After all the strategizing is done, you still need to tell a compelling story. Even a weak plot or one-dimensional characters can turn into an interesting book if their description and dialogue are done well. Sometimes, the biggest challenge writers face is how to make their worlds come alive and their characters sound real. Here are some strategies to unlock your writer’s voice.
This is part 5 of a 6-part blog series based on writing workshops called Chasing Your Tale: Building Your Writer’s Toolkit offered through the SheHive. “The SheHive exists to facilitate connection and growth for women seeking to live a life on the other side of should.” You can find out more about the workshop and sign up to attend here.
“The sound of language is where it all begins. The test of a sentence is, does it sound right?”Ursula K. LeGuin, Steering the Craft
Propriety is the enemy of creativity. When you are so busy worrying if it will be okay to do something, you are too preoccupied to do it with abandon. This happens with words all the time. As adults, and especially as writing professionals, we can get so tangled up in grammar rules, publishing concerns, and using the right word that it becomes difficult to use any word at all. This is a learned problem.
“Most children enjoy the sound of language for its own sake. They wallow in repetitions and luscious word-sounds and the crunch and slither of onomatopoeia; they fall in love with musical or impressive words and use them in all the wrong places. . . . An awareness of what your own writing sounds like is an essential skill for a writer. ”Ursula K. LeGuin, Steering the Craft
So how do we break out of our linguistic cages? The answer is to play. Give yourself time and permission to write gorgeously. Be poetic, or overly verbose. Make up words. Describe sounds, colors, and tastes. Use all the cliches. Don’t think, just write. Not for publication, but just to give yourself permission to put words on the page.
Then, read it aloud. Hear the beauty of your own words. Listen to your author’s voice.
Of course, depending on your genre, you probably won’t want to put what you just wrote into your final draft. All those flowery literary techniques are excellent in poetry but can distract from prose. But do they, really? Famous authors from Lewis Carroll to James Joyce have put poetic language to lasting effective use in their prose. The key is to edit judiciously and strategically. Write all the flowers in your first draft, then come back with the pruners and get the flowering tree that is your manuscript back into shape later.
Choosing Where to Focus Description
“One must never place a loaded rifle on the stage if it isn’t going to go off. It’s wrong to make promises you don’t mean to keep.”Anton Chekhov, letter to Aleksandr Semenovich Lazarev
We have all read a book that described everything. J.R.R. Tolkien is notorious for his laborious descriptions that interfered with his story and slowed his plot to a crawl. So how do you know what to focus on? Chekhov’s Gun stands for the idea that every element of a story must be necessary. Whatever is irrelevant to the characters and plot should be removed. If you take the time to draw attention to an attribute, item, or aspect of the scene, let there be a reason for doing so.
However, the opposite is also true. Whatever you want the reader to notice must be given space on the page. Descriptions lend weight by forcing the reader to take time thinking about whatever is described. This could be a smoking gun that your detective will need to unravel the mystery. It could be a trait or an item that your character gives special importance to. Maybe it is something that has particular significance in your fantasy culture like clothing, hairstyles, or tapestries. Whatever is important to your characters should be given focus in your prose.
Finding Your Characters’ Voices
“It’s dialogue that gives your cast their voices, and is crucial in defining their characters—only what people do tells us more about what they’re like, and talk is sneaky: what people say often conveys their character to others in ways of which they—the speakers—are completely unaware.”Stephen King, On Writing
The key to writing compelling dialogue is to separate your thoughts from theirs. This might sound a little dissociative (formerly schizophrenic), but really, we all do this all the time. Let’s say you are trying to pick out a gift for your sister. You pull out a dress and hold it up in front of the mirror. You think, “What would she think of this?” And then, here’s the crazy part, you answer yourself – not with your own thoughts, but with your interpretation of your sister’s opinions. That’s the start of great characterization: being able to develop interpretations about what your characters would think other than your own.
But it’s not just their opinions, it’s also how (and whether) they express those opinions. Making your character sound real depends on having a solid impression of who they are, and what their life has been like to this point. Before writing your dialogue, consider how your character’s history affects their vocabulary:
- Accents & Slang: Does where your character is from affect the way they say words or how they refer to specific items? (i.e. pop vs soda or water fountain vs bubbler)
- Word Choice: Does your character’s age, position, or education (or lack thereof) affect the words they use? (i.e. very vs uber, extraordinarily or exceptionally)
- Catch Phrases: Does your character have any vocal ticks, filler words, or specific phrases they go to again and again? (i.e. a “valley girl’s” overuse of the word like, or a stutterer’s use of um and ah)
- Relationships: Does who your character is talking to affect the way they speak (i.e. codeswitching, respect for elders)
You can do some of this work ahead of time, then create a cheat sheet to remember each character’s rules. Once you’ve finished your draft, read the dialogue out loud. See if you can hear each character’s voice, and what sounds off.
Setting the Pace of the Dialogue
One challenge many writers face is readers who are in too much of a hurry and rush through their dialogue. In many cases this is because the writer hasn’t taken the time to put that conversation in an immersive environment. This could include:
- Describing the characters’ body language
- Making space for the characters’ internal processing by describing the surroundings
- Conveying emotions with tics, shifts, and expressions instead of adverbs
- Letting the characters interact with the setting
What you put between the quotes is sometimes more important than what’s inside them. By interspersing action and description into your dialogue, you will force the reader to slow down and let the story unfold at the speed you intended.
Writing description and dialogue is where art meets craft. Truly the only way to excel at gorgeous writing is to practice. Never assume your first draft will be your best effort. Instead, put the words on the page, then go back, read them aloud, and edit them to allow the imagery and the characters’ voices space to sing.
Lisa J. Schmidt is a writer, owner of Your Law Geek, and facilitator of Chasing Your Tale: Building Your Writer’s Toolkit hosted by the SheHive in Ferndale, Michigan. If you need help developing your next idea, sign up for her next workshop or contact Lisa directly here.