whisper image ccHow to get sound onto paper.

An issue I’ve wrestled with for some time, especially when it comes to characters’ voices.

Several recent books irritated me enormously with an excess of signposts as to speech style. Every utterance written semi-phonetically was boring and hard work. An excess of ‘local colour’ turned character into caricature before the story even began. Every single person in a broad cast using the same vocabulary but with different adverbs equalled monotony.

The reason the books above failed is for exactly the same reason writers should show, not tell.

Leave space for the reader’s imagination. Inference is a powerful and natural phenomenon.

Do not tell. Do not shout. Whisper and let us follow the clues. We may end up in different places. That is our prerogative.

The complexity of rendering voices, accents, speech impediments or verbal tics on paper while not getting on the reader’s wick is both tricky and simple. I often write characters who speak other languages than English. How close to native speaker should they sound?  Would adding mistakes in English add authenticity or distract? A key character has a peculiarity of expression – should I explain or risk incomprehension?

Differentiation of voices is one of my basics – and a keystone of character development . So I did a little research on how other writers put sounds to paper with enough quiet space for the reader’s interpretation.


Monique Roffey’s memorable book The White Woman on the Green Bicycle, immerses the reader in the spoken sounds of Trinidad from the outset.

‘Oh Gyaaaad,’ Sabine complained loudly. ‘The heat! Jennifer, I cyan take it.’ She lifted up her voluminous house dress and fanned it up to her face, exposing her pink cotton knickers.

Phhhhhut!’ She made a loud hissing sound, fanning herself. ‘C’est un fourneau.’

Jennifer shook her head. ‘Take cyare Mr Harwood ent come in and ketch a fright.’

Why does this work? Roffey hints at the musicality of Trinidadian speech, nails the key features and allows the reader to do the rest.


Speech impediment

Christos Tsiolkas’s Barracuda. In the latter part of the book, the MC, Dan, meets a relative who has problems speaking. The first few exchanges are painful and awkward and not easy to read.

 ‘Ya ya. She – she is. Is. Dha-dha-dha-dha-ng.’ His words were a blur of hard consonants and slithering sibilants that made no sense to Dan.

‘Sorry mate, I didn’t get that.’

Dennis angrily wiped spit from the sides of his mouth. He looked flushed, embarrassed, as though he was furious at Dan. ‘I-I wi-wish sh-sh-she wouwad. Wad. Wad. Wad dj dj djusshtd die.’

Dan grows attuned to the way Dennis speaks and Tsiolkas drops the literal rendering in a couple of pages. It works perfectly. For Dan and for the reader, the difficulty fades away as the person emerges.


Verbal tics

Quirks of expression can become iconic, when done with real skill. The gnomic syntax of Yoda. The fluidity of thought of Joyce’s Molly Bloom to Eimear McBride’s narrator in A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing. Each of the creatures in The Wind in the Willows or Winnie the Pooh. Jane Austen, in Pride and Prejudice, drew five provincial country spinsters with extraordinary distinction. When it comes to depicting detail on an epic canvas, read Charles Dickens.

Finally, and I may have said this before, but Dylan Thomas is rarely bettered for character through idiolect than in Under Milk Wood.


Know Your Character’s Voice

Many authors answers character questions – what paper does he read? If she was a cocktail… that sort of thing.

Take the time to craft your characters’ speech. Know who would say sports car and who’d say Maserati. Decide who swears, what slang each person uses, the imagery they use and their cultural references in speech. Know what they sound like and why.

Write it all down and use about five percent of that information.

Respect your readers’ intelligence. Spell nothing out. Hint and suggest, but never tell the reader how to read.

Show, not tell.

Whisper, don’t shout.


Image by Timothy BrownCC-BY_icon.svg




    2 replies to "Whisper, don’t shout"

    • Annecdotist

      A most useful post, Jill, and I’ll try to bear that whispering in mind. I suppose that just as ordinary dialogue doesn’t exactly mimic normal speech (in being more fluent etc), it’s preferable to merely hint at accents and dialects.
      It’s also worth bearing in mind that how it’s received will depend on the reader’s familiarity with such speech. I remember in my teens struggling with DH Lawrence’s rendering of the Nottinghamshire dialect; many years later, hearing it spoken around me, his words began to make sense.

      • jilljmarsh

        Thanks Anne. Have you read Ben Myers? He has a way of conveying voice with so little. Yes, hint is the right word.
        Appreciate your comment.

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