Writing Rhetoric in Fiction: Narrative Voice and Dialogue

The writing craft books I read range from Stephen King to Aristotle and they all come back to the words we chose and how we use them. When we think about rhetoric, we usually think about nasty overused patterns covering poor content and worse logic. Excellent rhetoric uses natural patterns to add clarity and bouy sound logic. It is beautiful and memorable.

Rhetoric has given us,

“Friends, Romans, Countrymen, lend me your ears. I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him. (Shakespeare, Julius Ceasar)


“I walked a mile with Pleasure.
She chatted all the way,
but ne’er a word I learned from her,
for all she had to say.

I walked a mile with Sorrow.
Ne’er word said she, but, O,
the things I learned from her,
when Sorrow walked with me.”

(Robert Browning)

At it’s base rhetoric uses speech patterns to emphasize a point. At it’s peak it elevates our minds and emotions to reason excellently. Come now and let us reason together.

Rhetoric and the Narrative Voice

In writing fiction, people speak in different ways and each of them has a natural (or affected) rhetorical form, including the narrator. When writing we talk about the voice of the characters and, much of the time, they come with their own patterns and styles. Understanding rhetoric will give you the key to knowing how to finesse their speech to fit the scene, pacing, and rhythm of the story.

Unless your narrator is a character, keep the narrative voice clear and concise. The narrator’s voice is a glass through which we see the rest of the story. Stainglass windows are beautiful, but they’re hard to see out from. You can do this with flare. It does not mean you have to be boring. Think of Dickens:

“Marley was dead, to begin with – there’s no doubt about that. He was as dead as a doornail.” (The Christmas Carol)

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” (A Tale of Two Cities)

or JK Rowling:

“Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number 4 Privet Drive, were proud to say they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.” (Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone)

The narrator is setting the verbal tone for the rest of the story. The words the narrator uses set the pace and expectation for what is to come. This voice carries the rest of the story.

Narrating Narration (Letting Your Characters Speak Up)

In the dialogue, there are different kinds of rhetoric to use. This is where skill with forms and balance comes in handy.

1) Know Your Characters

When I’m talking to my best friend, I know how she will move her shoulder when she is thinking, how she’ll start and stop when she’s about to say something important, even the phrasing and tone she’ll use if she’s about to cry.
In your mind, your characters should be as clear as your best friend. It shouldn’t be obvious to everyone else what they are about to say and do, but you should know what is coming. Sometimes they will surprise you, but even those things make sense. It is more of a, “This is happening now?” surprise than a, “This is completely outside of everything you value as a person” surprise.
Before you write thousands of words of dialogue, know who is saying words and how they would say them. Think about what the story is telling about them and how to show them clearest.

2) Let Their Experience and Expectations Drive Their Speech

This is not to say that you should write in dialect. It should say that your character’s training, knowledge, education, goals, and groups will shape the way they speak. You might have a teacher deftly wielding zeugma and epimone, but because they teach young students can’t stop using a verbal tick that drives them nuts. How they speak is a story of its own. Accents are not the only way to write dialogue that tells a story of its own.

For example, let’s go back to the teacher. An intellectual will use rhetorical forms with delicacy and nuance, but you will also have a power hungry person, politician or cupcake baker, that uses every cliched form of rhetoric to get what she wants. There will be times to write bad rhetoric and characters who overuse it to seem smart. This is when your personal skill and knowledge will come through. (Or you can ask an expert to check your manuscript for overuse and accuracy.)

3) Check Their Exuberances and Deficiencies

“The first slight swerving of the heart,
That words are powerless to express
and leave it still unsaid in part,
Or say it in too great excess.”
– Longfellow, The Fire of Driftwood

Know when they would say too much and when they wouldn’t be able to express themselves. Silence. Writing silence takes an understanding of it that few of us have because our culture rarely gives us the time to sit in it. Silences fall like leaves or snow, sometimes it cloaks to protect, sometimes to strangle or smother. Sometimes the silence, the pause, is more telling than the words a character is extracting. They might be put in a situation that they have no means of explaining. Humorous or tragic, this about acknowledging when your character stops talking and why.

When would they say too much? When will their words say more about themselves or their circumstances than they realize or will their word choice be over the top? In natural speech we tend to develop similar lines and patterns. The elevated loosen up and the normal clean up a little bit. The goal is communication.

How will your characters communicate?

Happy writing!