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.