow author felt like he wasn'tso much reading my book as just listening to me tell some storiesover a few beers. That's exactly what I wanted.

When I wrote the sequel to REDNECK, another bit of humor calledWHO MOVED MY RICE?, I chose to keep that same narrative style,which I'd spent three years perfecting in my newsletter.

In RISING, while I was the "first person" character, I wasn'treally the book's focus. In REDNECK and RICE, I am. Center stage,in the spotlight. Using more of a "dialogue" style in what shouldhave been "narrative" allowed me to focus the reader's attentionon the first person to a greater degree than simply describing himever could. You may love me or you may hate me, but you'll knowme and you'll laugh at me. Or, in the case of RICE, you'll feel myfrequent confusion. I had to write that from "my perspective"because it was often the only one I understood.

If you want to see such a technique used to maximum effect, Irecommend A MONK SWIMMING by Malachy McCourt. (I read it afterwriting REDNECK, by the way.) It's about an actor who gets drunkand does very bad things to himself and his family, and it'samazing just how much I laughed out loud reading it. Doesn'tsound like a funny subject, does it? It's not, and yet it is,thanks to his unconventional narrative style.

To tell you the truth, I don't even think McCourt "wrote" thatbook. I think he just said it all into a tape recorder andtranscribed it later. It reads that much like "a guy at the pubtelling a tale." If he used the grammar checking function inMSWord, I bet it underlined every sentence. And, bright fellowthat he is, he ignored them all and didn't change a word.

If you're going to use a more conversational tone in yournarrative, don't think that means you just write something downand don't have to edit it. You still have to organize yourthoughts, and that means rewriting. While your style may beunconventional, you have to make the ideas easy for the reader tofollow.

(I'm not entirely serious when I say McCourt just spoke into atape recorder, and even if he did that doesn't mean the rest ofus can get away with it.)

In the case of narrative, you have the choice. If you want tospotlight the storyteller to maximum effect, you can go withfirst person and let the storyteller's narrative and his dialogueread the same. If you'd prefer to "move the camera" back a bit,make the narrative conventional in contrast to the dialogue. As arule, this reader likes contrast, because he gets bored readingthe same thing over and over again unless the style is reallyspecial. Or perhaps you can find a point somewhere in between.

Every story has a way that it should be told for maximum effect.Maximum effect in the author's eyes, of course, as it's asubjective thing. Keep it in mind as you write. Make the call,stick to it, change it if it's not working. It might even be okayto be inconsistent, but only if you do so deliberately. Just keepstuff like "ease of reading" and "maximum effect" in mind and becreative.


Have you ever read a book where the dialogue reads like narrative?I hope you haven't. But as an editor I've seen such things, andthey're very ugly.

Do you know why they're so ugly? Because they remind the readerof the one thing an author does not want to remind the reader of.Namely, that every character on the page is a puppet under theauthor's control.

As readers, we put that thought aside so we can enjoy reading."Willing suspension of disbelief," to quote the phrase an Englishteacher used when describing the performance of Shakespeare'splays. If the author ensures that the reader can't suspenddisbelief, the book will not be read. Stilted dialogue is one ofthe quickest ways to make that happen.

I've decided that writing dialogue is the hardest thing we do.It's certainly not something we can go look up in a style manuallike Strunk or Turabian.

What are the rules? "Make it sound real." But with the corollary,"not too real because people always say um and er and crap likethat." Oh yeah. That explains everything! End of my article,right?

Nope. I'm still writing it.

Ideally, the greatest of the great creators of dialogue will haveevery character "speaking" in a voice so distinctive that he/sheneed never identify the speaker. Okay, that's enough fiction.Back to reality. None of us are writing dialogue that well, arewe?

People use a lot more contractions in speech than in writing.They're faster. More sentence fragments, too. People very oftenuse the wrong version of lie/lay or who/whom in speaking. (Inever use "whom" in speaking or writing because I want to seethe distinction scrapped, but that's another story.)

The dialogue portion of VIGILANTE JUSTICE isn't difficult todescribe. The hero is a self-destructive cop named Gary Drake. Heis based on a real-life cop, my little brother. So his dialoguewas easy because, in my mind, I always heard Gary speaking inBarry's voice.

For my other characters, I had to find some other voices. Forexample, the voice of Doctor Garrett Allison is, to me, that ofMichael Jordan.

That's right, people. When I write, I literally hear voices in myhead.

As a beginning writer, and not a very good one, I read some advicesomewhere saying you might want to cut photos out of magazines anduse them when writing your physical description, in case you can'tform a mental picture of your characters. I've used this technique,and with some modification I've extended it to voices.

As an author, you should always play to your greatest strengthswhile working to improve your weaknesses. I know many authors whothink visually, and I envy them that. I've read some stuff thatcan make you feel you're skiing down a snow-covered mountain whenit's actually 85 degrees in your flat and you've never skied inyour life.

