Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Let Me Tell You Something – Dialogue, Part Trois

Here are a couple other things to consider when writing dialogue:

1. Oy, Chica, Pa. Though you do want your characters to sound as real as possible, you do not want to rely on stereotypes to get your point across. Your character should be authentic and real-to-life. A person from the rural South would obviously sound different than a Yankee from Boston, and you would want to reflect that; however, you would want to avoid the hackneyed, clichéd terms of a type of person; don't pigeonhole your characters. Now, does this mean your Southern character can't say "fixin'"? That you can't have your Italian character get angry and go off on her mate in her own language? Obviously, the answer to that is no. It really is a fine line. I think a good question to ask yourself is MUST my character say these exact words. If you feel in your gut that there is no other way to state something, then go for what you know.

2. F*ck you, motherf*cker. Now, this comment might get a lot of people talking - well, good. Some say that it is best to avoid using a lot of profanity and slang in stories. Slang dates a work, and profanity may "convey" toughness, anger, but it can also be used as a crutch to avoid supplying great dialogue and action to convey the toughness and anger. Some writers believe that using slang in your dialogue is fine; it illustrates how the characters talk; however, if your narrator is not part of that "slang/profanity" culture, then you should use standard English in your works. Once again, I say understand your character, BE your character. What does he or she HAVE to say in order to get his/her point across and to move the story along? Figure that out and write it.

The important things to remember about writing dialogue are 1) your dialogue should have a point and do more than simply present talking heads and 2) your dialogue should sound real and authentic to your characters and the situations to which they find themselves talking.

Below are some books, articles, and sites that talk more about dialogue...

Writing Great Fiction - Dialogue by Gloria Kempton [link]

"Writing Great Dialogue" by Rob Tobin [link]

Let the Dialogue Speak [link]

The Writer's Writing Guide: Dialogue [link]

Writing Dialogue - from BookEnds, LLC - A Literary Agency [link]


Shon Bacon is an author, editor, and educator, whose biggest joys are writing and helping others develop their craft. She has published both creatively and academically and interviews women writers on her popular blog ChickLitGurrl: high on LATTES & WRITING. You can learn more about Shon's writings at her official website, and you can get information about her editorial services at The World According to ChickLitGurrl.

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  1. Amen on the profanity! There are better ways to imply low character, or any of the other perceived characteristics that go along with cursing in modern novels. Toughness? Street smarts? Rebellion? The F-bomb is just so cliche these days. Best to leave it out of your writing.


  2. And I will admit that I use profanity sometimes because quite honestly, that's what the character wants to say. I do, as editor, go back and weed out the unnecessary profanity.

  3. I don't care to read profanity, but there are times when it needs to be there, I think.

    In my novel, the teenager's use of language in front of her mother is significant, particularly the one time she slips and drops an F-bomb instead of saying "fricking," which her mother dislikes but tolerates. It's symbolic between them and has purpose.

    Of course, I guess I'm "old school," in that I like sex scenes to have a purpose in moving the plot along, too. I'm in it for the story.


  4. I agree with Gay, in that I don't like to read profanity, but sometimes it has to be there. Let's face it - if you go out and sit at the mall or coffee shop and listen to people talk, many of them use profanity CONSTANTLY. Mostly young men, but not always. I couldn't possibly write some of these "conversations", since every other word is F-this, F*ing that. But I did use the F-word a few times in my book, in a couple of young men's dialogues. They are men without morals, so I figure they are not characters who will watch their language. All the same, I didn't overuse the profanity. I just tried to sprinkle a little to give the reader the notion of these men as verbally lazy, opportunistic losers.

  5. While a heavy hand with profanity turns me off when I am reading,I agree with Gay and Gayle that sometimes it is appropriate for the story and the character. I have some profanity in One Small Victory because the teen boy uses it, as do the drug dealers, and in a couple of places the protagonist uses the F word. But it is in places where it is totally organic to the moment and the character.
    I also struggle with one of the central characters in my WIP who cusses like a truck driver. She is a cop going over the edge -- think Lethal Weapon. I have tried to rein her in as best I can, but she is a willfull woman. :-)

  6. Profanity seems to have become part of ordinary vocabulary these days, most often used as adjectives. Still, in a novel it's not a good idea to use too much.

    I did use some in Two Wrongs, but only in a few spots as emphasis. Using too much of it deadens the effect.

    Morgan Mandel

  7. Good post. I use profanity sparingly, but sometimes it's just what HAS to be said to not sound unreal. Good writing HAS to be honest. Truthful. But enough on that, seems lots of commentors have expressed both sides of the cussing thing. I was very interested in your take on slang, how it can "date" a novel. Interesting. Maybe not all bad, but interesting.

  8. I cannot stand books with an over abundance of profanity. Books with a lot of slang get under my skin too--especially if it is from another country (say the UK) and I don't know what the slang words mean.

    An occassional swear word here and there is fine, but a huge paragraph with the person ranting and using every word in the book--no thanks. I end up skipping it and moving along. If there's too much, I won't finish the book.

    I don't think I've used any profanity in my book, except perhaps for an occassional d*mn. Mostly I just say they swore. It may not pack the "punch" but I suppose I can be kinda prudish in that way by not writing much of it. :P


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