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Tuesday, February 5

5 Tips for Using Voice in Dialogue

By Vincent H. O’Neil

Part of the How They Do It Series


JH: Voice is a tricky aspect of writing, from finding the author's voice to creating the voices of the characters. Please help me welcome Vincent O'Neil to the lecture hall today, to share his thought and tips on using voice in our dialogue.


Vincent H. O’Neil is the Malice Award-winning author of the Frank Cole mysteries and the theater-themed mystery Death Troupe. HarperCollins recently released the fifth and final novel in his military science fiction Sim War series, written as Henry V. O’Neil.

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Take it away Vincent...

Someone once said that every character in a story should have a voice so distinctive that there’s no need to state who’s speaking. While that may be a bit of an overstatement, it does point out the opportunities represented by a character’s individual voice.

What is voice?

There are numerous definitions, but I like this one: Voice is the way a character “speaks” on paper. Voice goes beyond mere volume, diction, and tone. Voice can transmit the speakers’ attitudes and tell the reader a great deal about them. Voice can also deceive, however, so it’s important not to take everything a character offers at face value.

Every individual, real or imaginary, communicates in a different way—and that voice can be a powerful tool for the writer. Here are five tips for leveraging voice:

1. Use voice to reveal


Personality traits: Speech is part of interaction, and the way characters behave around others can reveal their personalities—or at least the personalities they want to show the world. Voice can tell your readers a lot about characters’ internal makeup, not just by what they say, but in how they say it.

Background info:
Vocabulary, speech patterns, and expertise in a given subject are some of the clues that can be revealed through dialogue. Writers can use voice to suggest details about regional origin, education levels, and life experiences. Distinctive voices can even create an opportunity for the characters to elicit information themselves, by asking questions such as, “What are you, some kind of expert?” or “What is that accent?”

Possible motivations: An actor once said you never truly know someone until you find out what they want. Individual characters’ goals, purposes, and desires are key to their behavior in a story, and those motivations can come out in dialogue. The goal could be stated outright, allowed to surface over time, or even blurted out in an unguarded reaction to something someone else said.

(Here's ore on developing different voices for different characters)

2. Use voice to conceal


Individual identity: A character pretending to be someone else is going to have to do a good acting job. Preparation for this “role” can include regional accent, command of language, knowledge of their alleged profession, and even behavior patterns expected of their chosen role. Voice can be used to furnish subtle clues that reinforce the subterfuge, or give it away.

Allies and enemies: Similarities in voice can suggest two characters would be likely allies, but voice can also be used to give the opposite impression. Secret conspirators who come from the same region, background, or profession don’t want their similarities to give their partnership away. To solve that problem, one of them might change voice so they seem to be opposites or even natural enemies.

Making headway: Many of the tales we tell contain elements of competition, as in a quest story. Competitors who are pulling away from the pack might want to give the impression that they’re not ahead at all. To do this, they could modify their voices to suggest frustration, confusion, or even dejection. On the other hand, a player who’s getting nowhere might adopt a voice that suggests optimism, success, or even smugness as a fa├žade.

(Here's more on how to find your character's voice)

3. Use voice to show change


The journey: Many of the characters in your story will be changed by events. Some will grow while others will be destroyed, and the stages of their transformations can be reflected in their voices. A character who exhibits overconfidence at the start of the tale could adopt a voice that is confused or indecisive after committing a blunder. A loner who learns the value of teamwork might modify his or her voice to be more accommodating of others.

Clues for the reader: A common criticism in entertainment is the observation that a certain action “doesn’t fit that character”. Sometimes that’s true without being wrong. A character who begins a story as a patient, deliberate player and then suddenly does something rash might not be acting out of character at all. They might actually be revealing their true nature, and this change could serve as a strong clue for the reader that the earlier persona was a mask.

Establishing relationships: As mentioned before, voice involves interaction. As the story progresses, some characters might develop affinities or hostilities toward each other. The way they behave should change accordingly. That change also provides opportunities for secondary effects, as other characters might display jealousy at being left out or attempt to play peacemaker—and their voices should reflect that.

