Other Voices

The narrative consciousness is the world of the story. We may have a narrative voice, which suggests personality and character. The narrative voice can function as the only voice in our narrative, the subjective filter for all experience. That can work if the narrative voice is exceptional, but still, more likely than not, a subtext will evolve, which is another voice, the voice that the text inspires in the reader and is the result of the reader’s intellectual and emotional participation with the text. An author wants subtext and other kinds of voices because they create  narrative interest. Simple: if we texture our world with other voices we creates a more engaging experience for our reader. We can consider multiple voices in our work as as a necessary complexity.


The narrative voice and even a POV character voice can overwhelm the text if they are too subjective, things seen only through the filter of personality. Your narrative allow other voices into the text by being objective. This is the first way you create “multiple voices in your text.” The other voice here is the reader’s. When you are objective, the reader participate in the story by discerning for herself. This is a further benefit of “showing and not telling.” Having the reader feel, think, and evaluate creates a very strong contract with the reader.

Narrative and point of view character objectivity also allows other characters to exist on the page, to be individuated life forces. The way these characters act and interact works in concert with the reader to create diverse perspectives that are independent of the narrative perspective. Wow! Did I just say that? This means I must be talking about the author. Limiting subjectivity and requiring objectivity from your narrator (or your point of view character) allows for a diversity of perspectives in your work and these reflect authorial intention.

For example, my POV character may describe someone as apathetic, but the reader can clearly observe that the character is not a apathetic. Now the reader is getting information in a more complex way.

From an objective point of view, there are no minor characters—only characters who don’t get much time on the page. All these characters, major, minor, and even the environment work with the reader and contribute to the diversity of voice in text. So, these are our other voices, first and foremost.

Narrative voice

POV character voice

Reader’s voice, including. . .

Reader’s perspective

Other characters


Other voices provide interest, create complication by adding different perspectives, and contribute to dramatic tensions. We wouldn’t want only a single instrument to play a symphony. Here too multiple voices and perspectives creates interest. Writing a single note, having a text dominated by a single consciousness, either narrator or POV character, is not, generally, sufficiently complex.


Quotes are weak because they represent talk, and, like the writing itself, offers yet another remove from actual tangible experience. Talk is not as dynamic and engaging as characters or objects in action. So, we have to enhance the narrative interest of quoted material by being selective.

I’d like us to start by thinking of quoted material, in any form, even in texts as intellectually driven as Gladwell’s Tipping Point, as being part of a dialogue. That dialogue, at the very least, is with the narrator, and might be with other voices in the text.

Quotes are liberated from all narrative control. They are facts. They have a certain timber and resonance. And they are part of the symphony, in interplay with other voices. When we want to think about what makes for an effective quote, we can think about what makes for effective dialogue.


I had a teacher, John L’Heureux, who said that dialogue was something that characters did to each other. I like this idea because it emphasizes something I think we should see in dialogue, a dramatic interplay between characters. The words characters use are just tools in this dramatic moment. The potent information the reader visualizes and imagines are the characters in action—not the words in their own right. Those are to a degree secondary. The reader feels tension as the characters, on some level, clash. Good dialogue is conflict.

This is another way dialogue, by adding a voice, brings up tension—that of interior and exterior. We are privy to the point of view character’s thoughts. This is interior. We can then see, in dialogue (and other experience for that matter) a clash between these inner thoughts and outward forces. This reveals character.

For example,

Harold approached with a plate of golden shrimp puffs, arranged in a loose pile on a silver plate. I despised Harold and his sanctimoniousness almost as much as shrimp. “Hello, how are you? Great to see you,” I said. 

 He pushed the shrimp forward. “You’re late as always, I see.” 

Dialogue, Tension, and Summary

OK, so we have a few things to look for in dialogue, to determine if it is good. You will make determinations on what dialogue to include in your work, so keep dramatic tension in mind as one of the criteria. Don’t use dialogue to simply convey information. You will have your choice, whether to render dialogue in scene, or summarize it, or omit it altogether, depending upon how effective it is to building the emotion germane to your meaning. Even within a single string of dialogue, keep in mind that you can summarize and omit information that isn’t effective. Everything rendered in quotes should work on multiple levels—principally advancing character and the conflict that creates the dramatic tension. For example,

She said, “Take the left turn at Bridge Street, and then go on three blocks and turn left. Then go three more blocks and turn right. It’s pretty easy, but I wouldn’t go there if I were you.” 

Summarize into,

She gave me directions to the mall, but added, “I wouldn’t go there if I were you”

In the first example, I bury the important statement in a litany of flat dialogue. In the second instance, the quoted material contains subtext that I’ve purposely emphasized for the reader.

Dialogue Tags

This brings up another point. I’ve often heard people argue about including tags, that “he said, she said” in dialogue. Some say too many are annoying. Others feel they’re largely ignored, so what difference does it make? The issue isn’t tags but poor dialogue. If the reader doesn’t know who is speaking from the dialogue itself—if the quoted material doesn’t reflect character—then the tag is not going to help. True clarity, for the reader, should be taken care of by character. Each speaker should say things that consistently represent the character’s personality, advance the motives of the character, and are delivered in all possible voice, which means that what is said, could be said by no one else. Every word tells us who has said what. Sometimes I consider dialogue tags in terms of clarity, but I also consider how they affect the rhythm of the sentence and the dialogue itself. That is where tags are more effective—they provide beats in empty space.

The Lessons of Dialogue Applied to Quoted Material

Because quoted material is always part of a dialogue, engaged in conversation with the narrator, the reader, and other voices in the text, quotes should serve multiple purposes: providing tension

furnishing subtext

complicating the narrative

advancing character, plot, themes, or ideas

Lastly, quotes should be distinct, easily attributable not only through tags but through voice and character.

Quoting Primary and Secondary Sources

As in dialogue, we want to quote our interview subject when the quote is going to work on several levels. What makes a quote good still rests on its dynamic interplay with other elements in the book, other voices, the way it agrees or disagrees and the way the narrator exploits this dynamic effect.

When we quote, however, we have the added dimension of including another concrete element into our text, the person quoted. We also draw upon the authority of the person we quote—their expertise.

As a rule, the narrator should introduce quoted material and after the quoted material, the author should interpret it. The quote offers support for the narrator’s idea, not the other way around.

Using Interview, Secondary, and Primary Sources

When we transcribe research information into our book, it is crucial to understand the difference between objective and subjective information . You needn’t attribute objective information from your interview subject but you need to attach subjective information to a character—generally. There’s a lot of gray area here, and we might well use information, both details and observations, from interview subjects to inform how we describe a scene.