International Festival Of Authors ~ Fall 2011


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Are You Talking To Me?

With: Brian Francis, Olive Senior, Mahtab Narsimhan, Kate Cayley, Rebecca Rosenblum, Robin Spano, Steve Stanton, Rob Benvie, Hillary Jordan, Carmen Rodriguez and Pam Withers.

This month on Fiction Craft I asked eleven authors the following question: How do you capture voice in dialogue?

I used to have a friend years ago who could listen to a piece of music and play it back without hesitation on the piano. For him, the ability was as natural and unforced as can be. It was simply part of him, like his hair or elbows. I don?t know when I became aware of it exactly, but I have long had a similar faculty for dialogue. If I hear a voice, I can replicate it on paper. All I need is three or four words, a sentence or two at most, more than that doesn?t help. The painter Christopher Pratt once told me that just by looking in through the window of a room, no matter how fleeting the glimpse, he instantly knew what the room ? all of it, even the parts he couldn?t see ? looked like inside and could paint a picture of it. I have been the same with voices as long as I can remember. If I hear one, just a few words, I can repeat it in writing. All of these voices are stored inside of me and when I need dialogue I pull them out.

Verisimilitude comes from tone. I dislike book readings but once went to a reading by my favourite author, Elmore Leonard. He stood on stage dressed in a canary-yellow sport coat, talking to the audience in his own voice before he began to read. I had never laid eyes on him nor heard him utter a word before that moment. The voice I heard ? his normal speaking voice ? was not the voice I recognized from his books. When he began to read, however, the voice that came out of his mouth was subtly different in tone, and it was exactly the voice that I?d heard in my head a month earlier when I?d read the book in question, Riding the Rap. It was the voice of Raylan Givens, his protagonist and I knew then that Leonard?s mastery of voice came from an aural acuity, an affinity for tone that made his characters believable. The experience cemented my understanding that, for me at least, there is only one way to capture character voice, and that is to be a sponge and listen.

Let?s hear what some other authors have to say on the subject.


Brian Francis is the author of the novels Natural Order and Fruit. He lives in Toronto.

When I was a kid, I used to do impersonations of people. There was something powerful about the ability to recreate a person. To duplicate a tone of voice. Discover the catchphrases. Watch the way a pair of hands moved in distinct patterns.

I suppose doing the impersonations made me feel smart because, by observing someone else, I needed to establish a certain distance and perspective. And often, the impersonations revealed things about people that they didn?t realize themselves.

The impersonations were also about getting laughs. People found them funny ? although the people I was impersonating didn?t always see the humour. There was an edge of cruelty in the impersonations. A mocking. People weren?t always reflected in the most positive light.

As I got older, my impersonations became less about smarts and laughs and more about character study. I?d pay close attention to people, listen for the unique qualities in their speech patterns, note the mispronounced words, the way their eyebrows moved ? or didn?t move ? when they talked. I?d pretend to be them. Inhabit their skin. To think the way I believed they thought.

My penchant for impersonations, I think, now plays a huge factor when I?m creating character voices. I often think of writing as impersonating. The main difference is that I?m impersonating someone through language, rather than physical gestures.

Ultimately, the characters you create can?t be impersonations of other people. They have to be their own person. Or as much their own person as fictional characters can be. I think one of the goals of good writing is to distinguish mimicry from authenticity.

When it comes to dialogue, it helps to read it out loud. Impersonate the person doing the talking. If it?s an elderly man, make sure your voice shakes slightly. If it?s a teenager, talk quickly and with a lilt. If nothing else, it?s oddly satisfying pretending to be someone else. Writing is play, after all. You might as well have some fun.


Olive Senior is the author of a dozen books of fiction, poetry and non-fiction, including her newest novel, Dancing Lessons. She lives in Jamaica and Toronto.

Our way of speaking is based on many factors ? age, gender, social status, education, race and ethnicity, and so on. All of these elements will shape diction (choice of words), syntax (the order of words in a sentence), pronunciation, and the way we deliver ourselves. Speech provides an excellent opportunity to create distinctive and memorable characters. But first, you must know your speaker.

If your character is fully formed in your mind, he or she will arrive with a distinct voice.

