Monday, July 9, 2012

Keys of the Craft, Chapter I: Writing Quality Dialogue, Section Two

Planet Fiction's Keys of the Craft Series
Chapter I
Writing Quality Dialogue
Section Two 

By Matthew David

12 Incisive Keys for Creating Convincing Dialogue 
(Continued from Writing Quality Dialogue, Section One)


Mark Twain image is property and appears courtesy of its rights holder(s).


   4. Incorporate actions and gestures to increase the believability and effectiveness of your dialogue


Some characters—just as many players at a high-stakes poker table—have uniquely self-descriptive gestures or tells that visibly blow their cover when the author wants us to know but not to ostensibly explain that they are lying; feeling tired or ill; suffering with hidden frustration, anger or shame; or trying to mask their gut emotional response to—or true beliefs on—a comment, conversation topic, event or situation—most often when authors want the reader to know their characters are working hard to maintain politeness, appearances, reputation or the degree of esteem in which they perceive other characters hold them.

Consider the following example:

“Honey, you know, we really should throw out these records you’ve got spread all over the place. We never listen to them, and I bet we could save a ton of space in the living room.”

Cover art from The Beatles’ Abbey Road, The Rolling Stones’ Hot Rocks and Bob Dylan’s The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan flowed through his brain, instant reminders of the indescribable love Jack had for his albums. He was incapable of response. He paused a moment, then ponderously dragged his tongue across his upper lip, concocting an acceptable retort. That’s three times this month, he thought. I don’t think she’ll buy ‘They’re important to me.’

Jack stepped towards the four heaping stacks of beloved vinyl, threw his hands at his hips and said assertively, “I can definitely find another spot for these. Don’t think we want to get rid of the classic stuff, but relocating is no problem, babe.”

In this example Jack’s pause, his peculiar method of lip-licking, and his strategic hand-hip placement might all be known to the reader as actions unique to him, and any or all of them could be consistent, character tells for the author, if developed in multiple scenes. The descriptions and especially the two lines of internal monologue would likely be considered too much interruption, if this were a short exchange. Only because it perfectly suits our example, let’s pretend this is part of a two-page, husband-and-wife conversation on how to maximize square footage in their home so Jack’s wife Andie can finally throw those epic, themed bashes she’s always dreamed about hosting.  

Detailing the physical accompaniments of characters’ speech can add a new dimension of life to the reality of your story. In addition, lengthy, uninterrupted chains of dialogue are more pleasing to the reader’s eye when infused with description. The inverse is also true: short dialogue passages read smoother when undisturbed by overly descriptive language.

   5. Use the fewest number of dialogue tags required to clearly and accurately tell your story.

This principle is overwhelmingly misunderstood by novice fiction writers. Callow creators sometimes forget they need to trust that their character development—when properly performed—will clarify for the reader exactly which character is speaking, without the obsessive inclusion of tags like “Jack said,” “Andie screamed,” “Jack corrected,” “Andie argued,” and, of course, the classic “he said”/”she said.” It is the author’s responsibility to endow all characters with unique personality, voice and tone so the reader knows who’s speaking at all times. Remember that strong, sharp, relatable dialogue is one of the author’s most powerful tools for achieving credible, multi-dimensional characterization. Intermittent dialogue tags should serve only as immediate reassurance that reader and writer are, literally, on the same page.

During the first one or two paragraphs of a dialogue sequence, use original, unique tags, but for the rest of the section—unless it is somehow impossible to ascertain which character is speaking—simply alternate lines of speech.

For instance:

“We need this vacation,” she said softly, searching her husband’s eyes for anything close to empathy. “I completely hit the wall at work this week, and I know I don’t have much left.”

Jack smiled. “There’s nothing to worry about, my love; I told you. We are out of here and on a plane the weekend after my bonus. Three, four weeks, max.”

“You're sure we can afford to do this?”

“Babe, we deserve to get away, and we’re going. I can’t wait to have you all to myself for ten days. This is one for the books.”

“All right. But I don’t wanna go unless we’re sure we can still do New Year's in Catalina with everyone.”

“Absolutely, baby. You know I wouldn’t commit to your family if I wasn’t sure we could pull it off.”

“Mmm . . . there’s the man I love.”

If you’ve met your responsibility for quality character development, simply trust that your reader will know who is speaking and when. In the rare event that your characters speak the same words two or three times, as in the following example, use tags where necessary.

