Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Expletive-Deleted & Tender Romance

But First! -- Linnea stole my thunder by quoting me and the point I'm making in this post in her post that comes right before this one.


Linnea said:
Real people ramble on with loads of 'umms' and 'yunnos' and 'dudes' and 'uhs.' Characters should keep those kinds of things to a bare minimum. Good dialogue goes for the vital organs, which in this case should be the reader's heart and brain. In that way, it's not unlike poetry or song writing. Good dialogue has impact ...

Linnea goes on to point out how handy a good argument is for sprinkling in crushed-expository-lumps so the reader doesn't notice them.

Anger is a good special case of the general key to great DIALOGUE.


That's a principle. Dialogue is generated by PLOT, and the basis is conflict. Every scene must have "rising action" (the tension, anticipation of plot-movement, and the movement of the plot must graph from a low to end on a HIGH NOTE). That's a stageplay writing principle that works on TV and in books.

Even sex scene dialogue is generated by conflict that is resolved at the climax.

If the scene does not encapsulate this principle -- conflict/ resolution -- then cut it. All dialogue must carry the conflict. Anything characters say to each other that isn't CONFLICT gets cut, summarized, happens off stage, is overheard in fragments, or referred to in another confrontation.

One thing people revert to when inarticulate with rage (angry enough to let you insert backstory) is invective, and other words that don't say anything but take up precious space in your story.

So today I want to discuss the interjection and expletive in dialogue, whereas in my post --
-- I was addressing the general problem of creating the illusion of reality, using dialogue as an example because I assumed everyone reading this blog had mastered dialogue.

The principles I discussed in "Versimilitude vs Reality" actually apply neatly to Kimber An's comment (on Linnea's post on dialogue) that Kimber An sees IMAGES and can't do the description well, but has no trouble with dialogue. And I answered in the comments section that when you can't write the description, the problem is in the dialogue. When the dialogue FAILS, the description can't materialize.

That's extremely hard for anyone to grasp who hasn't taught writing, hands-on, with beginner's manuscripts. Most editors can't do this either. But when a story falls off the conflict line at the half-way point, the problem is not at the half-way point, but probably on PAGE ONE -- or possibly PAGE 5. When an ENDING fails to meld properly with the final climax, the problem is very likely at the 1/4 point, or possibly the 1/2 point.

It's kind of like chiropractic medicine. The patient comes in and says "My knee hurts." -- and the doctor pokes and says, "Ah, your neck is out."

A body is an organic whole, a thing of a single piece. The location of the cause and the symptom may not coincide.

Likewise a story is also a work of art (humans are G-d's artwork), and an organic WHOLE, much greater than the sum of the parts we've been discussing. Thus if a problem surfaces at one point, the cause is likely at some other point -- or in some other technique that's not in the writer's tool box.

EXERCISE: Write a radio script -- or a vignette to play out on a limbo set (against total blackness). Or two prisoners in adjacent dungeon cells. Absolutely not one word of anything but dialogue. If you want my analysis of this exercise, post it to
http://editingcircle.blogspot.com/ Readers should read this dialogue and post on editingcircle.blogspot.com what the dialogue MADE THEM VISUALIZE.

I've posted the above prolog to Editing Circle, so just click to add your exercise as a comment.

So for now, let's meditate on the idea that in storytelling, description is not description at all - but the ILLUSION OF DESCRIPTION. It is a bare suggestion that the reader then paints by the numbers in their own mind's eye. Part of that suggestion lies within dialogue. When description fails, dialogue is the problem. The illusion of speech has failed, somehow.

The kinds of writers who have the most trouble with this "illusion of" principle are the sort who did well in school, or maybe became teachers (especially HS or College!). They've spent too much time reading and writing the actual thing and can't convert themselves to manipulating the illusion of the thing.

Learning to cast that illusion without limiting what the reader sees (or hears, tastes, smells, etc), learning to get your own visualization of what the location looks like out of the story, is hard.

So practice for the moment on something much easier -- the illusion of speech. Dialogue. And then I have to remember to connect dialogue back to description and show you how they interact. All the individual components of story we've been discussing all interact. In math, you call that "cross-terms."

The principle is the same with all the techniques of fiction writing. Learn this principle and it will affect how you handle description, dialogue, narrative, action, and (gasp!) exposition.

Yes, you do need SOME exposition. To keep exposition from "lumping" -- you learn how to create the illusion of exposition, not exposition itself (such as you'd read in a textbook).