To write successfully, you need to become each character in order to understand how each will act and speak in any given situation. So, role play. Give voice to the characters. Freewrite a monologue. Let each character ramble on long enough to reveal not just content or opinion but cadence and speech patterns. This is your raw material. Extract the nuggets. Conversation is something you have with friends, dialogue is craft. Think of it not as words on paper but as action bouncing back and forth between two people. Dialogue is usually used for the heightened emotional moments in fiction and is there to reveal something that will move the story forward. Sentences that are short or long, telegraphic or hesitant, grammatical or laden with profanities, can be highly revealing of people and their emotional state, as can silence in the face of a verbal onslaught.

To develop this craft:

Listen ? to real people, not copy actors in television or film. Their speech has already been written by someone.

Train your eyes and ears. Jot down in your notebook overheard snatches of conversation or interesting phrases. Make notes about the speaker.

Read your dialogue aloud and adjust for flow. Cut all unnecessary words. Go through and read each individual?s speech throughout the story to ensure consistency.

Dialect or regional usage can be useful as it grounds speech in a particular time and place and adds colour and flavour to the writing. But using dialect you are not familiar with can come across as patronizing or demeaning. If you are unsure about such speech, always ask someone knowledgeable to check it for you. Go easy on the reader. Rather than adopting unusual spelling try to capture the cadence and speech rhythms and utilize local expressions. Individual words, phrases or sayings in foreign languages dropped into conversation can also help to round out a character. But make sure they are understandable from the context.

The important thing is to use voice and speech patterns to make each character distinct so they all don?t end up sounding like each other.


Mahtab Narsimhan is the author of the YA novels The Tiffin, The Third Eye, The Silver Anklet and The Deadly Conch. She lives in Toronto.

When I first start writing about a character, she (for the sake of simplicity) is partially formed in my mind. I barely have an idea of what she looks like, let alone what she sounds like. Only when I?ve finished a couple of drafts and she reveals herself to me, can I really get started on making her dialogue shine.

A good example is the protagonist in the current YA novel I?m writing. I?m on the third draft and am just starting to see her clearly: her mannerisms, what she?s all about, and her beliefs which gives rise to her voice. Because after all voice and dialogue are organic to the personality of a character.

One of the main reasons a story falls flat is because the characters all sound alike. And that comes from lack of sufficient character development. Of having single-dimensional characters instead of the multi-faceted human beings we are.

For this novel, I?ve done detailed character sketches for each of my four main protagonists which include their beliefs, their goals and what motivates them. I know I?ll eventually get the dialogue right because with each draft I complete, I get to know them a little bit better, like acquaintances morphing into dear friends.


Kate Cayley is a playwright and the author of the YA novel The Hangman in the Mirror. She lives in Toronto.

I am a playwright who moonlights in fiction from time to time, so I spend the majority of my working life struggling with dialogue. This usually means fighting the writerly impulse to over-poeticize, to reveal too much too soon, and to have a character say more than they are capable of knowing. I have heard writers say they mistrust the first person because the author is so limited by what it is possible for the narrator to know about themselves. Whereas when writing fiction I have trouble not writing in the first person ? it is so interesting to be limited by the perspective of the character. Because this means you have to work on various levels of meaning at once. This is what makes writing dialogue so difficult and satisfying. There is the story being told and you have to figure out a way to tell it without betraying the voice of the teller. Then there is the meaning the speaker wishes to convey, what they think about themselves, what they hope is true. There is their hidden meaning, which they are aware of but can?t say. Then, running under that, is a whole web of deeply hidden meaning, that the character doesn?t know explicitly but conveys unconsciously. This is probably the most difficult layer because it is needs to be a little mysterious for the author as well. I think of it as resonance or echo, something vibrating underneath. This is the level on which I feel a character is speaking to me, that we are in fact in dialogue with each other, in which I am patiently trying to hear what they say as much as I am consciously creating them.

This is all perhaps avoiding the question. Perhaps fundamentally I don?t know how I create character voice through dialogue because it is only through writing dialogue, through figuring out what is said, that I am able to slowly figure out who a character is. And that?s usually a process of elimination. Figuring out the limits of what they know and what they can express, sifting through and mercilessly editing, and through that building up a picture of a person. Maybe I find this question difficult to answer because it cuts to the heart of what I think writing is: a leap of faith from the self to the other, an act of sympathetic imagination, on the part of the writer and the reader, who can both discover who a character is by listening, with patience and care, to what they say.


Rebecca Rosenblum is the author of numerous short stories, including those to be found in her books Once, and The Big Dream. She lives in Toronto.