“We’re not going,” Andie said.

“We’re not going?”

“I said we’re not going.”

“We’re not going,” Jack repeated, still shocked at his wife’s polar shift.

Without the “Jack repeated” tag, your reader would still know which character is talking because of the pattern, but when your dialogue’s flow and your reader’s comprehension will benefit from a speech tag, employ one that is as colorful as it is precise.

This is not to say that fiction writers shouldn’t primarily stick with “said” in their tags; in fact, the reality is the opposite. As lauded American novelist and screenwriter Elmore Leonard suggests in his essay, “Elmore Leonard’s Ten Rules of Writing,” writers should “Never use a verb other than ‘said’ to carry dialogue.” This is golden advice from the supremely successful writer of Out of Sight, Get Shorty and Rum Punch, all of which were popularly adapted for the screen, the last as Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown. If you’d like more reasons to accept his advice, Quentin Tarantino cited him as a profound influence and Stephen King referred to him as “the great American writer.”

   6. Guard against overwhelming your reader.

It should not be ostensibly apparent to your readers that you’re detailing with your dialogue point after point of essential information. Great writers know when to get out of the way and simply allow their story to unfold organically. Your job is not to mass-dump characterization on the reader but to season your story with trenchant details thoughtfully, gracefully and distinctively, as you would your most treasured family recipe. Above all, trust that your reader will remember the most crucial information from earlier sequences.

   7. Regional slang and dialect, colloquialism and other forms of patois are reserved for artists.

This is not to gratuitously slight fledgling writers or to suggest they should not attempt to create these variations. But they may be the most difficult elements of dialogue for fiction writers to master. See the uncommonly ingenious Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as well as the Nobel Prize-winning and two-time, Pulitzer Prize-winning William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury for representations of true vernacular mastery.

Writing speech fragments specific to particular countries, regions, states or provinces, and cities and towns is not the challenging piece. It’s easy enough to create a character from Boston, Massachusetts who uses the word “wicked” to amplify the power of a sensation, belief, quality or emotion. Similarly, an Australian who continually responds to difficult situations with the catchy, ubiquitous “no worries,” along with an Englishman who habitually refers to his friends as “mates,” are probably safe ground for writers of every ilk.

Capturing the true essence and flavor of the manner in which real-life individuals of a certain geographic area or historical era communicate is an art which requires wide-open ears; exposure to many different dialects, accents, colloquialisms, and historical accounts; as well as, of course, the absorption of several artistic creations which incorporate effectively developed patois. Like egregious profanity, overdoing locale-specific speech and speech patterns is a risk which should only be taken after due calculation—and practice. There is perhaps no faster way to lose credibility with your readership than to write lengthy dialogue sequences with linguistic variations which do not precisely represent the distinct, geographically and historically nuanced speech of real-life people who are, or once were, alive. It is an error as critical as that committed by journalists who misquote sources, multiplied in offensiveness by the number of failed attempts at distinctive vernacular approximation.

Consider these examples from Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, the ever-classic novel from which, as Hemingway famously opined, “all modern American literature” is derived.

In Chapter 7 Finn says, “I just expected there’d be somebody laying down in it, because people often done that to fool folks, and when a chap had pulled a skiff out most to it they’d raise up and laugh at him. But it warn’t so this time.”

Later, in Chapter 19, he says, “. . . we was always naked day and night, whenever the mosquitoes would let us—the new clothes Buck’s folks made for me was too good to be comfortable, and besides I didn’t go much on clothes, nohow.”

Here is an example of a purposely exaggerated, hopeless, dialectic failure:

“We’s gwen down na riva nah ta cits sun hishes fo sipper.”

It’s possible, though not likely, that someone somewhere has uttered a line similar to this. The sentence is at best confusing and at worst a waste of the reader’s time and attention.

The straight English translation is, “We are going down to the river now to catch some fish for supper.”

The example is far too phonetically intensive for a modern reader’s eyes and ears. This might’ve played before Mark Twain published Huckleberry Finn in 1885, but the brilliant novelist and thinker exponentially raised the vernacular-quality bar with this work. The bottom line here is that fiction writers, particularly those writing for generations of educated human beings, should tread cautiously on the fertile grounds of patois peculiarity. The practice of imitative invention might be exciting for you as a writer, but if your reader can’t follow your characters, you’ve failed to meet one of your major responsibilities as a storyteller.

