Finding Voice in Dialogue

When you read the dialogue in your short story or novel, does it all sound the same? Could any one of your characters have spoken those words?

If so, you are missing the key element of voice. That’s right. Voice means more than the way YOU put together sentences, the way YOU use metaphors and similes, the way YOU make your narrative sing.

Your own voice is not enough. The voice of each of your characters must be unique, reflecting that person’s personality, quirks, sense of humor, likes and dislikes, dreams and despairs. Of course, some of this comes through in body movements and facial expressions. The lift of an eyebrow, a shoulder shrug, fingers that go tap-tap-tap, a mouth that smiles without pleasure — all these are indicative of that person’s personality and, hence, his/her voice.

But an even more convincing way to establish the sound of a character is through the spoken word. Here is an example from my middle grade novel The Crooked Gate. The scene shows a confrontation between Cass (the viewpoint character) and her highly eccentric aunt, with whom she is spending the summer:

            Aunt Mathilda held up one finger and wagged it back and forth. “This room is out of bounds. Now, I wouldn’t want anyone to bleed to death. So untidy. Or drown either. What would I tell your poor mother? You can call me in cases like those. But as far as peanut butter goes…you’re on your own.”

            “Peanut Butter?” Cass’s voice squeaked.

            “And Jelly.” Aunt Mathilda smiled.

            Cass felt like she was reading a book with thick gravy spilled in blobs all over the pages. She wondered if she could get a straight answer to anything.

            “Aunt Mathilda,” she ventured.

            “Yes, dear?”

            “What is it that you do up here?”

            “What do I do? Why, my dear child, I’m a writer, so I write.”

            “All the time?”

            “No. Some of the time I get ready.”

            “For what?”

            “For writing.” Then Aunt Mathilda gave a little chuckle. “Among other things.”

            Dialogue, at its best, creates the sounds of characters, making each one unique and, at the same time, letting voice move the plot along and capture the imagination of the reader.

Submitted by Marilyn Donahue


2 responses to “Finding Voice in Dialogue

  1. Shirley Shibley

    Yes, Marilyn, that is so true, and something I need to work on harder in my writing. I loved the example that Nancy gave us in our CHAIRS meeting where she read exerpts from Charlotte’s Web of dialogue from several characters. Each portion of dialogue could only have been said by one of the characters. Not so easy when we have a group of kids from same background, etc. but if we give it a lot of thought we can use some of the personality techniques in more subtle ways, and improve our stories.


  2. Thanks, Shirley. You are so right. Good dialogue that reflects individual personalities is not easy — especially when we have a group of kids talking. But those subtle differences in speech patterns and expressions do make characters stand out, don’t they?

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