Saturday, September 27, 2008

Don't Talk Like That

Dialogue can make or break a novel. Unlike everyday speech, in a book every word, every phrase, every sentence counts. Don't waste precious dialogue words on phrases like How are you? unless there's a really good reason.

Use dialogue to move your story. If someone says something, make sure it means something. Dialogue can be a vehicle to express emotion, sneak in bits of backstory, reflect the speakers' background or upbringing.

So, if your character has not graduated from college, don't let that person spout fancy words with many syllables, and vice versa.

Lots of discussion goes on about the use of the "f" word and swearing in manuscripts. My take is to follow your comfort level and the dictates of your characters, but don't overdo it. In Two Wrongs, I allowed my villain to swear, but I was more circumspect about my hero's language.

A constant barrage of swearing de-sensitizes the reader, while swearing at opportune moments such as a reaction to a major disappointment or catastrophe is much more effective.

Colloquialisms, slang, special language patterns also have their place in novels, but once again, if you overdo them, the reader either gets annoyed or tunes it out.

So, go over your manuscript and make sure when a character says something it counts.

Morgan Mandel
Author of the Chicago mystery,

Two Wrongs, and the romantic

comedy, Girl of My Dreams.

Morgan's website is
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  1. Speaking of cursing, it can matter where and when a character uses a cuss word, as well as whether s/he curses at all. There might be a character who becomes frustrated and cusses about something in private, but who would never curse in public. And a different character has no filter on his language.

    The cursing says something about the character's character.

  2. Interesting points about the cursing. Last night I went to a production of On Golden Pond at a community theatre here in East Texas. The director addressed the language issue before the show, noting that the original play has a fair amount of cursing. In an effort to be sensitive to this very conservative, very religious area, the director opted to take out much of the cursing. But he did leave in some words where, as he put it, "the story would have lacked something to take them out." For the most part, you could not tell where the words had been removed, but in the few places where they were allowed, it really heightened the drama because they were in places where people very often to swear at each other. I thought the director did a great job of selecting what to cut and what to leave in. And I know that I will start to be a little more selective as I get back to my work in progress. The central character is just going to have to get used to "Mommy" telling her she can no longer swear like a truck driver. :-)

  3. I can't remember the title and I don't want to guess but I read a book a few years ago and it seemed like every sentence had a swear word in it. It was just annoying. I have met people who swear like that but when it comes to reading I have to say it takes away from the story and the characters. Good blog.

  4. I am working hard at developing better dialog and avoiding dialog tags, aspects which have plagued my writing in the past
    (she said flippantly)

  5. I have no problem leaving the swear words to the bad guys (and even limitting those.) My problem is giving each character a unique speach pattern. People from different parts of the country/world and from different walks of life speak differently. When I read my first drafts, it it not unusual for me to find every character sounds a lot like me:-).

    This happens even when I've completed an outline & character analysis. Somehow, in the act of 'getting it all on paper', I forget and then have to address the issue in editing.

    I don't suppose any of you have found a way to avoid this problem?


  6. Another good conversation going... if this keeps up we might have to create our own forum, eh?


  7. Now that I'm older I'm afraid I swear a lot more than I used to amongst my friends, but not at public gatherings or places where it matters.

    If someone really makes me mad, I admit I am surprised at what comes out of my mouth.

    It's a case of do as I say not as I do because I wouldn't let my main character speak like that.
    Morgan Mandel

  8. One of my pet peeves - when a writer graphically develops a sex scene and then has a character "mutter a curse." Sure fire way to throw me for a loop, LOL

    If cursing is part of a character's make up, I say use it, but just like sex, violence, and massive action/explosion scenes, use them as necessary...they should matter when used.

  9. In response to Charlotte's concern about unique speech patterns, I have a character in a draft MS who speaks authentic old-timey East Texan. An astute reader commented that the character seems to be a caricature of herself, which makes me wonder if I've overdone her unique language.

    How can you tell when you've overused a special dialect?


  10. If a special dialect slows me down when I'm reading, that tells me it's overdone. I don't know what criteria others use.

    Morgan Mandel


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