So, now to today's discussion of interjections, expletives, and specifically invective. I recently put aside a review book because a huge percentage of it was cuss words (those usually acceptable in polite company, too) and that book was published by a big publisher. So I had to analyze what went wrong with it -- and here below is the result.

Expletive Deleted & Tender Romance

On this Alien Romance blog, we've discussed the use of racey word choices in sex scenes, and many other vocabulary issues writers face. Let's take a closer look at characterization and vocabulary.

Can you write a SAVE THE CAT! moment (see Blake Snyder's books series on screenwriting titled SAVE THE CAT! and SAVE THE CAT! GOES TO THE MOVIES) just using vocabulary?

I think so, but it'll take some study of vocabulary and characterization.

Most beginning books on writing emphasize vocabulary building, though it's not such a focus topic in grammar school and High School any more.

But it's still true that in Business, politics, and even war, people judge you and your character -- your abilities and deficiencies -- on your word choices.

Syntax counts, too.

Today we acknowledge more English dialects as being legitimate expressions, and so we see more novels and films made with characters who speak with an accent or in dialect.

The advice given all beginning writers is NOT to tweek your spelling to indicate a character's dialect or accent. It makes it very hard to read, and in today's express-lane lifestyle, people scan fast. I would follow that advice, far into advanced skill levels. Robert A. Heinlein did one book in heavy dialect spelled out (MOON IS A HARSH MISTRESS) and did it well, but never again. Take a lesson there.

You can use word-choice to delineate character without getting into pronunciation.

Even in screenwriting, it isn't wise to put in twisted spelling to indicate a character's pronunciation. Actors will create accent as they create the character.

And you know what? Readers create accents in their minds when they want to.

So let the reader create, and thus become invested in your characters.

However, you as writer, must provide the outline for the reader to flesh out -- as a coloring book provides only B&W line drawings for kids to color in.

One way many beginning writers grab immediately to delineate a character's class, education level, strength of will, and general attitude is to pepper the character's dialogue with normal-sounding, ordinary-seeming invective.

As I noted in my post Verisimilitude-vs-Reality

dialogue is not REAL SPEECH.

Real people of a certain social stripe will insert the F-word before almost every noun. Or vary it only with the D-word, or H-word. (I don't want this post scrapped by the censors.)

Characters who use these insertions come off sounding (in the reader's mind) like talk show guests who say "um" and "you-know" before imparting any information. Frustrating, untrustworthy, and not comprehensible.

Of course we don't know! That's why we asked! So why say "you know" four times in every sentence?

It's a speech rhythm habit you hear all the time in normal speech. What you hear, you imitate. That's how people pick up the F, D and H word inserts and blurt them out even when the word adds no meaning and expresses no actual emotional content.

Public speakers are trained (or mostly trained) to suppress that "You know" and "um" interjection.

"You know" is not invective, but if you listen with a writer's ear to real speech you will find it fills the same void in an utterance that invective often does.

It's what you say when you don't know what you're going to say.

Even mild invective (or perhaps especially mild invective) performs the same function.

If you study Linguistics and anthropology together, you will find long discourses and detailed studies showing how those of various societies communicate the old Two-Way-Radio command "Over". It's still used in Ham Radio. It's a clear verbal signal that you're giving up your turn to talk.

In normal speech the signal can be a pause, an eyeblink, an inflection in tone, or some combination of all that plus something else. But we do have, in every social millieu, an "I'm done; it's your turn to say something" signal that is very formalized and very necessary to keep interactions from becoming combat.

With English, the usual rule is that if the other person is making a sound with their voice, then it is rude to start talking. So we learn to fill in the necessary pauses in speech (when you're making up what you say as you go) with um, uh, you-know, and other temporizing interjections or invective that don't mean anything except "it's still my turn to talk."

With cold text, however, putting those interjections or invective into dialogue tends to shut the reader out of participating in what the character is saying, and of being the character who is saying it.

The cold-text reader who is caught up in the emotions of the scene will slow down and read the dialogue at an out-loud pace, creating the tense silences, the awkward pauses, the blank moments, listening with their own inner ear.

If you fill the pauses with placeholders, you shut the reader out of entering into the character's mind and emotions.

Now, sometimes, artistically, you want to do that.

Sometimes you want to show how nervous a character is, or how uneducated. Sometimes the speech pattern is part of a disguise of a deep cover agent talking just like the people being spied on.

