Tuesday, January 10, 2012

What Your Characters Say and What They Don't

The first contest of 2012 went live yesterday, so if you haven't yet, make sure to check it out. I'm shocked by how many entries have already rolled in!

Today's going to wrap up our discussion on dialogue, unless you still have something you'd like me to cover. If you do, you can either shoot me an email or leave your question in the comments section.

What People Say versus What They Feel

A writer asked, "You said something about creating conflict through your dialogue by not having the characters say everything that they feel. ... But, I am having trouble in that area because in the first few chapters in my WIP my MC is pretty depressed. She's given up on trying to love, to hope, to feel, because she knows it'll hurt to much. How do I make that evident in my dialogue, without having her say too much and risk over explaining?"

The short answer is, you do that with your character's thoughts, not their dialogue.

In the last dialogue post, I used Save the Date by Jenny B. Jones as an example. Let's go back to that.

In the opening scene, Jenny uses Lucy's internal  thoughts to tell us how she's really doing:

She grabbed his hand as he leaned away. "Is it me?" Because wasn't it always her?

Oh, man. That's a character who's been hurt, isn't it?

In this one Matt is speaking to her and Lucy answers:

"It looks like a class reunion invitation. I thought you didn't graduate in Charleston."
Her childhood in South Carolina was the last thing she wanted to discuss tonight. Or ever. "Obviously it's a mistake on someone's part." Or a cruel joke.
There's a story lurking in those words, isn't there? Someone isn't being completely honest.

Sprinkling in those internal thoughts build complexity in your character. We don't always say exactly what we're feeling, right? When I'm having a rotten day, if someone says to me, "Hey, how's it going?" my immediate answer is, "Good, how are you?" Even if it's a friend, they'll likely have to dig a bit before I'm honest.

So even though it's important for "story stuff" to be happening in the dialogue, your character doesn't need to be saying to others, "I'm depressed and having a tough time opening myself up to love." Not only do they not need to say that, they shouldn't.

An additional note. If you're dealing with a character like this writer mentioned, one who's depressed, who's been hurt, who's given up on finding any kind of love in her life, you also need to give your character a place of strength. A fabulous example of this is Edge of Recall by Kristen Heitzmann. Her main character is an emotional wreck on the inside, but she's an extremely talented landscape architect and highly sought after in her field of work. Because we see her strength exhibited in her job, we know - even on a subconscious level - that this character will ultimately have the strength to overcome her emotional issues as well.

That wraps up my thoughts on dialogue. On Friday I'll be sharing some fun exercises for writing dialogue, which I'm really excited about!

Tomorrow the lovely and talented Betsy St. Amant will be here, and she'll be giving away a copy of her first YA novel, Addison Blakely: Confessions of a PK.

Also, Thursday is news day, so if you have news you'd like to share - an article to be published, finishing a first draft, sending out query letters - we'd love to celebrate with you. Send your news to Stephanie(at)GoTeenWriters.com with "News Day" in the subject line.


  1. I have another question xD okay, so I'm writing a story where this innocent woman is hanging out with four men who are pretty successful heavy metal rock-stars (reasons for her doing this aren't important right now). I don't cuss, my MC doesn't cuss, but she is around these men who have major gutter mouths 24/7! How do you get across that they cuss without actually saying the words? I'm okay at it for some parts, but how do you do that when one of them have a large chunk of dialogue? Usually, these type of guys use a bad word for an adjective, noun, verb ect. It's every other word! So how do I make their dialogue sound like something they would say without actually saying the bad words? And what is considered major bad words? What words are okay to say and what aren't?

  2. If you're writing from the POV of the MC, you can have her "filter" it through h thoughts. This works in third person as well as first.

    "how many times do I have to tell you--” he yelled, and I tried not to listen to the profanity that followed.
    "how many times do I have to tell you--" he yelled, and Sarah tried not to listen to the profanity that followed.

  3. I do that a lot. It is from the MC POV and I'm able to get it across through her words that they're cussing, but when it comes to their actual dialogue I have trouble. I can't stop them every other word and make her cringe. Is it okay to have them speak without the bad words then have her say that it was peppered with cuss words? Would that work?

