Thursday, January 19, 2012

Rhythm of the Words: Voice in Dialogue

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Aaron Sorkin is a god when it comes to dialogue. Seriously.

For those unfamiliar with the name, Sorkin is the writer and creator of such delights as "The West Wing," "Sports Night," "Studio 64," "The American President," and "A Few Good Men." Watch any of these, and you'll hear the style of his writing and how he puts words together so they hit the ear just right.

What does this have to do with writing, you ask? Everything.

One of the things agents say they look for in a query (and a book) is the author's voice. Developing your voice goes hand in hand with how you put words together and how they sound when you're done. Watch enough Sorkin, listen to enough of his characters talk, and you'll be able to peg his work when you hear it. That's voice. (Joss Wheadon is also extremely good at this)

As West Wing character Sam Seaborn would say, it's the cadence. Sentences have rhythm and the words you choose affect that rhythm. That's why leaving in an adverb might be better for the sentence than taking it out, or using an "he said as..." tag works better than just showing the action. The flow of the words matter more than the grammar of them.

Grab a few of your favorite books off the shelf. Go ahead, I'll wait.

Back? Okies, now, randomly pick a page, and read a few paragraphs out loud. Listen to the words, the structure, the rhythm of the sentences. Now look at your own work, and do the same thing. What does your voice sound like? Do you hear a rhythm that is uniquely yours, or does it sound general or -- eek -- even bland?

If you like what you hear, celebrate, because you have that all important voice. If you don't like it, then think about what you can do to develop your voice. Look at your word choices and see if you're letting the technical aspects of writing get in the way of the cadence, the rhythm, and the sound. "Perfect" writing can sound flat, while an odd combination of words can evoke emotions.

A story is so much more than just listing things that happen. This is why a lot of description can feel list-like -- it is a list of things. Study your sentences to see if they all have the same rhythm and length. Read them out loud (the best way to hear it). Do they all have the same structure? For example...
"She's not here," Bob said, crossing his arms. "I haven't seen her since we encountered those six zombies in Tulsa." He stared at the man holding the gun." Did you look for her at the factory?" The man was an idiot.
Hear that flatness? The clunky way the sentences flow (or don't flow) together? Details are stuck in there more for the reader's benefit than like real people speaking. Kinda boring right? Now try the same details, but vary the length and structure, and toss in some of your POV's personality.
"She's not here." Bob crossed his arms and stared at the jerk holding the gun. Idiot. "Haven't seen her since we gave the slip to a sick-pack of walking dead over in Tulsa. Did you try there?"
Better right? That's what voice and rhythm can do for you. Like music, it pulls you through the story and makes you hum along.

There are only so many stories in the world, but how you choose to tell that story is what makes you stand out. Don't just focus on what your words say -- listen to how they sound as well.

Do you read your work out loud? Do you edit (or write) for rhythm? How often do you notice the rhythm of another writer's work? Does it stand out? 

If you're looking for more to improve your writing, check out one of my books: 

In-depth studies in my Skill Builders series include Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means), and Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It). My Foundations of Fiction series includes Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for plotting a novel, and the companion Plotting Your Novel Workbook, and my Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft series, with step-by-step guides to revising a novel. 

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize (2011), and The Truman Award (2011). She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing, including Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It), Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, and the Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft series.
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  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Oooh! Thanks for posting! Some of my favorite books I have discovered when I checked them out on Audio from the library. Of course, having a great reader like Jim Dale or Barbara Rosenblat or others. But the rhythm is really there. Sometimes its the way the paragraph or sentence leads you to the "punch line". In the case of Bob, the "six pack of living dead".

    The past two weeks, my kids and I dusted off the audio of "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" and have been listening too and from school. I'll find myself absorbed it in long after they've hopped out of the car and have to remember where the CD was so I can cue it back when I pick them up.
    And this on a book I've read and listened to more than a dozen times.

    I don't even write in that style, but I have writer-craft envy every time I listen.

  3. Yes, I love Joss Whedon's voice, he's certainly a master!

    I'm trying to be better about reading out loud during revision. But I fear I don't have the ear yet. Or a voice. :) We'll see. Sometimes I count beats if I think a sentence lacks something...

  4. YES! A thousand times YES.

    Dialog is where good and even great writing falls apart. So many people don't get that voice and dialog aren't WRITING skills; they're LISTENING skills.

    I'm so thankful I started writing screenplays before novels because it gets you in the mindset of assembling dialog that flows. If it doesn't flow, the reader will hear every awkward pause and forced beat.

  5. I read my work out loud so that I can catch words that aren't working. When an author uses the wrong word, from a readers’ perspective, it’s like slamming into a brick wall. Once in a while it’s no big deal, but if the author continues to have flow problems then I’m not likely to read his/her work again.

  6. LOVE this post! So dead on about voice/rhythm. I read all my work out loud. In fact, a good day of writing can leave me with NO voice - literally! :) e

  7. I notice writer rhythm all the time. I identify my favourite writers by their rhythm and individual way of putting things. If I can write well enough for people to identify my work by the words I use, then I shall be most happy.

  8. For some reason, I tend to vary my sentences more when writing long-hand then typing on the computer. How can I apply that to the latter?

  9. Love this post! Voice is one of those hard to develop things that seem to come with time.

    For me, it's easier when I already have a feel for the character in mind. Writing then is like transcribing what I hear in my mind rather than shooting for technically correct yet flat sentences. Reading out loud afterwards definitely helps hone the voice.

    I find it's easier to slip into voice when I am writing blog posts, maybe because of the of pressure? I try to apply that same easy going attitude to my writing as well.

  10. Hello again Bob! xD

    Great post as always. I've never read my writing out loud before, but it sounds like a good idea and I plan to once I'm up to the revision of my WIP. Rhythm and voice are things I struggle with, too. Thanks for the advice.

  11. Whedon. Sorkin. Right on. Great post, Janice.

  12. Amelia, I hadn't thought about audio books and voice, but I can see how the really good voices will shine there. It's also a great way to study how words sound.

    Angela, you'll get there, it takes time to develop both. :)

    Josin, ooo listening skills, love that. I had to write a screenplay version of one of my scenes, and I was surprised at how it made me look at the scene differently.

    Rexa, totally agree.

    Elizabeth D, thanks! It's even more critical for you picture book writers where every word matters.

    Imogen, my goal as well :)

    Chihuahua0, interesting. Maybe it's easier to write longhand and the typing makes you want to get through it faster? Or the typing speeds up your writing? You could try forcing yourself to type slower, see if that helps. Maybe use two fingers :)

    Elizabeth P, I can see that. Your blog posts are you talking to your readers, so your voice shines through. Writing is about the character, so until you know that character, it can be tougher to find their voice.

    Wendy, you'll probably find it very helpful. especially for troublesome scenes.

    Cat York, thanks! Those guys are masters.

  13. It is one of my favorite style. Love to enjoy it in my free time. Thanks.