   8. Punctuate like it’s your job.

It is. Along with your editor, you as an author have a responsibility to smoothly and efficiently guide your reader through dialogue passages. If you find yourself uncertain as to how you might properly punctuate a particular sentence or line, consult a guide such as William Strunk and E.B. White’s The Elements of Style. If you still have questions, take them to another writer or, more probably, an editor. In the rare event that you cannot resolve the issue after exhausting both of these options, do your level best to reproduce the desired effect with modified phrasing that you know you can accurately punctuate. During the pre-publishing process, flag the line for your editor, and ask for further assistance, if you find yourself unsatisfied with the substitution.

An example of poorly punctuated dialogue:

Andie threw the plane tickets in Jack’s face and ripped his suitcase off the bed propelling it ten feet into the hallway.

“I don’t care if you eat the damn tickets” she said. “All you do is talk talk talk talk about how we’ll have this great amazing vacation and you completely ignore the fact that we’ll spend three years paying American Express so we can have ten days of beach time.

It’s beyond stupid Jack and you know it. You don’t think it’s a problem. It’s a problem Jack. Okay? It’s a problem. Find a new job or sell some of your precious albums you hold so dear and maybe then we can have a real honeymoon. Or maybe it doesn’t mean enough to you. Maybe it doesn’t mean anything at all.”

Punctuated properly:

“I don’t care if you eat the damn tickets,” she said. “All you do is talk, talk, talk, talk about how we’ll have this great, amazing vacation, and you completely ignore the fact that we’ll spend three years paying American Express so we can have ten days of beach time.

It’s beyond stupid, Jack, and you know it. You don’t ‘think it’s a problem.’ It’s a problem, Jack. Okay? It’s a problem. Find a new job, or sell some of your precious albums you hold so dear, and maybe then we can have a real honeymoon. Or maybe it doesn’t mean enough to you; maybe it doesn’t mean anything at all.”

A few of those modifications—like changing the last two sentences into one sentence of two, independent clauses connected by a semicolon, as well as the italicization of the words “beyond” and “‘think’”— are stylistic, but the bulk are made in the spirit of basic punctuation guidelines.

Remember—your mission is to help your readers lose themselves in your dialogue, not get lost in it.

   9. Realize that fine, timeless dialogue is composed of rhythmic lyricism, a clear cadence infused with smooth, colorful musicality which enhances the novelty and heightens the intensity of your story’s reality.

An example of dialogue created by an author unmindful of this essential truth:

Jack involuntarily dropped his shoulders, slumping, and turned away from Andie, shaking his head slowly and thinking one word: unbelievable.

“You can just go ahead and get the hell out, then,” he said. “I could not be more tired of all this garbage you’re always throwing out about how we don’t make enough money and how we’ll never be able to buy cars like the Millers and we can’t go on trips every other month like Mark and Patty Massoni.” He paused a moment to shake his head more vigorously before continuing.

Picking up three beats later, he scowled at his wife, squinting like Eastwood in A Fistful of Dollars. Jack quickened the pace of his rant. “I’m so sick of all your bitching and moaning and whining. Why don’t you just leave and go to parents or go to your friends and wait until I call you. If I decide to call you, it won’t be for a least a week. Do you even know how long it took me to save for this trip? No, you don’t. And you don’t really give a damn, do you? Get out, Andie. Go.”

This dialogue enhanced by an editor who has long accepted the profound, historically documented essentiality of lyricism in character speech patterns:

Jack’s shoulders slumped involuntarily; he turned away from his wife in disgust. As he slowly shook his head, he was thinking one word: unbelievable.

“You know what, Andie? Just go ahead and get out,” he said. “I could not be more spent from all your constant, mindless horseshit about how we’re not making enough money, how we’ll never have a Benz like the Millers and why we can’t fly to Vegas like asshole Massoni.” He paused a moment to shake his head, this time with vigor.

Three beats later, he scowled at her like Eastwood in A Fistful of Dollars. Jack upped the ante on his rant. “I am so sick of all your bitching and pissing and moaning. Why don’t you just leave and go to parents? Go to your friends. You can stay there until I call. And, if I decide to, it won’t be for a least a week. Do you know how long it took me to save for this? No. No, you don’t. And you don’t really give a shit, do you? Go, Andie. Get the hell out.”

