Novelists learning from playwrights: voice

In this three-part mini-series, we will look at what novelists can learn from scriptwriters, particularly playwrights. While the two are very different forms of storytelling, writers of books can certainly learn from their stage counterparts.

To begin with, we will look at voice, particularly character voice.

Both writers of novels and plays have to create characters! It’s the way we, as readers or audience members, connect with a story. After all, what would a play or a book be without characters to follow! We need to empathise, we need to sympathise, we need to hate and love them. Creating compelling characters is the challenge.

When creating characters for your story, having a bigger picture is really important. Knowing the character’s background, hobbies, interests, passions, dislikes, fears and ambitions all help to create a more rounded character.

While these may not form an integral part of the plot, they help to create an understanding of the character’s motivations. Have you, when creating characters, had a full idea of the character’s background?

And all of this information will help you create unique voices for your character.

Go stand in a café, library, bookshop … anywhere and listen. Everyone talks differently. Patterns of speech, phrases, idioms, pauses are all rooted in a character’s background: their education and their experiences of life.

A scriptwriter only has dialogue to tell the story.

Because a playwright only has dialogue, they need to ensure that each character has a unique voice that fits their character and moves the story forward. Every person on stage needs a voice that fits them perfectly. Each character should be identifiable simply from their speech patterns, vocabulary and the other nuances in their speech.

As a novelist or story writer, there are more tools available to create a character. Descriptions, flashbacks, dialogue tags, action. But that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t have an idea about a character’s voice. So much can be told to the reader through the clever use of dialogue.

Here are a few things to consider when you write dialogue:

  • Vocabulary. Is it appropriate to the character’s age, education, experiences or job?
  • Idioms and phrases. Are there any phrases that are culturally appropriate or significant to the character?
  • Pauses, fillers and hedging. Words and phrases like “you know” or “like” as well as uhms and aahs can, if sprinkled carefully, make your dialogue more real.

However, as anyone who has been to the theatre will know, stage dialogue is not full of “real” speech. When you listen to people talk, it is full of things that aren’t right or aren’t interesting. It gets interrupted or trails off as people forget what they are saying.

Going to the theatre would be an incredibly boring experience if all the dialogue was this realistic!

Likewise, in prose writing, there’s a fine line between realistic sounding dialogue and getting to the point. Every line of dialogue needs to tell the story. It needs to have a reason for being there.

  • Is the plot being moved forward?
  • Are we learning something about the character?

If it’s just there without serving a purpose, is it needed? Can you remove it?

Novelists use dialogue as well as other prose to create a story. Dialogue is important to building a picture of the character. Through it, we should learn about the character’s background, motivations and experiences without the need to tell the reader: dialogue can do an excellent job of showing.

Keep the dialogue in your story real by peppering it with realness but avoid overdoing it. This can really slow down the pace of your story. But, most of all, keep it moving the story forwards. Tell the reader something they don’t know.

Next time, we will look at scenes and how playwrights keep their stories tight.

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