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SWITCHING VOICE BOXES
The Single Most Important Element in Dramatic Writing
By Robert W. Walker, author of The Fear Collectors & Random Violence
Whenever I write, my first lines have to establish the voice – the narrative voice of the story, and depending on the type of story, my voice will modulate. A young adult historical has a certain ‘sound’ and drumbeat to it; a certain cadence. The same can be said of a horror novel, a mystery, a paranormal detective tale, a female sleuth medical examiner story. Narrative voice is not set in stone so much as it is set in tone. My PSI Blue Series for example has a markedly dark tone mixed with a markedly humorous tone.
It is no small feat to have one’s narrative voice coming off as authentic and separate from the voices of the characters who speak inside the narrative. Getting one’s characters to speak for themselves rather than relying solely on the narrator to TELL all is commendable and hopefully done as a matter of course in the artfully done novel. Allowing the narrative voice to speak for one’s characters when the character should have those lines is one of the greatest mistakes young writers can and do make. Allowing the characters free rein and free reign on stage and over their lines is one of the best tricks of the trade, and it is also quite often overlooked as a way to dramatize the story far more so than allowing the narrator full sway over a scene that should be ‘played out’ by the contesting and conflicting characters.
There is nothing more dramatic than getting your antagonistic duo of hero and villain (or any two or more people gathered in the name of conflict) at loggerheads. This is where real tension takes place, and the tension is pulled taut—far more so than if the narrator simply TELLS us about it after the fact or even as it is happening. Dialogue then becomes replacement in the rewrites in my novels wherever I discover in rewrites that the narrative voice is going on like a blowhard professor, when in fact, what S/HE has to say can be divvied up among my characters instead, thus I magically then allow them to progress the story along via activity and speech: holding onto props, throwing props, hand-waving, cuticle cutting, sniffling, sobbing, and all manner of visual action over the static nature of narration.
Here is an example of narration turned to action:
Kyle was depressed, and he gave thought to ending it all, even though Mariel pleaded with him to pull himself together. Kyle tried hard to do what she wished, but it was not easy. In fact it was emotionally far easier to remain a vegetable, his mind as static as this narration.
Dialogue the narration or Switch Voice Boxes out:
“Get out! I don’t want you to see me like this,” shouted Kyle, throwing a lamp in her direction, shattering it at her feet to frighten her from his room.
“No, I won’t leave you like this!” Mariel pleaded. “You’ve got to fight this, Kyle. Do you hear me?” She did not try to conceal her tears.
“I’ve tried, I swear, but it’s no use!” Kyle threw the glass in his hand at the mirror he stood staring into, shattering it into hundreds of pieces, and when he dropped his eyes to the floor, the shards reflected pieces of himself.
“I’ll never be the same without mother.”
“Your mother was a cow and a lame one at that. I hated the earth she walked on!”
“Get out, you harlot. Mother was right about you all along!”
“She made you into a simpering child, and you haven’t enough sense to recognize that you’re on the verge of losing everything—all of it! All that your family has worked for generations to—”
“Why are you still here?”
“Because the author wants me here for now!”
So hopefully you get the gist. Allow your characters plenty of time to jab and parry and squabble and talk and shout and cry and doubt, and while doing so allow them to move about.
That’s it. This is one of the great secrets of successful, dramatic writing. Happy dialoguing those boring, unnecessary long narrative sections of your story. The parts that Elmore Leonard famously said he cut out—the parts nobody read. Writing the ‘blowhard narrative parts’…well, It happens to us all since the brain, lazy as it likes to be, finds narrative so much faster and easier to dash off and onto paper. But a major part of our editing and proofreading effort is to excise such parts. Always know that slapping down narrative is far easier and far less useful than crafting authentic-feeling, authentic smelling life.
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