As F. Scott Fitzgerald writes, “Speech is an arrangement of notes that will never be played again.” Faulkner adds, “I would say that music is the easiest means in which to express, but since words are my talent, I must try to express clumsily in words what the pure music would have done better.” The finest writers, true artists, compose elegant symphonies of poetry and prose.

   10. Study and absorb all the dialogue you—and artists you respect—find particularly effective, rich evocative and powerful.

Don’t limit your experience to short stories, novels, emotobooks, plays, musicals and films. As a modern writer, the collective, creative wealth of the planet is at your fingertips 24 hours a day. Draw from not simply those listed but all entertainment mediums, including every genre of popular and classical music, television, comic books, graphic novels, poems, essays, reviews, journalism, comedy and sports commentary.

For dialogue-specific enrichment, see Academy-nominated, Oscar-winning and legendary screenplays. Oscar winner and four-time nominee Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction; three-time Academy nominee Frank Darabont’s The Shawshank Redemption; and two-time Academy nominee and The Social Network Oscar winner Aaron Sorkin’s A Few Good Men, which easily could have won him his first Oscar, are brilliant examples of rhythmic, lyrical dialogue. Tarantino, Darabont, Sorkin and Lethal Weapon’s Shane Black have earned golden reputations in Hollywood and beyond by writing remarkably strong dialogue.

Other screenwriters and writer-directors like A Beautiful Mind Oscar winner Akiva Goldsman; The Dark Knight and Inception writer-director and three-time Academy nominee Christopher Nolan; Jerry Maguire and Vanilla Sky writer-director Cameron Crowe, who won the Best Screenplay Oscar for Almost Famous; Requiem for a Dream writer-director and Academy nominee for Black Swan Darren Aronofsky; as well as Glengarry Glen Ross’s David Mamet, two-time Academy nominee, are all essential sources of rich, effective dialogue. Of course, such masters as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Stephen King, Pulitzer Prize winner Michael Chabon and, of course, Ernest Hemingway should never be overlooked. In fact, they are perfect writers with which to continue your study of fictional, character dialogue.

   11. To properly polish dialogue, reading aloud and recording sequences that don’t seem to be working before editing are strategies many successful writers employ.

Nobel and Pulitzer Prize-winning, American author John Steinbeck writes, “If you are using dialogue—say it aloud as you write it. Only then will it have the sound of speech.”

Great writers tend to test the efficacy of their work well before it’s published. Many have long ago accepted Richard North Patterson’s confession—and perhaps the only true secret: “Writing is rewriting.”

However, Matthew Arnold contends, “Have something to say, and say it as clearly as you can. That is the only secret.”

While the quantity and value of writing secrets are unknown, one thing is certain: legendary writers don’t publish first drafts. As John Irving, gifted novelist of brilliant and critically praised works like The World According to Garp and The Cider House Rules notes, "Half my life is an act of revision." Masterful Lolita novelist Vladimir Nabokov said, “I have rewritten—often several times—every word I have ever written.  My pencils outlast their erasers.”

   12. Finally, to determine whether your dialogue truly works, consider the thoughts of a well-loved and overwhelmingly revered author of more than 50 worldwide bestsellers. 

In his profound and generous On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, Stephen King writes,

When dialogue is right, we know. When it’s wrong we also know—it jags on the ear like a badly tuned musical instrument (pg. 182).”


Planet Fiction recommends these volumes for further guidance:

  1. Write Great Fiction: Dialogue by Gloria Kempton, 2004 (Part of the Write Great Fiction Series)
  2. The Book of Dialogue: How to Write Effective Conversation in Fiction, Screenplays, Drama, and Poetry by Lewis Turco, 2004
  3. Writing Dialogue by Tom Chiarella, 1998

Planet Fiction’s recommended articles on composing dialogue:

  1. An Article on writing dialogue, focused on short stories by Grace Fleming, “Writing Story Dialogue
  2. An article on fundamentals of dialogue punctuation by Marg Gilks’ “Punctuating Dialogue


Copyright © 2012 Matthew D. Anderson. All Rights Reserved.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Keys of the Craft, Chapter I: Writing Quality Dialogue, Section One


Planet Fiction's Keys of the Craft Series
Chapter I
Writing Quality Dialogue
Section One 

By Matthew David 

Welcome to Planet Fiction, a warm, thoughtful, writer-friendly habitat for every established and aspiring wordsmith immersed in the ever-raging war of extreme consciousness and epic, soul-stirring quest for novel artistry that is the craft of fiction writing.


