The Use of Voice in Storytelling Part II


In collaboration with Trish Nicholson, the New Zealander author of A Biography of Story, A Brief History of Humanity, we are publishing a three-part coaching series on “the use of voice in storytelling” – which is intended to help writers of fiction navigate and master how voice and dialogue are used to capture the attention of readers. As a prelude to this coaching series we had published a flash story, Runnin’ the River referenced in this series. We advice our readers to click on the flash story link to read the story or visit our fiction page to access it while studying the series. Last week, we published the first part in the series. You can read it here


Part II – You Said What? Uses of Dialogue

Most readers love dialogue, they can hurtle through the pages faster, but more importantly, it draws them closer to the action – literally within earshot – to overhear what characters are saying to each other. The appeal is not hearing idle chit-chat, but learning who they are and what they are doing straight from the source.
An approach I find useful is to start by asking myself: Which parts of the story can be told through their mouths? Instead of: What would these people say to each other? I don’t want actors gossiping on stage. I want them speaking their lines: revealing my story.

But writing about talking becomes tedious; writing about writing talking even more so. As an alternative, I have pasted below two conversations from short stories we read in the last chapter, indicating beneath each line the contribution that brief utterance is making to the storytelling.

Extract from Transpositions:
Barely dawn but Anton no longer fools himself he is sleeping. The trio is in limbo without a cellist; only two auditioned well. Idly his hand trails familiar curves – they stir…
“Awake, David?”
Dialogue partners the setting here, revealing Anton and David’s sexuality in two perfectly ordinary words. Informality is shown by truncating the question: Are you awake? It sounds more natural. After this first mention of a name, we don’t need tags – ‘David said’, ‘Anton replied’ etc – the exchange flows naturally; we know who is speaking.

“Mmm, sort of. What’s the time?”
Unlike Anton, David has slept. Either he is not a worrier by nature, or does not share the responsibility for the trio: character traits which might also have some bearing on the plot.

“Early. I’ll contact Carla Schultz before we lose her.” No consensus, but he daren’t risk David’s choice.
He answers David’s question indirectly and dismissively, a hint of inequality in the relationship. The next phrase pushes the plot: introduces another character and first bit of tension in the sense of urgency. Also it adds to Anton’s character traits that he is the one who organizes things – seems we were right about David’s lesser responsibility. The final phrase, as internal dialogue, adds more tension: there is usually consensus but Anton is changing the rules, and it creates doubts about David, something else for Anton to worry over and perhaps for us to wonder about.

“You’ve decided already? On her? Not exactly a bundle of fun, was she?”
We add to David’s character that though he is not pleased, he accepts that Anton has made the decision, but grumbles about it – confirming the asymmetry of their relationship and adding tension by showing discord. It may or may not tell us about Carla’s character: David’s disgruntled and flippant opinion cannot be relied upon.

“You’re being childish, David.”
“She hardly opened her mouth.”
“She played brilliantly.”

“In art, drama, dance, music and literature, hands are a means of revealing story, expressing feelings and transmitting information”.

More oblique responses, this exchange confirms the characters of both, and the comment on her playing is significant to the plot later. Brevity was essential because this is part of a 500-word flash story, but it creates a rapid tit-for-tat dialogue which increases the pace – we want the tension of a row; lengthy invective would slow everything down even in a longer story, unless it contained information that raised the stakes or turned the plot into a new direction.

“So did Michael and he’s a known quantity – you taught us both.”
The fourth character is introduced and we know he is a cellist, and a good one; as a fellow student he is probably about David’s age, and that Anton taught them, so he is likely to be older. It makes sense now that he would be the organizer and dominant partner. Tension and plot thicken because this line has cast doubt on Anton’s decision – we now want to know why Anton chose Carla as much as David does.

“I remember.” They had been too close, those two.
The ambiguity and hint of threat in those first two words, plus the inner dialogue revealing Anton’s jealousy, not only increases the tension, but contributes to plot by suggesting the reason for his action in choosing Carla.

“Ah, a woman is safer, that it? Forgiven, but not forgotten.”
Bingo! Jealousy is Anton’s underlying motivation, and it seems he is justified because the four last words give us enough information to realize there is a back-story of unfaithfulness by David.

“David … please don’t.”
The main contribution here is to a complexity of character: in response to David’s challenge, Anton’s tone changes from dominance to pleading, revealing that he is the emotionally dependent partner. It doesn’t give us any direct information about the plot, but we can sniff trouble ahead.

By analysing any dialogue in this way, a writer can find superfluous words, see where motivation and plot hints could be introduced or strengthened, and include suggestiveness on related back-story that might be enough to stimulate the reader’s imagination without spelling it out anywhere. And a reader can gain far more from a text, delving into deeper levels of character, motive and story.

We can imagine this sort of dialogue by putting two characters in a specific and relevant setting and listening through the keyhole. As a reader, I love to eavesdrop, and I don’t know a writer who doesn’t. And here is the second much shorter example from a 100-word micro-story. It shows what you might convey in only three lines of spoken dialogue and two of inner thoughts.
In this story, a couple sits at a table in a railway station café. A tramp has occupied the same table, and lifts his T-shirt to scratch flea bites.

