In this lesson, you will discover the importance of external voice. You’ll find out what you should write and when, how to use external dialogue to help build characterisation and how to help build narrative space.

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 that simple.

The Show, Don’t Tell methodology is a process in which an author 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 authors stop using narrative summary. I am not even suggesting that authors stop putting characters’ thoughts in the narrative summary. All I am saying is that an author must use the narrative summary with care and consideration. Since no backstory can be dumped in the narrative, dialogue is suddenly very important! It is the only way in which you can pass the plot and backstory to the reader.

External voice, or dialogue, now becomes an author’s most important tool.

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 in 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 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 react 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.As a self-editor, it is essential that you are able to deconstruct speech into this seemingly mechanical manner. By doing so, it allows you to see speech as a pattern and then start to determine sections that can be improved or altered.

Dialogue Type

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 backstory.
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.” There is also dialogue that is reacting 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, you 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, 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 in dialogue.

The dialogue could go something like this:

John stood in the parking lot of the pub. It was dark outside, and the sky promised rain. A taxi pulled into the lot and made a circuit, before coming to a stop in front of John. The driver let down the window, 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.

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.

“Ah …” 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 parking lot.

The key here is that the plot point (John has a sister) has been passed to the reader in 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.When editing, the ability to move plot points out of the narrative summary and into speech is an essential skill. The best way to do this is in reverse. When self-editing, keep a close eye out for sections that dump plot into the narrative summary. When you find them, remove the plot, but make a note of the essential plot point that has been removed. Then, as you continue to edit, look out for sections of dialogue that can be altered to add in the plot point.

For example, in the section above, it may have been written in a way that the plot point about the sister was passed in a previous section in the narrative summary. The line about his sister may have originally read – “Thanks. I am waiting for someone.” In the editorial process, it is easy to see how by altering the line to read – “Thanks. I am waiting for my sister” – you suddenly have a way to pass the information via speech.

The final type of dialogue is what needs to be said for the backstory. Since we are unable to pass backstory via the narrative, dialogue is the only outlet. We have seen that a character’s backstory is not just events important to the plot (e.g. John went to university), but also ideas 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, as an author (and editor), is to create credible scenes to pass backstory 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 author needs to pass a vital bit of backstory. 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 backstory. Old friends from the past will show up just so you have a chance to share dialogue about the main character’s tough childhood and alcoholic mother; dinner party conversations will pop up, so you can talk about a piece of new government legislation relevant to the plot, or cars will break down 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 (this would be telling); 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 along this backstory. Perhaps the character meets an old university friend for coffee. This would then give you the perfect excuse to write conversation 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 on the plot but also to pass along backstory via dialogue, there’s one additional concept to consider, and that is the influence of the internal voice.

As we have established, the internal voice comprises the beliefs and thought processes of each of your characters. It is the subconscious thinking which influences all the nuances of your characters’ lives. It will also dictate how they speak and how they react to certain situations.

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

When writing any dialogue, be it to fit in a scene, move forward the plot or pass along backstory, you must always consider the role the character’s internal voice will play on the words that the character actually says. A character’s internal voice will influence how he or she reacts, plus the types of words and phrases he or she will use.

In the example we gave above, when discussing internal voice, we suggested the main character’s internal voice was telling him 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 (John) is an out-and-out racist, but he holds a slightly skewed view.

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

John stood in the parking lot of the pub. It was dark outside, and the sky promised rain. A taxi pulled into the lot and made a circuit, before coming to a stop in front of John. The driver let down the window, 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.”

“Ah …” 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 matter. I am waiting for my sister. She’ll be here any moment.”

“OK,” the taxi driver said and pulled out of the parking lot.

John watched the cab leave, making a mental note of the license plate number.

Here we have added a physical action with him moving back from the cab. We have also added a verbal reaction, with him questioning the driver’s right to pick up a passenger. Finally, we have John noting the license plate number. These small changes play no part in the overall plot. However, what they do is add texture to, insight into, the character of John. In this situation, the reader will probably pick up on the subtle behaviors of the character. The reader’s brain will instinctively try to work out why the character is acting the way he is, to build the reader’s 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 the reader contemplates why the character 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.

In real life, people think one thing but often say and do the opposite. This is what makes us human. It is this complexity that you are trying to build into your characters.

The reader is pulled into the story and forced to engage. The reader is becoming an active participant, as the reader tries to understand the character and the way he reacts.