Ernest Hemingway image is property and appears courtesy of its rights holder(s). 


I THINK [sic] you should learn about writing from everybody who has ever written that has anything to teach you.”
Ernest Hemingway, in a 1925 Letter to F. Scott Fitzgerald, first published in Selected Letters; Excerpted for Ernest Hemingway on Writing (pg. 91)

The Keys of the Craft Series is a consistent, self-expansive chain of writerly commiseration, hints, fundamentals, reminders, occasional secrets and, most often, tools from which all writers will benefit, regardless of talent, skill, hunger, heart or passion.

Character dialogue may not be the most logical topic with which to begin the Keys series, especially if we plan to create a resourceful toolkit covering the full, dynamic spectrum of fiction’s foundational elements. But history proves that, for writers, logic inexorably derails at least as often as it safely conducts. Embracing the polymorphic spirit of fiction means dialogue is as firm a foundation as any.

A middle-aged engineer from the mining village of Mainz in southern Germany named Johannes Gutenberg invented the first printing press to feature movable type between 1436 and 1445—according to widely varied historical account. Nevertheless, a proliferation of reliable sources concur that Gutenberg finished the initial prototype in 1440. Similarly, many references posit the first work of fiction in the English language was printed shortly before 1490. The moneyball crux here is that, with at least five centuries of published, stylized works, principles and techniques to absorb, the very act of starting the investigation is decidedly valuable, no matter its first focus.

Literary purists would have you believe that beginning your study of fiction writing without mastering every footnote of minutia is like rolling over the precipice of a 5,000-foot cliff, convinced you can fly, before learning to crawl. But the purists would also have you believe that attempting to pen your first novel before reading Tolstoy’s epic, 1,225-page, 1869 novel War and Peace is like trying to reach Hawaii from Maine in your grandmother’s powder blue,’77 Olds Cutlass without taking your driver’s test. Purism, like obsessive perfectionism, is often the enemy of accomplishment. If embraced and internalized effectively, they can lead to brilliant art, but they can also overwhelm, hamstring and paralyze, preventing you from drafting your very first sentence.


12 Incisive Keys for Creating Convincing Dialogue


  1. Know your characters intimately.

As any seasoned fiction writer will explain, complex characters are occasionally invented on the fly, and in those cases a creator’s internal consciousness supplies qualities, perspectives and personalities while composing the draft. But knowing exactly what your characters think, feel, know, sense and believe is the first step to understanding the authentic range of possible statements they could and would make in the reality of your story.

Nobel and Pulitzer Prize-winning, literary icon Ernest Hemingway writes:

“ . . . A writer should create living people; people not characters. A character is a caricature. If a writer can make people live there may be no great characters in his book, but it is possible that his book will remain as a whole; as an entity; as a novel. If the people the writer is making talk of old masters; of music; of modern painting; of letters; or of science then they should talk of those subjects in the [story]. If they do not talk of those subjects and the writer makes them talk of them he is a faker, and if he talks about them himself to show how much he knows then he is showing off.” Excerpted from Death in the Afternoon, (pg. 191), for Ernest Hemingway on Writing, (pg. 72). Larry W. Phillips, Ed.

An effective strategy for developing your characters’ believable lexicon, personal boundaries and realistic limits is one you can implement during the outlining phase of your process. Make a simple yet thorough list of your characters’ qualities, beliefs, aptitudes, life-shaping experiences, and areas of knowledge and expertise. You probably don’t need 50 items, but 5 may not be enough for you to grasp your characters’ true nature.

By way of example, if your character has spent three months of every year since the age of five fishing with his father, he will likely not say to his wife, “I really wish dad would’ve taught me about nature,” unless he’s speaking words soaked with sarcasm. Likewise, if your character has been fascinated with American film since the age of two, she probably will not ask her friend to remind her who Steven Spielberg is.

There are some traditionally gender-specific considerations to note here as well. Remember from the discipline of psychology that, more often than not, a woman’s subconscious motive during conversation is to probe for and engender a pure, emotional connection. A man’s typical motivation is to ascertain and establish status based on linear or skewed logic, with a view to hierarchical dominance.