  4. Random Thinker - Acceptable cuss words depend on your publishing house, your audience, and you the writer.

    I write for the Christian market, so I'm most familiar with what they allow. In Thomas Nelson (a major publishing house) books, I've seen the word "crap" a few times, but (from what I understand) you'll never find the word "Geez" since it's considered a replacement word for "Jesus." In The Passion of Mary-Margaret (also a Thomas Nelson book) one of the characters - a male prostitute - swears, but they do the book-version of bleeping it out. (Like, "I'm not going to eat the d--- cheese.")

    Some writers choose not to use certain words because of their audience, even outside of the Christian market. Very few YA novels have the F-word in them, for example. I know Sarah Dessen has used it a few times for her rougher characters, and I've read a few blog posts of hers that tell me she's received some heat for it.

    A couple years ago, me and another local author, Brent Crawford, had debut YA titles release about the same time. We were both featured in the Kansas City Star, with landed us invitations to speak at a local high school on separate occasions. During my talk, when the students had run out of questions for me, the librarian said, "You know ... it just occurred to me that there isn't any swearing in your books. I hadn't even noticed while I was reading it. Is there a reason why?" I told her that I prefer clean books. After my talk, she approached me and said the lack of swearing hadn't even been noticeable, but it had occurred to her because there's a lot of swearing in Mr. Crawford's books (according to her, I haven't read them yet).

    My point is you CAN write without swearing in such a way that people don't even notice. Like The Hunger Games or Matched. If there's any swearing in those, I don't remember it. And in the Twilight saga, it's minimal. And easily cuttable, in my opinion. It's really just up to you and your publishing house.

    It's also write so much swearing into the prose to the point of it being distracting.

    My biggest tips for avoiding swear words are:

    Don't use replacement words because I think it just draws attention to what you aren't saying. (Unless it's part of the character. My mother use to say "Oh crumb," when something went wrong.)

    Don't underestimate a simple "He swore." Like:

    He swore under his breath. "Well, what are we going to do now, Einstein?"

    Or cut your character off before they can say anything too bad:

    "Why you little-"
    But Joe couldn't finish his thought because Tracy burst into the room.

  5. Okay thank you so much and thank you Heavenly Princess. This helps so much :) I do want this book to go to a Christian Publishing house, and I can't tell you all how much your advice really helps :)

  6. No problem! Christian writers have a definite challenge. We want to be real. We also want to honor God with our words.

  7. I was kinda hoping you'd write a dialogue checklist or question list - sort of a summary. (Something I can bookmark or print out.) It doesn't have to make sense outside of the series - more like a list of the basic points that are explained in the previous posts. Does that make sense? Example:

    __ Does your character use contractions? If not, does it still sound natural?

    __ How much information is in this dialogue scene?

    __ Why is this dialogue scene necessary? What does it tell the readers or the characters?

    I could probably make my own list using the four posts you've written, but I figured it'd help other readers just as much as it'd help me. :)

  8. Wow, great thought, Emily! I'll work one up and post it on Friday with the exercises.

  9. Any thoughts on dialogue for a character that's nothing like you? I'm struggling with the mean girl type & I have to think and think about what she could say has zing to it. Nothing seems scathingly creative enough though....I guess I'm just not that mean

  10. Maybe imagine somebody saying it to you and see how bad it hurts? You could have a friend or family member read it out loud to you.

  11. Are you thinking the conversation through from her perspective, Tonya? Or have you tried character journals? When I'm struggling with that stuff, it's because I have only thought through my story from the perspective of my main character and I need to better understand my antagonist.

  12. That's probably my problem. I haven't fully figured out my antagonists motivation yet.

  13. Great post! I really liked the bit about "Edge of Recall" because I love that book and had only noticed on a subconscious level the strength tie-in until you pointed it out, but you're so right, that's exactly why I love that character! :)

    And on the cussing discussion, great points, everyone. I've noticed M.L. Tyndall uses the simple "He swore" to great dramatic effect. Oh, and has anyone ever heard the country song by Brad Paisley (I think the title is:) "Little Moments."

