Say What?

by Janis Patterson

I read… a lot. Lately, however, it hasn’t been as pleasant as it used to be and more than a few books have hit the (metaphorical) wall. Without exception it’s the fault of the authors. Nearly every one was a first time author – I did verify that, but it really wasn’t necessary. Their writing said it all.

One of the most common (and worst) errors is a misuse of words. Not quite as bad as the homophonic mayhem such as broach/brooch or affect/effect or grisly/grizzly and the like, which sadly are quite common even among multi-published professionals, but I’m talking about the more egregious mis-choice of language. I’ll explain; there are two kinds of word usage – dialogue and exposition. Dialogue is what the character actually says/thinks – what actually comes out of the character himself.. Exposition is telling what is done.

I believe that dialogue should be true to the character speaking. (And in ‘dialogue’ I include written communications by the character – letters, texts, etc. – anything that is ‘spoken’ by the character, such as interior thoughts.) Is the character a crusty old fisherman who hates people? A feisty young heroine-type who prances through life cooking, talking with her cat and showing off her shoes? A silent but heroic Navy Seal with a deep sense of patriotism and a distrust of women? A culture-vulture society woman with a drive to climb higher on the social ladder? All have the potential to be great characters, but they shouldn’t sound anything like each other. They all need their own voice.

Each character has (or should have!) their own history, their own background, their own socio-economic standing, their own individuality. That means they have their own character-specific language, their own vocabulary, their own rhythm of speaking whether exterior (speaking to other characters) or interior (thoughts, letters, etc.). You can get away with almost any kind of grammar/word choice in dialogue AS LONG AS it is congruent with the character speaking and the time/location frame of the story. For example, you would not have a Regency dowager or a 1850s Plains Indian saying “Fer sure” or “You’ve got to be kidding me.” If you do have a social doyenne speaking like a dockworker or vice versa, you’d better have a very good reason for it stated in the book.

Expository writing, however, is different. This is everything that is not dialogue. This should be written by grammatical rules with correct and perhaps neutral vocabulary. Even in deep third POV expository writing is the author, not the character, and should be correct both in grammar and word choices.

That said, remember first person works have their own problem, for there the expository writing is from the viewpoint character and should reflect his age, status, attitude and general personality.

Correct use of both dialogue and expository writing can give your characters a depth and life. Done correctly, the reader should be able to determine who said what by the language they use, even if you don’t add a dialogue tag. However – both using a dialogue tag and not using one are constructions which should not be overused.

Writing is always a balancing act, but it becomes easier for both the writer and the reader when the languages choices are correct to the character.

4 thoughts on “Say What?

  1. Great article!

    I had someone say that my one character was too stiff and formal. Um, yes, he was. Thanks for noticing. He was from the top of the upper crust, prep school raised, top business school – did anyone expect him to talk as through he belonged to a motorcycle gang? (head to desk)

    OTOH, my book manager read a ms and when she finished she realized that in the beginning of the story the hero’s English was limited, but slowly over the course of the book, it improved. She said it hit like a rock that I had sneaked in that ever so slight and gradual change during the course of the story. (I’ll pat myself on the back over that one – at least someone noticed it.)

    Characters need their own voice. But no matter what the voice, the reader needs to be able to read and understand what is being said. 🙂


  2. Well said, Janis. I’ve noticed that in many books, the dialogue doesn’t sound like real people talking. Sometimes I don’t get the dialogue right until the third draft when I get a better handle on the character. Reading aloud ones work can help an author “hear” the speech patterns, or better yet, have friends read the story aloud and the author listen.


  3. Excellent post. One thing I’ve learned is that it is much easier to see the problems in someone else’s writing than in my own. That’s why we all need other eyes to read out work.


  4. Good observations. I’ve been reading an ARC that suffers from expository dialogue. Characters tell each other things both already know, lists of facts and details, in a forced and unlikely manner. This is backstory the author could easily have dropped into the narration, especially since it’s first person. This being an ARC, there’s still a chance an editor will address the problem in what otherwise could be a good book.


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