One author told me that when he writes, he literally sees moviesin his head, then just has to type them really fast becausethat's how they're playing. Lucky him! My novels first come to mein snippets of dialogue. Every character has the same voice atthat stage. (My voice, of course.)

Tight dialogue is one thing I enjoy when I read. Here are thecharacters at some sort of verbal showdown. I know them, I knowtheir motives, I can read between the lines and know what's beingleft unsaid. I can just feel the tension in the air. I'm not somuch mentally picturing bulging veins and angry glares as I amjust feeling the spoken words.

I also have an excellent memory of voices. I always have. Like adog remembers scents or an artist colors, it seems, I canremember voices. If I hear an unfamiliar song on the radio butI've ever heard that singer before, I can tell you who it is. Ican tell you that the guy doing the voice of Gomez Addams in theoriginal Addams Family cartoon is now doing one of the voices inthe Tasmanian Devil's cartoon series. I can spot an actor likeAndreas Katsulas no matter what species of rubberized alien he'splaying, because I recognize his voice, although really that's nogreat challenge in his case.

(For the record, if you've read THE CHRONICLES OF A MADMAN,Ahriman looks and sounds like Andreas Katsulas. Clyde Windham isDennis Franz. Wendy Himes is some girl who sold me some horsefeed about 15 years ago.)

But just "hearing" the voices (if you're able) isn't enough. Thewords themselves will be different depending on who's speakingthem, even if they're relaying the same information.

To get back to VIGILANTE JUSTICE, Gary Drake doesn't use a lot ofwords. He almost never describes his own feelings, and if he doeshe always feels guilty about it. He speaks with a Southern drawl.He tends to use a single swear word, and that word is "fuck."

Marjorie Brooks, on the other hand, mentions feelings and useswhichever swear word is the most accurate, except that she neversays "fuck." Doctor Allison doesn't use as many contractions asthe rest of us do. These are things I kept in mind as I wrotetheir dialogue.

Who remembers Mr. Spock? His speech sounds like written language,very grammatical and correct, and that's deliberate. He's ascientist, he's logical, and for him language is a tool to be usedwith as much precision as possible. That isn't just a differentstyle of dialogue; it helps define his character.

In THE CHRONICLES OF A MADMAN, Ahriman used fewer contractionsthan the rest of us and he avoided sentence fragments. Heprobably even knew the difference between who and whom or lie andlay. That's because he's intelligent, you see. It kinds of goeswith the territory when one is evil incarnate.

During an edit I did of a sci-fi book, I saw that the author wasn'tusing contractions in dialogue. I made many suggestions that hechange the dialogue of the humans to use those contractions,except when military officers were giving orders, becauseorder-giving officers tend to be more "serious" and "thoughtful"than folks just being regular folks.

I also suggested to this author that he change nothing about the"stilted" speech patterns of his aliens. English isn't theirnative language, you see, and one thing I've noticed from livingin China is that the locals don't use nearly as many contractionsas I do. So I thought that added realism. Plus, the contrastshould help the readers keep everybody straight even if they aren'tconsciously aware of why.

I remember in one edit where I read some character saying, "I aman historian." Oh, I hate that phrase. I hate anyone ever putting"an" in front of a word that begins with the consonant "h." It'sterribly pretentious and arrhythmic. As I kept reading thebook, I quickly learned that the character in question isterribly pretentious. Nobody else in the book was throwing "an"in front of "h" words. It was a deliberate contrast on theauthor's part, and it worked quite nicely.


I suppose the point of all this is, remember the differencebetween narrative and dialogue.

In the case of narrative, you're simply trying to describe whathappens. There is a famous quote of some sort that says, "Greatwriting is like a window pane." Stick to that maxim unless youfeel you have a good reason not to. If you've got what it takesto make your writing style superior to the conventional, and ifyour story allows it, let that style be an asset of your writing.Otherwise, just stick to the rules until you master them.

In the case of dialogue, you're trying to write something thatsounds like what the characters would actually say, but a bitmore organized because "real" speech can be boring. Give everycharacter his/her/its own voice.

Am I joking when I say "its?" Not entirely. THE CHRONICLES OF AMADMAN contains a short story, written in first person from mydog's viewpoint. But then again, I would never call Daisy an"it."

There's a stylistic decision you can make in narrative, by theway. I always refer to animals as "he" or "she." Some authorsalways use "it."

In dialogue, you can let some characters always say he or she,and let others always say it, to contrast the feeling with theunfeeling. (My heroes never call an animal "it.")

In the end, the goal is always the same. Make your writing aseasy to read as you can. Keep that in mind, and always keeplearning, and you won't go wrong.

Copyright 2005, Michael LaRocca

Michael LaRocca's website at http://www.chinarice.org waschosen by WRITER'S DIGEST as one of The 101 Best WebsitesFor Writers in 2001 and 2002. His response was to throw itout and start over again because he's insane. He teachesEnglish at a university in Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province,China, and publishes the free weekly newsletter WHO MOVEDMY RICE?

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