Becky Levine, Voice and Dialogue

My last post was about balance, and all weekend long I fought to maintain it. Despite the swings back and forth between sane and not, I completed several writerly tasks without driving my family away.

I rewrote a few more chapters in my WIP, I punched out drafts for two posts, and I read more of Becky Levine’s book, The Writing & Critique Group Survival Guide.

Becky Levine wrote her book with two goals in mind: to share tips and strategies for critiquing the work of other writers and to help the reader apply those techniques to his or her own writing.

I love Becky Levine’s down-to-earth writing style.

Unlike the evil antagonist in my mind, she doesn’t judge her readers when she discusses the elements of storytelling that a writer should know – but might not know – well enough.

Take, for instance, point of view. I know it, for the most part. But when I got to the chapter on point of view and read “close third” versus “distant third,” my personal antagonist pounced on my moment of insecurity.

“You should get this part, easy,” she hissed. “If you don’t you should go back to writing 101.” Then, she skipped off into darkness and left me with my head hanging.

Levine is much more gentle. She doesn’t assume the reader’s knowledge, one way or the other. She simply drops in a reminder about the differences between each point of view and moves on.

She goes on to explain that while point of view helps us determine who narrates the story, voice brings the narrator to life:

When I read a book where [voice and point of view] are strong, I come away certain that, if I met the story narrator on the street, I would recognized him or her. And it wouldn’t be the color of her hair and eyes that would look familiar, it would be her personality. If I stood and talked to her for a few minutes, I would be able to state the book where I’d “met” her before. When I experience this feeling, I know that the author has created a truly distinctive voice (p. 82).

Browse through a host of writer’s blogs, and you’ll find plenty of posts on voice and attempts to uncover the mystery behind creating that strong voice in writing. After reading through more of Levine’s book, I honed in on one way I can strengthen my narrator’s voice in my WIP: dialogue.

Dialogue moves the story along, breaks up long narratives, and aids in character development. Levine calls dialogue “the multitool of fiction.”

When you look closely at [it], you’ll find tools for character, plot, setting, voice, you name it (p. 91).

Voice, there it is. But, Levine doesn’t mean just words bubbling from a character’s mouth. Dialogue beats (as she calls them) reveal meaning behind those words, insights into a character’s personality, or the tone of a conversation.

Dialogue beats are the words and phrases surrounding a character’s spoken words (p. 95).

For example, here’s a piece of dialogue from one of my past Wednesday’s Word posts with, what I think, is a dialogue beat tacked on the end:

“Carry Millie for 50 yards as fast as you can. Whoever crosses the finish line in the least amount of time wins the grill!” Her mother clapped to get the crowd going.

What strikes me about the importance of dialogue beats is not so much how they enhance a narrator’s voice. Misuse of dialogue beats can skew the point of view or clutter the scene with too much information.

My WIP is written in close third person point of view (pow – take that, evil antagonist. Get thee back to thy dark corner). Dialogue and dialogue beats are crucial in creating that strong narrative voice for my story. Which means, as I finish rewriting this draft (and then return to the beginning again), I must keep an eagle eye on every aspect of the dialogue I write.

Looking back, today, through a few old posts of my own to find an example of dialogue and dialogue beat, I couldn’t keep my mind off of voice and whether or not it clearly showed through in each post. As painful as it is to read back through old pieces sometimes, I love seeing the work through a wiser eye. I gain that wisdom through reading the works of authors like Becky Levine.

On a side note, we writers woke up on the same plane of thought this morning, with dialogue on the mind. I saw a few other links to posts on dialogue come across Twitter.  Here’s one on “dialog tags” (Behler Blog’s term for dialogue beats).

[tweetmeme]

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8 responses to “Becky Levine, Voice and Dialogue

  1. This is great post, Christi. And sounds like a great book. I’ll look into it.

    Dialogue is one of the most important parts of writing. It can connect a reader with a character completely, and it can also throw a reader off if not authentic. Sometimes I find it difficult to step away and hear what a reader would hear, instead of I, who know my characters so intimately.

    • Thanks, Jennifer. This is a great book, perfect for me anyway. And, I bought it because I’m gearing up for a novel workshop where I know I’ll be critiquing others’ work. Being able to see my work in a new way is a bonus.

      I like what you shared, that sometimes it’s hard for us as writers to distance ourselves from the characters’ conversations. All the more reason for critique groups and workshops!

  2. I had this book in my hand at the bookstore this weekend & bought Kundera’s Art of the Novel instead. I think I would have gotten more out of this one.

    It sounds more like a craft book that a critique group survival, no?

    I have a tendency to overuse dialog beats – I definitely clutter the scene. I could use some tips on how to use them well.

    • Kirsten,

      I haven’t read Kundera’s Art of the Novel, but I do love Becky Levine’s book. She focuses mainly on how to work within writing critique groups, and foster success for everyone.

      However, I’m sure you know that old adage: as I learn to critique another writer’s stories, I learn about my writing as well.

      After Levine discusses a story element (like voice or dialogue), she gives several reasons why it might not be working. So, I say, give her book a try!

  3. You’re selling me on this book too, Christi. I assumed it was just about the critique group and since I’m not in one now, didn’t think it would apply.

    But reading your response to Kirsten makes me reconsider. I try to sometimes read published fiction that I think doesn’t work well to see what I can learn, and I think this book would help with that process as well.

    As you and Jennifer said, dialog is critical to a solid narrative voice. That’s one reason I’m such a fan of reading work out loud. It helps me get outside my head and “hear” my characters in a different way. When they aren’t being true to themselves in the words they’re speaking, it jars in my ear.

    • Cathryn, This book is exactly what I need right now, that’s for sure.

      I look forward to reading my mss out loud – so I find those jarring spots, and because that would mean I’m through this current draft!

  4. I saw your tweet on the scenes … it will get better. Sometimes it seems like it doesn’t fit and then a minor change will put it in a whole new light. So it’s not always as major as it seems as you go through successive drafts.

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