For instance, if you’re developing a female character whose parents, married for 40 passionate years, were high school sweethearts, she’ll likely not say to her best friend, “I just don’t get why you loved The Notebook (novel).” Whereas, a writer drawing a male character who found the first twenty minutes of The Notebook (film) so sappy and melodramatic that he felt compelled to abandon his girlfriend at the theater should probably not write a scene 25 pages later in which the offending boyfriend shows up at his ex-girlfriend’s home in a midnight, torrential downpour, loudly and continually professing his undying love, unless he’s secretly read the novel or seen the balance of the film. In addition, the character would probably still not be believable unless he had performed hours of intense, epiphanic soul searching—as well as strongly sincere apologizing—before issuing his romantic revelation. Remember that gender—like experience—factors into your characters’ probable lexicon and personality traits. A little common sense here goes a long way.

It is also essential to realize every character has boundaries, from the most powerful superhero to a two-day-old, baby girl. A character with no boundaries is not only unrealistic and incredible but also incapable of conflict, genuine emotion and relatable reaction.

If Superman had no weakness, would his encounters with evil forces hold our attention for more than a few battles? What cathartic effect would The Odyssey deliver if Homer had given Odysseus clear passage from the challenge of Scylla and Charybdis? How exciting would the plot have been if Odysseus was immune to the Sirens’ song? How can a reader realistically relate to a character with no flaw, emotion or challenge? Even the greatest Forces of any universe know limitation.

Consider the absurdity of this example:

Girtimor hurled a rock three miles into the Luni temple’s fortress, shattering every last sacred orb. The great behemoth levitated and flew into the tiny, elfin village, effortlessly torching every dwelling and storefront with relentless fire from his nostrils. Sensing a possible challenge from the great dragon, Curitas, Girtimor fired a sword from his shoulder through the beast’s head while it slept, killing it instantly.

With a flick of the wrist he worked the town’s smoldering ash into a crystal blue sea, then imagined in one second the greatest ship Sacrikin has ever known. A moment later, the vessel appeared, exactly as the irrepressible giant had designed it, and Girtimor stepped aboard proudly, controlling both the tides and the speed of his craft deftly with a single finger.

A story like this might be fun for the first paragraph, but only young children would bother to read further. No other reader would suffer long enough to believe a sentence of it.

  1. Create signature words, phrases and lines for your characters.

This is not to be overdone, of course, but endowing your characters with some catchy one-liners unique to them, words only they use and phrases they’ve personally invented or adopted, can add a new layer of believability to your story’s reality. If done well this can lead to an unimaginable level of universal identification. Similar to the search-engine optimization (SEO) concept of keyword engineering, catchphrasing may afford your work a rich, visible life beyond that which you originally create. We all know friends and relatives who—intentionally or otherwise—key on speech novelties like “weak sauce,” “crazy kids” and “no question.” Art surely imitates life, but the finest art creates clear and unforgettable recognition of visionary, credibly modified reality.

Every now and then, words or phrases writers don’t initially intend as catchphrases take hold in popular culture. Consider “Elementary, my dear Watson,” which has been perpetually falsely attributed to Arthur Conan Doyle. The line never appeared in the author’s published manuscripts, but because of the final sequence of the 1929 film The Return of Sherlock Holmes, the words are indelibly etched in our minds and inextricably linked to Conan Doyle’s legendary sleuth.

Some of the most memorable, character-driven lines come to us from legendary cinema. Consider Casablanca’s “Louie, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship;” Gone with the Wind’s “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn;” The Godfather’s “I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse;” On the Waterfront’s “I coulda been a contender;” and Sudden Impact’s “Go ahead, make my day.” We hear these words and immediately recall richly distinctive images from the original films in which the lines appear.

A single word from a brilliant novel can be equally memorable. J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, for instance, will always be linked to “goddam,” iconic character Holden Caulfield’s colloquial, slang adaptation of the word goddamn. One entertainment website estimates Salinger used the word “goddam” 255 times in Catcher. Throughout Salinger’s classic the keyword is primarily employed in narration, but it appears in dialogue as well. We are not arguing for blatant imitation with this principle, but when a word, phrase or line is crucial to the definitive development, atmosphere and makeup of a major character, use it, use it well and use it as often as necessary to suggest your reader may freely associate the character with your inventive text.