(Here's more on how your character answers questions)

4. Use voice to create conflict


Door Kickers and Chickens:
I once watched a documentary where a hostage negotiator mentioned the conflict he sometimes had with his department’s Hostage Rescue Team. The negotiator felt that some of the “door kickers” considered him a “chicken” because most of his job involved talking. Likewise, his training in psychology prompted the negotiator to question the sanity of people who wanted to charge into deadly situations. This is a good example of inherent conflicts that can be richly mined through voice—even if the characters themselves aren’t on speaking terms.

Where you stand depends on where you sit:
Voice can give clues about a character’s beliefs and biases. It can also cause characters to make assumptions about each other that turn out to be invalid. A great deal of conflict can arise from differences in value systems and value judgments, and voice can initiate that interaction.

The voice itself: Ever met someone who immediately got on your nerves just by the way they spoke? Too fast, or too slow? Too much jargon, or too much explanation?Just as voice can suggest two characters are natural allies, it can also indicate natural opponents. And when you add in the possibility that one of the characters in this conflict is only playing a role, it can offer some marvelous plot twists.

(Here's are five ways to develop voice)

5. Don’t overdo it


Voice is just one of the many tools you have at your disposal. It can flesh out characters so they become engaging and real, and help the reader tell one from the other. However, it can be overdone—and make reading the story a chore.

For example, colloquial speech can help identify a character or even provide insights into his or her background. Representing accents and unusual speech patterns on the page can add a lot to the story—but it can also distract or annoy the reader.

Reading your work out loud, and “performing” the lines of dialogue, can reveal when you’re using so much voice that it’s getting in the way. This doesn’t mean you have to change that speaker’s voice to neutral, but you might consider toning it down a bit.

Properly used, voice is a powerful and multifaceted tool for the writer.

About Death Troupe

The Jerome Barron Players have a problem. Their writer, Ryan Betancourt, has killed himself under mysterious circumstances and they need a replacement right away. The Players, unofficially known as Death Troupe, come together once a year to perform a high-end murder mystery play written specifically for that season’s host town. Their writer has to possess special talents, as there’s a wager involved: If the townspeople can correctly identify the murderer before the show’s final act, they don’t have to pay for the engagement. So far, no town has ever won the bet.

Enter Jack Glynn, original writer for the Barron Players. He and Ryan wrote two Death Troupe engagements before Ryan stole Jack’s girlfriend, lead actress Allison Green. Although Jack found fame in Hollywood after quitting the troupe, eccentric director Jerome Barron convinces him to return for one show: The upcoming engagement in the Adirondack town of Schuyler Mills.

It is only then that the troupe’s advance man, private investigator Wade Parker, tells Jack of the strange events which surrounded the group’s previous engagement in Red Bend, California. A local retiree killed himself a few days after the performance—an act Wade suspects was prompted by the storyline of Ryan’s final play. He also reveals that Ryan was greatly unnerved by anonymous third parties who had interfered with the group’s marquee clue distribution.

This is one of the unique features of Death Troupe: As the performance approaches, clues are sprinkled through the town in a variety of ways, from fake headstones bearing characters’ names to real players acting out their assigned roles. In Red Bend, a stranger pretending to be a troupe member had dropped clues that were surprisingly accurate, and Ryan had reacted badly to this—perhaps badly enough to kill himself.

Events take a sinister turn shortly after Jack arrives in the small, snow-covered village of Schuyler Mills. Someone leaves a bizarre arrangement of black roses and plastic skulls in his hotel room. Ryan’s missing notebook from the Red Bend engagement turns up, and it contains an alarming tale of psychological harassment. The people of Schuyler Mills are enthusiastic about Jack’s presence, but he knows that many of them, from the local community theater group to the town mayor, could have ulterior motives.

As the weeks go by, someone begins distributing clues that Jack doesn’t recognize, from a plastic head stuck in an ice-fishing hole to confidential information scrawled on a billboard. Reading Ryan’s notebook, Jack begins to fear that the same web that snared his old writing partner in Red Bend is being spun around him in Schuyler Mills.

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