“As with all other aspects of fiction, the key to writing good dialogue is honesty. And if you are honest about the words coming out of your characters’ mouth, you’ll find that you’ve let yourself in for a fair amount of criticism.” Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir Of The Craft, Page 217
Stephen King’s book On Writing: A Memoir Of The Craft is considered a must by many in the profession. The quote above continues on about how King receives mail at least once a week calling him all sorts of names because of what his characters say. A lot of people confuse what a character believes with what an author believes.
Believe me when I say, that if I have a character murder someone, I don’t believe in people murdering people. I want that on the record. Oddly, I imagine King has rarely been called a murderer.
The dialogue he’s referring to are defamatory, degrading, and profanity filled. I agree that authors need to have their characters speak honestly. Here comes the hard part. Through which pair of eyes and ears are we listening with?
King believes, or at least notes that even the good little Christians will say the expletives when faced with things such as that smashing of the thumb with the hammer scenario, unless it’s an old maid aunt. I’ve never been called an old maid aunt before. Then again I was only hit in the eye with a fast ball by my son. The only thing I said was “Ow!” and “Gosh!”.
You see, my habits of life are to not use certain words in thoughts and conversation. What this in turn creates is a creative environment of ‘clean’ dialogue. Strangely, the no profanity doesn’t seem to come out as dishonest to people.
How can this be? If you create the setting, the world, and use the proper sentence structure, you don’t need certain words to convey certain emotions. I’m not saying a writer shouldn’t use profanity or whatever else they want to, but I wanted to point out that King doesn’t have it perfectly right, and he would probably be the first one to tell you that. His book is very good and he doesn’t profess to be the end all be all of writing. I think that, and his own honesty of life and experience is what makes this book one of the Top 5 books on writing people recommend.
Honesty is what every book must have in order to be an honest success. Have you read a book and then suddenly there is this scene that makes no sense? It’s an obvious insert. Someone decided the book needed that scene. Hopefully the rest of the book is strong enough to overcome an obvious veering away from a character’s portrayal to that point.
If you are an organic writer, like I am, your characters write your books. You tell them that you want them to arrive in the Bahamas by the winter of 1705-06 but you leave it to them how to get there. Along the way the characters you wanted as good guys end up being less than likeable and some even end up dead. That’s honesty.
I know sometimes you read a book that’s a success and it is so dishonest you want your money back although it was a free download for three days only. It makes you wonder if you are doing it all wrong. The question is, do you want to live with yourself, hold that book up to the world and say you wrote it?
Profanity or not, honesty or not, and what honesty of dialogue means is up to you. My advice is to be honest, whatever that means to you.
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