6 External Voice

We’ve seen that internal voice is a character’s thought pattern, the internal beliefs that drive a character’s words and actions. External voice is less complex and is simply the words a character speaks.

However, it is not quiet that simple.

The Show, Don’t Tell Methodology is a process in which a writer removes the ‘story’ from narrative summary and, instead, tells the story via words and actions. It is worth a mention that I am not suggesting that writers stop using narrative summary. I am not even suggesting that writers stop putting character’s thoughts in the narrative summary (more of that later), all I am saying is that a writer must use the narrative summary with care and consideration. Since no back-story can be dumped into the narrative, dialogue is suddenly very important! It is the only way in which you can pass the plot and back-story to the reader.

External voice, or dialogue, now becomes a writer’s most important tool.

So… how do you know what a character will say in any given situation?

To understand the best way to write dialogue you must start to see conversation is a new light. You must see dialogue as an exchange between characters with a clearly defined purpose. However, it remains important that dialogue has a realistic feel. You need to be writing conversation that could have actually happened.

In essence, dialogue is as a string of interactions.

One character says something, another character reacts… and so on.

‘Hello,’ John said. [Action]

‘Hi,’ Bill said. [Reaction]

Sometimes you will have a character choose to not react verbally or they may reaction physically. This is all part of the action/reaction sequence.

‘Hello,’ John said. [Action]

Bill stared at John. [Reaction]

Or…

‘Hello,’ John said. [Action]

Bill smiled and waved. [Reaction]

Once you have set up your characters in an action/reaction sequence, your next job is to decide what they will say.

There are actually three types of dialogue:

  1. Dialogue that makes sense for the scene.
  2. Dialogue that moves the plot forward.
  3. Dialogue that fills in back-story.

Let’s consider these in order.

The first is what makes sense for the scene. This is the natural speech pattern of the character in reaction to the events in the current scene.

For example, if a character is introduced to a person they have never met and the person says, ‘Hello’, then your character will reply with an appropriate comment, probably, ‘Hello’.

This is also dialogue that is reaction to an event in the scene. For example, if the scene sees the main character buying a present for his wife. His wife would react when she is given the present.

The second type of dialogue is what needs to be said for the plot. Since you are unable to move the plot forward via narrative summary, use must use events and conversation to tell your story. This means that, at times, you will need certain characters to say things to move the plot forward.

For example, let’s say you need to establish that your main character, let’s call him John, again, has a sister. This is an important plot point. You can just have the narrator TELL the reader that John has a sister. You will need to add this into the dialogue.

The dialogue could go something like this:

John stood in the car park of the pub. It was dark and the sky promised rain. A taxi pulled into the car park and made a circuit before coming to a stop in front of John. The driver let the window down, his dark skin and black hair visible in the dashboard lights.

‘You order a taxi?’ His voice tinged with an oriental accent.

‘No,’ John said.

The driver shrugged and fumbled with his radio speaking into it in a language John didn’t understand. A voice on the other end responded, too muffled for John to here. The driver leaned over again.

‘You sure mate?’

‘Yeah,’ John said.

‘Ahh…’ the driver said. ‘Do you want a lift anyway?’

‘Thanks, I am waiting for my sister.’

‘Ok,’ the taxi driver said and pulled out of the car park.

The key here is that the plot point (John has a sister) has been passed to the reader is a realistic manner. This is a conversation that could have actually happened. The result is that the reader is SHOWN that John has a sister.

The final type of dialogue is what needs to be said for the back-story. Since we are unable to pass back-story via the narrative, dialogue is the only outlet. We have seen that a character’s back-story is not just events important to the plot (e.g. John went to university), but also ideals and beliefs that may influence the way a character speaks (e.g. John is scared of dogs). Both of these elements will have an impact on the dialogue between your characters. However, since dialogue needs to be realistic in nature, this is not always that easy.