Extract from The Last Train:

“Let’s move,” you hiss.
We learn the character being quoted is probably intolerant of tramps. A tag had to be used because no one has spoken up to that point and there are three people at the table, but the ‘hiss’ not only tells us how the words were delivered, but that the narrator seems to have a negative attitude towards the comment, or the speaker – to use ‘whisper’ instead, would have given a whole different meaning and character hint.

“There’s still an hour,” I say.
It is unlikely that the tramp would have spoken this, so the tag is not necessary in that sense, but it provides the symmetry of ‘you said/I said’ to point up the rejoinder that deliberately ignores the subtext of the other speaker as to the reason for moving: there is underlying tension here.

We’re starting over: going on a second honeymoon – to Torquay.
This suggests problems in the past but the inner voice of the narrator is optimistic, and gives vital plot information – where they are going and why.

“You’re always so obtuse.” I feel your spittle spatter my face.
The choice of ‘obtuse’, while apt anyway, was made especially for its spittle-delivering qualities. The use of ‘always’, like ‘never’, is argumentative and again indicates a history of conflict. The spittle comment is not needed as a speech tag, but it up-grades the speaker’s anger and paints a visual picture of the scene.

“So an author can have more than one distinctive inner voice, and a reader’s voice is changeable”.

You get the Brighton train.
The narrator’s inner dialogue describes an important action in the plot, and the one word “Brighton” tells us there will be no second honeymoon (the significance of “Torquay” earlier).

In both extracts, questions in the dialogue are not answered directly, people do often respond at a tangent, but it can be especially useful to show not only antagonism, but that a character is hiding something, lying, or attempting to mislead in some way – all potential ways to add tension and develop or progress a plot through dialogue.
When I’m reading, ‘overhearing’ dialogue brings me into the scene and portrays a great deal in a neat, concise way, but unless it tells me about the characters or leads me into the next bit of the story plot, it has no purpose and is an annoying diversion.

Hands Up for Character

Our inner chorus of ‘voices’ express themselves through our whole body – sometimes against our wishes – and they give effective signals, even when we can’t be seen: if you smile on the telephone it can be ‘heard’ in your voice. Rather than skim superficially over the whole range of body language, I have focused in detail on one part of our anatomy – hands – because I think that makes it easier to transfer this kind of thinking, to the eyes, for example, or to posture.
Hands that clasp, caress, entwine; gnarled as tree roots or as soft as down – how can we use them to draw characters?
Only we humans have the rotating and opposable thumb that allows us to make tools and weapons with such potential for creativity and devastation – and to hold a pen. More significantly, our hands are garrulous communicators; gestures undoubtedly played a role in the evolution of language. Try talking while sitting on your hands (appropriately, a metaphor for inaction).
They are eyes to the blind and tongues between the deaf or mute, and our hands can send unintentional messages our faces have learned to conceal – a ‘handy’ way for writers to show inner conflict or deceit, but I am jumping ahead.

Since our prehistoric ancestors stencilled their hands onto cave walls, hands have come to stand for the whole person. Once anatomically accurate drawings were made, in the fifteenth century – by Albrecht Durer and Leonardo da Vinci for example – a hand could also represented individual personality. And in 1882, a French anthropologist and police officer, Alphonse Bertillon, used detailed measurements of hands as a means of identifying criminals, later developed into fingerprinting – providing signatures for the non-literate and familiar to any modern traveller.
In art, drama, dance, music and literature, hands are a means of revealing story, expressing feelings and transmitting information. But meanings vary with time and place. It is a tradition that in ancient Rome, ‘thumbs down’ signalled death for a gladiator: in modern Greece, ‘thumbs up’ bears the same insult as ‘two fingers’. All cultures have myths and taboos of one form or another relating to hands, most commonly to do with left and right and rules for what you can or cannot do with each.

In the Philippines, a father blesses his son by touching his forehead. Christians receive benediction by the laying on of hands; Muslim’s wash their hands in symbolic cleansing of the soul before praying, and in parts of Papua New Guinea, mourners show grief at the death of a close relative (and thereby declaim their innocence in the cause of death), by cutting off the top joints of their fingers.

Hands – manus in Latin – have a firm grip on the English language, giving us ‘mandate’, ‘manoeuvre’, ‘manifest’, ‘manage’, and ‘handsome’ (originally meaning ‘dexterous’ and thus also ‘right-handed’.) Our hands are into everything: in a hand-shake, a handkerchief, or a finger of gin – and that is before we start on palmistry and telling the future. One could write several volumes about hands; someone probably has.
Shakespeare used hands to signify inner states of mind, most notably using Lady Macbeth’s ‘hand-washing’ while sleepwalking as a way to show her feelings of guilt – the ‘blood on her hands’ after Duncan’s murder – and her famous lines in Act V, Scene 1 of Macbeth: “Here’s the smell of the blood still: all the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand.”

