By Remittance Girl
I promised at the end of last month’s post that I would wander onto the topic of the sound of language and how, although of greatest importance in poetry, it plays a key role in the reader’s experience of prose as well. As a topic, it deserves its own book—and yet, very few writing-instruction books ever deal with it. Grab my hand and let me pull you out to look at the topic from a distance this week.
We’ll be thinking specifically about voices, because the way something sounds is almost entirely dependent on who’s speaking. In any given piece of fiction, there are always at least three voices present: the writer’s, the narrator’s and the reader’s. Often there are more because there are various speaking characters—main and secondary—who all have voices, too. On top of that, many of the characters have both the inner voices of their thoughts and outer ones expressed through dialogue.
The writer’s voice is seldom obvious in fiction these days, but it wasn’t always. Up until the mid-19th Century, authors addressed their readers directly and unashamedly in what is called the diegetic voice—where the writer and narrator are one. Very much like the voice I’m using right now to address you. It has, in fiction, fallen deeply out of fashion and is usually looked down upon as either quaint or pedantic.
More common today is the presence of the narrator’s voice, which is assumed to be fictional and separate from the voice of the writer—that is, a fictional character tasked with delivering the story to the reader. Narrators are classed as either ‘reliable’ (implying the story is being related in a fairly objective manner) or ‘unreliable’ (given to mean that the narrator has drastically subjective viewpoint). In truth, no narrator is completely ‘reliable’ because no narrator is completely objective. The very act of choosing what to tell the reader, what to focus on, which details to pay greater attention to, etc.—all of those decisions are part and parcel of a subjective point of view, and the narrator literally wouldn’t be human unless they made them. Without these subtle subjectivities, we, as readers, would find that narrator unbearable. But it is fair to say that some narrators offer more extreme viewpoints than others and the language they use—the way they “sound”—is an implicit indication of this.
Finally, of course, there is the invisible narrator: prose written in third person POV which can either relay the story at a great distance, giving us no direct insight into what any of the characters are thinking or feeling, or the more common “third person proximate”. This is the narrator who allows us to see the characters from a distance, but also allows us inside the head of one of them in any given scene. I would like to remind you that, although this voice is not as easy to hear as first person narration, it is there to be perceived. And again, it is the choice of words, their turn of phrase, their focus and their dismissals that embody the voice of this type of narrator.
Because I’m being terribly old fashioned and addressing you directly, I get the opportunity to tell you that one of my very favourite voices of all is called the heterodiegetic narrator (as opposed to a homodiegetic one). This doesn’t mean that I prefer to write straight erotica. A homodiegetic narrator tells the story in the first person and is also its main character. Like Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye, he speaks to the reader and he’s the star of the story.
Probably the most famous heterodiegetic narrator of all time is Dr. Watson, Sherlock Holmes’s sidekick. It’s a great voice because it allows a writer to create a secondary character who offers us a fine and clearly subjective portrait of the main character. It allows for the possibility of presenting two incredibly rich personalities and viewpoints at the same time. Not only do you come to know the main character, but you come to know the narrator even better by what he or she chooses to tell you about the main character. And this mode of writing doesn’t risk the kind of distancing that third person POV can sometimes create. There’s a lovely coziness to it, as if you are being invited to participate in a preexisting intimate relationship without all the awkwardness of a formal introduction. It also creates the effect of being allowed privileged, intimate information.
In any case, there are always major and minor characters and, if the author sticks to the rule of showing instead of telling, they often deliver the story to us through dialogue (and some very successful writers write appalling dialogue. I’ve always suspected that Dan Brown would be a rotten dinner companion; he doesn’t seem like a good listener). It is not unreasonable to say that although ‘talking the talk’ seems to be valued less than ‘walking the walk,’ I glean more about someone by listening to what they say, and how they say it, than by observing their gait.
Getting dialogue right entails knowing your character well enough to know how they express themselves. Although it’s a writer’s business to endeavor to be realistic in his or her portrayals, this is one of those odd exceptions of erotic fiction writing.
My experience is that, in reality, most people aren’t tremendously talkative in the moments just preceding, or during, sex. There are moans and grunts and groans and a fair amount of hyperventilating going on. But when I read an erotic story, I’m most likely to reach between my legs the moment the characters start talking nasty to each other.
This makes great sex dialogue very hard to write. I’ve only ever had three lovers who really were effective with their tongues in the linguistic sense. Very often, I have to ask myself: well, if he did have me in the shower with my wrists tied to the spigot, what would I want him to say? What words could he or she use to compel me to arch my back and generally make a slut of myself?
Even though, in reality, many people don’t say much during sex, it’s important to stick to the rules of good dialogue in your fiction. People have unique ways of speaking; make sure your characters phrase themselves differently to distinguish them. The words they choose matter. A man who calls his penis a cock during sex is a different man from one who resolutely calls it a penis, even when he’s about to get a blowjob: “Beg for my cock, you little whore!” is one sort of man. “Beg for my penis, you woman of loose morals!” is another man entirely. In fact, I do have a rather eccentric theory about fundamental differences between women who can call their vaginas cunts and those who can’t.
Good dialogue in BDSM erotica can be sublime. I don’t mean the stock vocabulary of the high-dungeon “yes, master, no, master, three bags full, master” stuff. Language has power. Word choice, phrasing and tonality all convey a powerful nuances of who’s on top and who’s on the bottom. “He put me in my place” refers to people’s linguistic abilities, not their flair for moving furniture around.
The last thing to keep in mind when writing dialogue is to keep the lines short. We seldom speak in long, informative monologues, and your characters shouldn’t either. A short phrase, effectively set on the next line, can be infinitely more effective than a long rambling exhortation to copulate.
“Yeah,” she said. “Fuck me.”
The hardest part of any writer’s job, and one that I only manage poorly and at my best moments, is anticipating how the reader will read. Here, in this little miracle of communication through prose, is the reader’s voice. One of the most concise ways I’ve ever read this explained was in the way Mike Kimera used to sign off his posts to ERWA: “What you read is not what I wrote.” Of course, what he was trying to underscore was that the reader is the final arbiter of meaning in any given story. But I would also argue that readers read to themselves aloud in their heads and the voice they use to read is unique to them.
This last voice is, I think, the one a writer has little control over, but it is foolish to forget it is there. To some extent, it is possible to anticipate it, to know it will be a vocal layer added to the ones laid before it. The most skilled writers give it room to live and breathe and fill out the sound of the prose. One of the easiest ways of doing this is simply not to over-write. To leave silences, let the odd phrase hang, don’t tie everything up within an inch of its life. Over-writing is essentially an attempt to dominate and quash the reader’s inner voice.
The reader, literally, has the last word. Fight for it at your peril.