If you just have a character start talking about something that does not fit naturally in a scene, then the reader will smell a rat! They will see what you are doing and the magic is broken. One of the challenges that you face is to create credible scenes to pass back-story to the reader via dialogue.

This is, actually, a more common problem than you think. One reason that many detective stories feature a sidekick is to allow the main character to ‘discuss’ the case without any additional content. Think about it, the writer needs to pass a vital bit of back-story, what better way than to have the sidekick tell the main character about a nearly missed anomaly picked up in an autopsy.

The pragmatic reality is that you will find yourself writing scenes with the sole purpose of passing back-story. Old friends from the past will show up just so you have talk about the main character’s tough childhood and alcoholic mother, dinner parties will pop up so you can talk about a piece of new government legislation that is relevant to the plot or cars will breakdown just so a character can talk about the mechanical skills he learned in the army.

For example, imagine you needed to let the reader know that your main character had attended university. You would not drop this into the narration; instead you would include the fact in the dialogue of a scene. However, this is not easy. Think about your own life. How many situations can you think of where you would talk about your education? I am guessing not that many. This probably means that you will need to write a scene just to pass the back-story. Perhaps, they meet an old university friend for coffee. This would then give you the perfect excuse to write a scene with the freedom to say just about anything you wished about the university days, but via dialogue.

Having mastered the concept of using dialogue to not only build a plot, but also pass dialogue, there’s one additional concept to consider, and that is the influence of the internal voice.

As we have established the internal voice is the beliefs and thought process of the main character. It is the sub-conscious thinking, which influences all the nuances of your character’s life. It will also dictate how they speak and how they react to certain situation.

For example, a character scared of dogs, who is asked to take a friend’s dog for a walk, will react differently to a character who loves dogs.

When writing any dialogue, be it to fit in a scene, move forward the plot or pass back-story, you must always consider the roll the character’s internal voice will play on the words that they actually say. A character’s internal voice will influence how characters react and the types of words and phrases they use.

In the example we gave when discussing internal voice, we suggested the main character’s internal voice was telling them to distrust Chinese people. We have suggested that this may be a subtle influence, one of which the character is unaware.Remember, we are not saying the character is a racist, but holds a slightly skewed view.

Let’s go back to the taxi scene and re-write it with this internal latent racism in mind. It might go something like this…

John stood in the car park of the pub. It was dark and the sky promised rain. A taxi pulled into the car park and made a circuit before coming to a stop in front of John. The driver let the window down, his dark skin and black hair visible in the dashboard lights.

‘You order a taxi?’ His voice was tinged with an oriental accent.

‘No,’ John said, shuffling back slightly from the car.

The driver shrugged and fumbled with his radio speaking into it in a language John didn’t understand. A voice on the other end responded, too muffled for John to hear. The driver leaned over again.

‘You sure mate?’

‘Yeah,’ John said. ‘I am sure.’

‘Ahh…’ the driver said. ‘Do you want a lift anyway?’

‘Aren’t you supposed to only pick up planned fares?’ There was a pause. ‘It doesn’t mater. I am waiting for my sister, she’ll be hear any moment.’

‘Ok,’ the taxi driver said and pulled out of the car park. John watched the car leave, making a mental note of the number plate.

Here we have added a physical action with him moving back from the car. We have also added verbal reaction with him questioning the driver’s right to pick up a passenger. Finally, we have John noting the number plate. These small changes play no part in the over all plot. However, what they do is add ‘texture’ to the character.

In this situation the reader will probably pick up on the subtle behaviour of the character. The reader’s brain will instinctively try to work out why the character is acting in the way they are, and start to build their own story about the character.

The words and actions are triggers for the reader. They create a space between the reader and the character, and force the reader to dive into that space as they contemplate why he would react in that way. The character may say he’s not a racist, and may even believe this to be true, but his words and actions in this scene suggest otherwise. This paradox excites the reader.

The reader is pulled into the story and forced to engage. They are becoming an active part as they try to understand the character and the way he reacts.

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