These character-specific dialogue fragments include—but are in no imaginable way limited to—words absorbed from popular culture like “ridiculous” in the context of something stunning rather than simply absurd; terms historically popular during distinct eras like “flapper,” “mister” and “missus,” generational slang such as “groovy,” “hip,” “cool” and “hot;” phrases linked to societal trends like “cool cat,” “superstar,” “hot mess” and “rock star;” career jargon like medicine’s “stat” and “sedative,” the sales profession’s “quota” and “margin,” and the legal industry’s “litigable,” “memo,” “brief,” “complainant,” “claim” and “motion;” and foreign language offerings part of many readers vocabularies such as “femme fatale,” “wunderkind” and “Je ne sais quoi (literally, I don’t know what, but often intended to mean “whatever”).“ Colorful pieces like these may be indispensable to assembling the complete model of your authentic vision, as close an approximation as possible to the outline blueprint you designed in prewriting.

Hemingway again deserves the final word. He writes, in a private letter to his sister Carol in 1929, “Try and write straight English; never using slang except in Dialogue and then only when unavoidable. Because all slang goes sour in a short time.” This commentary is borrowed from a letter to Carol Hemingway in 1929, first published in Selected Letters (pg. 308), and excerpted for Ernest Hemingway on Writing (pg. 82).

In a private letter to Everett R. Perry in 1933, published in Letters (pgs. 380, 381) and excerpted for Ernest Hemingway on Writing (pg. 84), Hemingway writes, “The fundamental reason that I used certain words no longer a part of the usual written language is that they are very much a part of the vocabulary of the people I was writing about and there was no way I could avoid using them and still give anything like a complete feeling of what I was trying to convey to the reader.”


  1. Be as clever, cunning, crafty and discreet with profanity as is necessary to clearly and luminously tell your original story.

If you’re wondering why we continually look to Hemingway for method illustration, you may want to reread The Sun Also Rises and The Old Man and the Sea. Hemingway is the go-to authority on many aspects of fiction composition because he articulates the craft as well as—or better than—any wordsmith in history. With respect to golden guidance, Planet Fiction recommends Ernest Hemingway on Writing and Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft to every writer of fiction.

On profanity Hemingway writes,

“I only use swear words, for example, that have lasted at least a thousand years for fear of getting stuff that will be simply timely and then go sour.” Excerpted from a letter to Carol Hemingway, 1929, Selected Letters (pg. 308), in Ernest Hemingway on Writing (82).

Fiction writers in some genres like Fantasy or Science Fiction (SF) don’t often deal in the scientific art of profanity. They typically invent original words and phrases only considered profanity by characters alive in their novel worlds. See Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the Star Wars novels, J.R.R. Tolkien’s Colossal (Middle Earth) Trilogy, J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, and “Battlestar Galactica,” the SF television series of 75 episodes which aired from 2004 through 2009, for sundry vibrant examples.

Other writers seeking to create characters—in the vein of Hemingway’s realist perspective—which mirror or resemble real-life individuals are often compelled to incorporate colorful, so-called profane words, compound words and phrases in their manuscripts by way of developing richly relatable personas, in order to more intimately connect with the reader. Most seasoned writers accept this widely observed principle as truth, forget about societal stigma and employ elements considered as profanity simply because they actually help themselves relate more personally to their characters, who are almost always, fragmented representations of the living, dead and fictional people a writer has had the opportunity to learn about or know. As exceptionally talented and well-traveled American writer Gore Vidal notes, “Each writer is born with a repertory company in his head and as you get older, you become more skillful casting them.”

Obviously, dedicated authors of children’s or young adult fiction typically do not have the liberty to allow for profanity in their—for the most part—overwhelmingly underrated and inestimably valuable work. And this time-honored principle has been observed throughout recorded history by high-quality writers for many good, wholesome, commonsense reasons.

Because of its deep-seated, stigmatic undertones, the profanity used in a writer’s work tends to influence the reader’s perception of the overarching nature and tone of not only the story and its characters but also the storyteller. This is the fundamental result of humanness. Our perceptions unquestionably shape our internal conceptions of reality. In a story, novel, emotobook, stage play, musical, television show or film, perception is the only reality.