I love to write dialogue it's the kind of writing where I'm most likely to lose an afternoon. But unfortunately, those lost afternoons of happy dialogue-writing often leads to pages and pages of marginally interesting work that can't actually be cut ? important things happen or are discussed ? but is far too dilatory and inane to actually hold a reader's interest.

The frustrating thing is, that's how people actually talk. Seriously. A popular creative-writing exercise is to tape-record people talking when they are unawares, then transcribe exactly what was said. If you do this enough times, you realize transcribed dialogue in newspapers and the like is always cleaned up. You wouldn?t believe how often even very intelligent people start a sentence and trail off, sometimes never to resume. And then there?s mindless repetition, ums and ahs, and below a certain age (the far side of forty is my guess) the word like to signal approximation, vagueness, or simply filler.

To varying extents, mind you ? more articulate people simply do the above less, but they still do it. And I haven?t even gotten into the effects of alcohol, caffeine, exhaustion, and excitement. No one speaks in clean, uncluttered, grammatical sentences all the time.

Except in fiction. Any sane fiction writer knows that what works in real life does not necessarily work on the page. You simply can?t have a character sneeze mid-sentence, spend 60 seconds rummaging for a tissue, only to resume speaking on an entirely different subject. Nobody in any novel or short story I?ve read ever got the hiccups but continue to try to discuss important information anyway. People can?t mutter unintelligibly through their food or semi-choke until they to spit out that piece of mushroom ? unless it?s a deliberate gag. In short, you can?t waste the readers? time or attention spans on stuff that doesn?t matter.

So in the end I boil down, clean up, and shift around my dialogue until it is more or less linear, and more or less coherent, while still aiming to be succinct, sharp, informative and entertaining. An expression I use often ? ?First you write the block of wood, then you carve out the story? definitely applies here.

So to answer the actual question that was asked: ?How do you capture character voice in dialogue?? I try to leave in just enough of the incoherent weirdness; the ticky, techy non-linear bits of dialogue to show who this person is. A single lapse in grammar or vocabulary, a couple extraneous words, has to represent a much larger breadth of weirdness. But in the end, that?s all fiction is ? trying to represent the full span of life in a tiny space.


Robin Spano is the author of the novels Death Plays Poker and Dead Politician Society. She lives in Lions Bay, BC.

Hands down, dialogue is my favorite thing to write. For me, it's where the magic happens ? it's where the characters become alive and their emotions and personalities take center stage.

I see dialogue as a two-step process:

LETTING THE CHARACTERS TALK ? It's a bit like role play. I get behind the characters' eyes and let them talk freely. From inside their heads, I feel their motivations and use the conversation to push their agenda forward. The better able I am to see as they see, the more naturally their quirks, pretensions, background and biases appear in their lines.

I particularly love writing conflict ? diving into the head of someone when they're angry and can't see straight for all their frustration. I find angry scenes both really fun to write (and hopefully read) and highly revealing of who a character is. Most of us put on a fairly nice face for the world most of the time ? it's who we are when things go wrong that define us as full human beings.

My personal challenge, writing crime fiction, is getting behind the eyes of the killer. I feel kind of evil when I try, like I'm unleashing my dark side and I'm afraid of what I'll find. So far, I think my killers tend to speak in fairly one-dimensional ways. But I have a genius writing friend who's not remotely afraid of her dark side, and she's given me some tips for how to get inside the killer's head. I'm both scared and excited to see how my killers start talking once I let myself sympathize with them a bit more. (This friend is Chevy Stevens ? I so recommend her books.)

In this ?letting them talk? stage, I find it important to not edit ? to let conversations flow freely as real people speak, complete with repetition, politeness, and other boring parts. The more sloppy and unliterary and true to life that I can let myself be with my first draft, the more little gems of truth will be there once the slop has been edited away.

Which brings us to stage 2:

EDITING ? Once the conversation is on the page in its long uncut form, it has to be pared down to its interesting bits and essentials. Cliches have to be replaced with more original lines. Almost all politeness has to go. Repetition has to be culled, so each sentiment is only expressed once (or if repeated, it's merited). And you have to make sure that what's left is strong, succinct, and expresses what you want the scene to do.

The result should be dialogue that reads like real people talking ? in their own words and with their own quirks ? but way more fun, fast, gritty, and interesting to read.


Steve Stanton is the author of the The Bloodlight Chronicles novels: Reconciliation and Retribution. He lives in Muskoka, ON.