There are times you must do it, so you must study how it's done.

And remember dialogue is NOT real speech but the illusion of real speech. Illusion.

Also storytelling is an art. The secret of great art lies with discipline. It is what you do not put on the page that powers your art.

Consider the artistic impact of a clean-mouthed Hero -- right at the climactic moment -- using a blazing hot curse. If he's been cursing every third word all the way through the story, it has no impact. If it's the only time he uses such language, it carries searingly hot emotion to the reader.

Shock value. You get it not by ladling on tons of extra colorful expletives, but by inserting one, just one, in the exactly correct place, and choosing that exact word to mean precisely what has to be said at that point.

Most often, in real speech, when people use the D word for example, they really are not referring to the Creator of the Universe and commanding Him to do their bidding.

What they really mean is something more like, "My will has been thwarted" or "I didn't expect that and I should have" or "I dislike this thing" or "I have no respect for this thing."

Alien Romance Writers who are doing from-scratch worldbuilding have an opportunity to build into the scientific basis of their world a function or process that does not exist in our world. Such an alien process can generate unique invective.

I did that with Sime~Gen -- and the vocabulary that is never used in polite Sime company is based on the experience of a transfer interruption. Shen. Shen comes in various levels of severity, shen, shenshi, shenshay, shenshid etc. (for Sime vocabulary see:
http://www.simegen.com/jl/nivetsoundfiles/ )

"Adult" filters won't block this post for containing those Sime words -- but they would in Sime society!

What is it about invective such as the F-word that makes it be rejected by "polite society?"

The D-word, the F-word, and the Sh-word, and all their derivatives, refer to an intimate act.
Your relationship with your deity; your relationship with necessary but despised partners; your relationship with your body's demands.

These are almost as intimate and personal as what Shen refers to.

It is that dimension of personal, spiritual, individual, deep psychological relevance that gives invective its power when used out-of-context.

The deeply intimate used in public.

The deeply religious used in the profane context.

The utterly profane used in a religious context.

Take the vocabulary or jargon of one process and splatter it over a situation belonging to a different process, and you can create your own invective, alien invective, that won't be censored but will make readers memorize your byline.

So then how do you use invective to characterize if you can't copy real speech where interjections form the bulk of the utterance?

That depends on your readership or audience. People judge other people on their speech patterns, accent, rhythms, choice of words -- but most of all upon their ability (or inability) to express themselves with precision.

Characters you want the reader to respect must speak with the kind of precision used normally by the reader -- even if the word is banned-in-polite-company and the dialogue is taking place in polite company.

Characters you want the reader to understand as uneducated or uneducable may use words to express emotions even if the words are imprecise and inappropriate.

An admirable character reduced by events (such as the kind of argument Linnea Sinclair's characters get into) to a gibbering idiot might stomp out of the room spewing an inarticulate string of D-words.

As a rule of thumb, emotion wipes out the higher intellect's ability to phrase meaning, or even to think. (yeah, the S-x scene, and talking dirty on purpose -- it has a fiery effect when an articulate and erudite character chooses to talk dirty in PRIVATE with a willing partner, especially if it's been established he/she doesn't have that kind of colorful vocabulary.)

So a given character's ability to express meaning should change with the emotional intensity of the scene. How the character's articulateness shifts with emotion characterizes him/her more than any given level of articulateness could.

And that, I think, is the key to the Alien Romance "Save The Cat!" moment -- the moment when the reader is sucked into sympathy with or into identifying with the character because the character displays a trait that bespeaks a "good soul."

The real character inside the shell shows through the coarse crust and you see the intellect, self-respect, and integrity that makes a person a candidate for a life-long relationship rather than a one-night-stand.

That is you can establish your characters' mental acuity and even morality by their speech patterns, but if a character uses the same speech pattern in every scene he/she is in -- you aren't being effective in using dialogue to characterize.

Anthropology also studies the differences in vocabulary and speech patterns in public, private and among all women, and among all men. Vocabulary is often gender-specific to the company.

A character who displays a lack of that flexibility (Star Trek's Spock for example) betrays an element of character that readers/viewers will interpret according to their own culture.

Spock was considered repressed and up-tight by many American viewers because of that inflexibility in public and private manner.

My own Star Trek alternate universe, the Kraith Universe, points out that human anthropological rules don't apply to Vulcans and Spock's speech patterns are Vulcan. His inflexibility actually implies something very alien indeed, not repression. Many readers were unable to grasp this point.