    The first time I heard that pretty mouth say that dirty word / I don't even remember now what she backed my truck into / But she covered her mouth and her face got red / and she just looked so darn cute

    :) Effective and cute.

  14. I find your comments on swearing interesting. In most books, you can get away with not swearing quite easily, even if you have the darkest, angriest characters. You can show their dark personalities through traits and actions, and to some extent, through words. But swearing isn't a must.

    However, sometimes it can be unrealistic not to have your characters swear. For example, I read some of a Karen Kingsbury book once, in which the hunky quarterback and his too-cool-for-school mates pick on the shy autistic kid, using words like "jerk" and "loser". Now, I go to a boys high school and I know that guys DON'T pick on other guys using those words. They swear. So I found that a bit unrealistic.

    My question is: Do you think Karen Kingsbury could have written it more realistically, yet still not swearing? What is realism and profanity can't be separated? How would a Christian writer write that?

    (Also; here is an interesting post on swearing in novels: http://davidpowersking.blogspot.com/2011/12/aspiring-advice-i-dont-curse-i-swear.html )

  15. Nick, what great thoughts! I really enjoyed the post you linked to, so thanks for pointing it out to me.

    I haven't read the book you're talking about, but yes, in the situation you described, "jerk" and "loser" sound like substitute words. I sympathize with Ms. Kingsbury on this because it's a tough situation for her. As a writer, I'm sure she wants the scene to seem realistic. But my guess would be that the typical Karen Kingsbury reader would prefer to sacrifice realism instead of having to read profanity or slurs.

    And as a published author, your readers are very important to you. Not just from a financial point of view; in my experience, they become very dear to your heart. I would have a difficult time writing something that I knew would offend my loyal readers.

    It's a tough battle for Christian writers, that's for sure. I'm honestly still sorting out my opinions on what's right and wrong on this matter, so if I seem kinda murky, it's because I am :)

  16. Hmm, I see what you're saying. The thing with Karen Kingsbury's books (I suppose with most other Christian authors') is that their purpose is to portray an idea. She builds the entire story around that idea, rather than adding an idea to the story to make it interesting. The whole purpose is to portray redemption, or real love, etc.

    So in that way the story is like a vessel, and the idea is more important. So, if portraying the idea in it's purest form (showing a God-honouring theme through God-honouring ways, for example; eg, not using swearing) means sacrificing realism for profanity, then it's necessary. Do you think that's right?

  17. Do you mean do I think it's the right thing to do, or do I think you're correct in your analysis?

    I think there are many Christian authors who feel the way you suggested, that there is a message they want to get across, and that it is more important than the story. I think there are others who feel like story is critical, that you honor God by being excellent at what you do, that watering down reality/quality doesn't show respect for the talent He gave you as a novelist. I think I lean toward that second camp, yet a line has to be drawn SOMEWHERE. Because it's not God-honoring to write really fabulous erotica, you know?

    Like I said, this is a subject I'm still kinda murky about...

  18. Oh, I meant do you think I was correct in my analysis.

    It's an interesting topic, and I can see how there would be lots of different opinions on it. I'd be leaning towards the latter as well - but you're right: fabulous erotica = not a win. My ideal would be to try not to write myself into a place where I need to choose between either realism or God-honouring material, which I think is quite possible. I suppose this is one of the places where God's guidance is pretty handy :)

  19. Well said!

    I've had a couple times where I thought my characters would likely swear. It's never been an option for me since my publisher wouldn't allow it. I think it's actually helped me to be more creative in my dialogue because I couldn't use the "obvious" response. If that makes sense.

  20. That does make sense :) That's quite a good exercise. As they say, restrictions don't limit creativity, they inspire it! :D

    By the way, I think this is a fantastic thing you're doing with this blog, helping and inspiring teen writers :)

  21. It's selfish - I love Go Teen Writers :)

  22. So do I :) And I've only known about it for something like 18 hours (yes, I'm counting).