For me, the most important thing about characters is the assumptions they make during conversation, the preconceptions they carry about their situation and the other participants in the drama. A character?s voice must arrive organically and exist independently of the story, following the mantra that ?characters are real people, too.?

My approach is to start with a visual orientation by finding pictures of my characters, or arcs of pictures if the character spans a great length of time. Each character should have a list of attributes, or choice of vocabulary, something that sets them apart. Sometimes, while working in my ?character notebook,? dialogue scenes will present themselves that may or may not end up in the novel, but are good to record as part of the developing voice. This is the time to get the ?backstory? out of the characters and give them some exercise in various situations, so that the author does not dump gobs of exposition on the reader in the finished work.

Characters often change dramatically during the course of a story, but the voice does not. Regardless of the twisting circumstance, the reader can always rely on the fact that the same Joe Blow is still in the story, because the reader should ?know? Joe Blow. This can be accomplished by the careful use of consistent, individual mannerisms for each character. The use of pet names, slang or invective can provide artful backstory as well as keep straight complex, multiplayer dialogue scenes without using a lot of cumbersome dialogue tags.

Characters should never be forced to explain themselves. Real people never do. A character can make a huge jump of insight during a conversation, to propel the plot, and if the next character agrees or fine tunes the idea, it can become real for the reader without all the explanatory steps. Seeds can be planted backward through the story to make the leap seem naturally foreshadowed with but a word here and there. Another useful technique is to have characters ask questions rather than give answers, because the question often gives the reader just as much or more information, again, by invoking the assumptions of the character.

Finally, emotion in a character is the final touchstone in dialogue. Vulnerabilities are often what truly define people. What makes a man weep, or a woman shout with exuberance? What is the most important thing in their life, and how might the author take it away? What does a protagonist hope for, and how can that be realized in the story? What makes one character hoot with laughter while the next character argues against such an outrageous idea? By accentuating the differences between characters, the author can draw them into tighter focus. Above all, characters should act natural. They should be invited to perform rather than told what to do. Sounds weird, I know, but it?s something we can all strive toward.


Rob Benvie is the author of the novels Safety of War and Maintenance. He lives in Toronto.

I?m reluctant to offer any advice on this, since I feel it?s an endless process of learning and improving. I disagree that grittiness or ?authenticity? is the goal of a writer; I?m more a fan of ?enjoyability.? So in that light, writing dialogue, and deciding how it works in fiction, is especially a toughie. Do we write as we actually speak, or do we write as we wish our characters ? the personified constructs of our imagination and the buoys of the story we cast to sea ? would speak? In the two books I?ve written, I?m pretty guilty of chucking in a lot of ?mm?s and ?hm?s and gratuitous implied pauses. Maybe that?s attempted realism, probably under the influence of film more than literature. I?m a child of the nineties, so the spectre of Tarantino and Mamet et al. looms large. So: you balance what?s realistic with what?s funny/poignant/whatever. You read it aloud as a test. You balance and pace it against descriptions and digressions and stuff. As far as how it captures character: if you know who or what your characters are meant to be, and it rings true, the job explains itself. I kind of squirm when authors talk about their characters as if they?re actual people: ?I had such a wonderful time hanging out with Virgil and his butterfly collection that I just couldn?t let go.? But having coherence within a written thing, when you?re attempting to describe human interactions as they are or must be, is pretty necessary, or it comes off as untruthful and insincere. So I would suggest dialogue ? if realism via characterization is your aim, which by no means does it necessarily need to be ? should be written as the character, not as the author, I guess. But what that really means, I don?t know. Who knows?


Hillary Jordan is the author of the novels When She Woke and Mudbound. She lives in Brooklyn, NY.

Dialogue is actually my favorite part of writing fiction, probably because it comes so much more easily to me than narrative. With narrative I often feel like I?m hacking my way through a dense, thorny thicket, whereas dialogue is the sunlit meadow on the other side. Before I became an author I spent many years writing dialogue for commercials and casting the actors who would speak it and sitting on sets and in studios recording it. And it?s amazing what your ears can pick up that your eyes completely missed in terms of what sings vs. what clanks, meaning what sounds natural vs. what would never come out of any real person?s mouth who wasn?t a first-year ESL student or an actress auditioning for As the World Turns. When I?m writing I read every sentence of my dialogue aloud multiple times, and I encourage my writing students to do the same.