John Steinbeck also used hands as symbols. Lennie’s hands in Of Mice and Men are referred to as ‘paws’ because, in his impaired mental state, he could not control the instinctive violence they could inflict, yet those same hands could tenderly fondle the soft fur of a rabbit – a deceptively simple way of portraying the complexity and conflict within Lennie’s character. But Steinbeck goes further, using detailed physical descriptions of hands to sketch individual personality: George’s hands are neat and deft; Curly’s wife paints her nails with red varnish, and so on for all the main characters.

And I wonder: did the tender but work-rough hands of Oliver Mellors – Lady Chatterley’s lover – snag the fine fabrics of his upper-class paramour?

So how can we ‘get a handle’ on all of this to enrich the way our characters show themselves in our stories? I’m sure you have thought of many already, but here are a few random suggestions, some of which could have different meanings depending on story context (as with most body language).

“Everything we write links in some way to something within us. Using the strength of “that voice we have when no one is listening”, we can, for example, write in a different gender because, biologically and psychologically, we have both male and female traits to inform us – if we choose to recognize them – in addition to our powers of observation and imagination”.

Physical description of hands can:
Indicate states and status – skin texture (coarse/smooth/lined/scaly) may show age; social status and/or occupation such as physical labour (and may contrast with a character’s inner desires or abilities – an interesting conflict); habitual activities such as gardening, lifestyles (by choice or coercion), and health.

Colour of hands can show ethnicity indirectly (there is no melanin in the palm of the hand); brown spots show aging; blueness around the nail bed in infants can signal imminent death; sun-tanned/pale/manicured/paint-spattered hands, painted or bitten nails, all tell different stories. Also, hennaed, tattooed, bejewelled and scarred hands can hint at status or class in various cultures and sub-cultures.
Conditions that are reversible or progressive could be used to define changes in time or situation (and provide a potential progression or turn in the plot).

Structure (swollen joints/veins/slender or stubby fingers/missing digits) may show age; health; foreshadow aptitudes; feature in a character’s self-image or past, and even identify them after death.

An example from a story we have already read: Modus Operandi, in which hands indicate character but also foreshadow the plot with a hint of menace. “A big man, too – he had to duck under doorways. His hands were as wide as dinner plates. To see those long fleshy fingers you’d realize the strength that was in them.”

Signal emotional states – surface (moist/dry/warm/cold) singly, or in various combinations and situations may show fear, excitement, detachment, calmness, openness, eagerness, and health or sickness, as well as changes in these emotions. Where hands are placed, and their posture (gripping/relaxed/flaccid/flexed/held together or apart), can characterize similar emotions and help to reveal inner states.

Movement of hands can:
Demonstrate relationships – who touches whom, how, where, and how does the recipient and any observer react; open palms (invitation/innocence/acceptance); clenched hands (denial/anger/frustration/tension/withdrawal); how a characters’ hands move (hidden or overt gestures) when different people are addressing them or approach them; use of sign-language may signal deafness, or conspiracy in silence.

Show emotion – by wringing/clenching/rubbing of hands; waving; a whole gamut of gestures from beckoning to ‘giving the finger’; fidgeting; fumbling; twitching; chewing/sucking nails and fingers; picking at the quick of the nails; tremor (excitement/fear/or sickness – Parkinson’s disease, delirium tremens), or by complete stillness. And have you ever watched a woman gently touch a beautiful object she cannot afford to buy? It is a specific kind of hand movement – a caress without possession, or hope.

Sudden change in habitual movement or immobility of the hands can be particularly potent in showing a character’s reactions. I knew when my mother was especially excited about something because she would shake her hands while telling me about it. An aunt was a worrier: she constantly scraped the sides of her thumb nails with her finger nails – the tips of her thumbs were permanently red and swollen.

Hand movements can show skill, too: the discerning shopper squeezing fruit; the seamstress assessing fabric between finger and thumb, and the disarming laxity with which a virtuoso cellist appears to hold the frog of her bow.

Another possibility is demonstrating inner conflict/confusion or deceit ¬– some have already been mentioned, but if you wanted to emphasize it, you could do so through dissonance between what the hands are indicating and what the eyes, face and/or dialogue say, or your character might cross her fingers behind her back when she lies.

Both description and movement of hands can also portray setting and environment and a character’s response to them:
For example, the effects on exposed hands of hot or cold climates or working conditions;exploratory feeling with the hands may signal blindness, but also ambient darkness; different cultural methods of greeting with the hands can depict period and place: hand kissing/handshaking/’high-five’/backslapping, or palms pressed together as in Thailand – the height of the hands indicates relative status of the one being greeted. . . .


Keep a date with us next week for the third part in the series. To ask questions or comment on any of the points raised in this write-up drop a comment below.

Trish Nicholson is a social anthropologist and writer. She is the author of A Biography of Story, A Brief History of Humanity. Her essay, Powerful Women: From Fiction to Fact was published in The Village Square Journal in February 2018. Visit her website at and follow her on Twitter @TrishaNicholson

©Featured image shows a monk making clay chortens courtesy of Trish Nicholson