See my Kraith Universe stories here:

We all know what a sex object Spock became, the alure enhanced mightily by his half-alien ancestry. And we know how - um - well, you know, uh, logically - he expressed himself most of the time.

Then there's Hans Solo. Also hot stuff, but very human. Luke Skywalker was no slouch in that department either.

To acquire a facility with writing dialogue for non-human hot-stuff, do a contrast/compare between Spock, Hans Solo, and some icon of your own choosing.

Ask yourself what sort of woman would be attracted to a man she heard spouting filth (whatever she thought filth was, but the reader might not hear it that way) then turning to her and cooing tender language at her.

What would she think of another man who spoke to her the blistering way he spoke to a foul mouthed guy?

What do we tell the world by the kind of mouth we run?

But more important -- what do your readers and your editors think about foul mouthed characters as icons? (puts one in mind of some Oscar nominees, I think).

The most important thing to do to learn to handle vocabulary in dialogue is to listen to both dialogue and real speech and become sensitive to vocabulary choices.

But that's easier said than done. Here is a handy rule of thumb that works to solve most writing problems:

Less Is More.

Delete ALL adjectives and adverbs from your text. Replace the Noun or Verb they modify with another vocabulary choice with the combined meaning.

Expletives are a "modifyer" in the same category as adjectives and adverbs -- delete the modifyer, change the word modified to mean precisely what the combination would mean.

Above all, always keep your targeted reader in mind. Use words found only in the OED when addressing a readership that would be thrilled to discover a rare but perfect word. Always aim to stretch your reader's vocabulary - being sure to explain the meaning of the word by the context.

I can imagine a really hot romance between an anthropologist and a linguist assigned to study and map the languages of Earth today. What beautiful arguments they could have over the OED - to make up after.

Jacqueline Lichtenberg

PS: if you're having a hard time finding these scattered posts by Jacqueline Lichtenberg on writing craft, you may want to "subscribe" so you get notified when and where they turn up. Here's how.


  1. Here's a link I'd have included in this post but I just found it. It's about invective and public perception.

  2. http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20090203/ap_on_en_mo/people_christian_bale_4
    Trying again.

  3. The link is too long. Try pasting it together




    Be sure to put th 4 after the last _

  4. LOVE the post!

    One of the things I've learned about dialogue has to do with accents (and I'm glad you brought that up). Writing the "deez" and "demz" and "dose guys" will eventually bore the reader or confuse him. (Also annoying are writers who write a character with a head cold in a nearly incomprehensible fashion, ie: Eye gob a cobe din by nobse.)

    The thing a lot of writers don't seem to grasp is that in writing an accent, the accent is NOT an accent to the speaker. Someone from Alabama does NOT hear himself as speaking with a southern accent. He speaks in a normal fashion--to him. Yet writers--especially some in the historical romance field--tend to write their Scottish lads and lassies 'so that noon canna unnerstan' 'em.'

    They completely ignore the fact that to another Scotsman, THERE IS NO ACCENT.

    As for expletives--and I use a fair amount given I write military--I think Melissa Scott's CONCEIVING THE HEAVENS gives a wonderful rule called The Strangest Quotient (or it might be Strangeness Budget). Essentially, no more that one bizarre or outstanding world per page (if that.) And she references not only those fledling SF writers who insist on renaming every object with some conglomeration of consonants...

    The crlutfik reached for the tupriuxes just as the t'r'wesg crashed through the opening votpoxert...

    but she also warns about expletive use. Too much and the shock value section of the reader's mind becomes numb.

    However, if you want to see creative expletives done well, read Tanya Huff's Staff Sgt Torin Kerr series (Valor's Choice, Better Part of Valor, etc.) These books are in a totally (SF) military (Marine) setting, and Marines talk like Marines. But the various expressions they use--and she includes several alien ones--as well as their timing is just impeccable. And hilarious. I live with a man who uses F-bombs like most people use punctuation so I'm not easily offended. Yet I have read romances where expletives and graphic descriptions DID offend. So I'm not immune. Huff does it beautifully and I found nothing offensive at all. I even gave the series to my daughter and if I'd found the dialogue problematic, she'd not have had a chance at the books.

    So as Jacqueline said a few posts ago, don't break rules. Make a new rule that fit. Tanya Huff has done that but she's also a noted master of the craft. And it shows. ~Linnea