The experience for readers is entirely contained in the color and texture of their relation to characters, plot, atmosphere, imagery, tone, symbolism, metaphor and other story components as that relation relates to the readers’ perception of their own true nature. This existential interpolation of Søren Kierkegaard’s pronouncement of the self as “a relation relating to itself” sounds like an unnecessarily complex and well overblown way of suggesting a reader’s experience is determined by the way he or she relates to all aspects of a writer’s story. The internalization of this concept requires more than a minute of consideration before it becomes clear, but, while it reads like philosophical-wax BS, it is the real, plain truth of fiction writers must be aware to effectively connect with, inspire, affect, educate and successfully entertain their readers.

For example, if a reader believes the word “bullshit” should not be used in formal or even informal speech, when that reader sees the word printed in a short story, he or she likely reacts with a reflexive, internal gasp. There are several ways an individual may respond to that surprise—in both the positive and negative spectrums. This is the great risk we take as fiction writers when using what Hemingway calls “swear words.”

Now, it is occasionally true that great rewards arise from great risks, and the inverse is also true. Our gamble as writers is the hope that we will create for our readers more universal, character relatability—by using real, earthen, gritty and sometimes raw speech in our dialogue—than inconsolable disdain. Those readers for whom profane usage is not only welcomed but expected will likely feel more comfortably and intimately connected to the story being told, as well as its characters and its writer. Decreasing the aesthetic distance between the reader and the writer’s characters is a major objective for savvy authors. Dialogue is but one of many tools they master in order to break through that barrier.

Hemingway relied on a two-pronged test to decide whether he should use profanity, outlined in his previously referenced, 1933 letter to Everett R. Perry.

Factor One: Is the word “very much a part of the vocabulary” of the characters alive in the story’s reality?

Factor Two: Is there “no other word which means exactly the same thing and gives the same effect when spoken?”

If the answer to only one of these is yes, then it’s an author’s-choice judgment call. If the answer to both is no, then the writer must seriously consider the essence and necessity of the word or phrase in question. When the answer to both pivotal questions is yes, greenlight the hells, damns, shits, son of a bitches and bastards. The list, as you know, goes on, increasing by varying degrees of intensity and social stigmatism.

Later in his letter to Perry, the A Farewell to Arms author writes, “I always use [profanity] spareingly [sic] and never to give gratuitous shock—although sometimes to give calculated and what to me seems like necessary shock.”

Essentially, if your only motivation for using the word is to shock your reader purely for shock’s sake, reconsider the circumstance and gravity of the scene. If it simply cannot produce the desired effect without the word or phrase in question, it is part of your critical responsibility to your story and your reader to use the most effective—and perhaps stigmatic—speech.

If your main character’s favorite word is only legally acceptable for premium channels and R-rated films, minimize the risk of alienating segments of your audience by calling on discretion. If you personally have a target audience, as many artists do, consider the majority perception of good taste. If you write for yourself, for a person you have known, or for someone you love, your responsibility is clear. Trust only the most attractive options from the range of prevailingly suitable connections between your heart and mind.

The examination of whether to include profanity is akin to the fiction writer’s three-pronged test for creating any piece of dialogue:

Factor One: Does it heighten the intensity, enliven the reality and propel the action of the story?

Factor Two: Is it written in the clearest, most captivating; informative; trenchant and evocative manner?

Factor Three: Does it create the desired effect?

The first two, writers can answer independently after thorough evaluation. Truth in response to the last—and most important—query can only be verified in concert with the reader. If fiction writers could demonstrably answer it, we could mathematically calculate the probability of our work’s success. The reality is that we cannot guarantee that our dialogue—or our story—will create the internal experience we intentionally design for our readers.

As perpetually underrated singer-songwriter Christopher Cross famously observed in “Arthur’s Theme,” his Academy Award-winning, 1981 smash, “The best that you can do is fall in love.” This is true for writers, in that all we can do is devotedly paint characters and stories with passionate, true emotion, in the blind hope that our readers won’t lose too much in the transfer.

If writers can honestly answer affirmatively to the first two prongs of the test and genuinely satisfy themselves that they have created the finest work of which they are capable in the time allotted, then the dialogue—and the story—is exactly as it should be.


12 Incisive Keys for Creating Convincing Dialogue



Copyright © 2012 Matthew D. Anderson. All Rights Reserved.