For me each character?s voice has a music all its own, created by the rhythm and pacing of the sentences, the sounds of the particular words that he or she uses and the feelings evoked by those sounds, and the way one thought flows (or stutters or meanders) to the next. With my first novel, Mudbound, I had six primary and many secondary voices, all Southerners, and I had to make them not only believable and but also distinct from each other, which is no doubt a big part of why it took me seven years to write the book. I had different syntax, grammar and even punctuation rules for each of my main characters: e.g., only Laura uses semicolons; Henry?s utterances are short and staccato, with very few adjectives unless he?s rhapsodizing about the land; Hap, who?s a preacher and a talker, has lots of run-on sentences with almost no commas to interrupt his musings; Ronsel?s speech is full of consonants, which accentuates the force of his personality and the anger underlying it.

Writing the dialogue for my second novel, When She Woke, was less challenging in some ways because I didn?t have to deal with dialect or anachronisms (Mudbound is set in the 1940s Mississippi Delta; WSW in Texas of the near future). But I still had the same task of composing the music of each voice and keeping my ears cocked to make sure I didn?t slip out of it. And if I did, I knew that my characters ? who by the end of both books were so real to me they were like family members ? would be there to give me a piece of their minds and correct the error of my ways.


Carmen Rodriguez is a poet and the author of the novel Retribution and the short story collection and a body to remember with. She lives in Vancouver.

As I reflected on the process of writing my novel Retribution for the purposes of writing this article, I realized that dialogue was one of the last features I tackled and developed.

By the time I began to insert dialogue into the text, the characters were clear in my mind and fairly well defined on the page, primarily through their first-person narrations, but also through their actions. Similarly, the plot was already coherent and the novel had found a structure that suited the story-line.

As I revised and rewrote the manuscript, I felt the need to have the characters speak not only to the reader, but also to each other. That was my primary reason to begin using dialogue. However, it didn?t take me long to realize that dialogue was helping to enrich the novel in several ways: it deepened the character?s psychological profile, it served as a vehicle to convey personal and socio-historical information, and it added dynamism and realism to the story.

I used several mechanisms to capture character voice in dialogue: I kept reminding myself of each person?s age and gender, sexual orientation and socio-economic status, in addition to their distinct personality, experiences, knowledge, values and beliefs, idiosyncrasies and mannerisms. Also, I was mindful of their particular mood at the time of the exchange ? angry, embarrassed, confused, defiant... I pictured them in the specific situation in which the dialogue took place. So, in addition to recording their actual words, I described the concrete locale and circumstances in which they found themselves ? eating at the kitchen table, walking down the street, getting ready to go out ? and also the action(s) that accompanied their words, their posture, the way they moved, etcetera.

Many times I enacted these passages myself: I got off my writing chair and pretended to be the characters talking to each other. I listened attentively to their lines, paid attention to the language I had used for each one, used my body in the way they were using it, and verified that what they were saying and the way in which they were saying it was consistent with who they were/were becoming at that point in the story.

I repeated this process and kept re-writing until I felt satisfied with the result.


Pam Withers is the author of 15 young-adult adventure books, including the newest release, First Descent. She lives in Vancouver.

Good dialogue never resembles how people actually talk, or readers would abandon its lengthy stodginess. Effective dialogue involves fast-moving pieces of conversation studded with clever comebacks (the kind that in real life you think of hours after your conversation). I use lots of ellipses as speakers interrupt one another; that keeps things moving fast, compels the reader forward. I also include snippets of setting or mood or detail (such as the speaker fidgeting or flushing red or finding his comment coming out in a hoarse whisper) to enhance actual dialogue, but so briefly and subtly that the reader is aware only of the dialogue. As writers, we are often reminded to incorporate the five senses into paragraphs of description, but the same applies to building character through dialogue. Finally, exclamation marks should be used sparingly (let the words do the exclaiming).


Read past editions of Fiction Craft:

October 2011: Under what conditions do you do your best writing?

September 2011: What is your relationship like with your characters?

August 2011: How do you tackle revision of your work?


Shaun Smith is the author of the YA novel Snakes & Ladders and the e-book Magical Narcissism: Selected Writings on Books, Writers, Food & Chefs. He has published journalism with, Quill & Quire, Toronto Star, The Globe & Mail and numerous other outlets. His book blog "Shaun Smith's Sunday Sundries" appears each Sunday (no kidding!) on Open Book Toronto.

Follow Shaun on Twitter.

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