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The dirtiest word in fiction writing

June 6, 2013


That’s it.

Innocuous little thing isn’t it. Not exactly a literary crime by any definition. So what’s the problem? Sorry – I mean to say, ‘What’s the problem?’

I was busy writing a scene of dialogue between my two protagonists, and on the re-read I found myself cringing at how blatantly I was ramming a development of the plot down my readers’ throats. It was almost tantamount to a James Bond villain revelation scene – you know, the bit where the megalomaniac reveals his plan for world destruction/domination to Bond, just so that we can get to grips with it as an audience.

I needed to show that character a) was not all that he seemed, that preconceptions can sometimes be inaccurate. To do this I had him engage with character b) (at a point where they’d just met) and berate him for just such preconceptions. It was all going reasonably smoothly until character b) clarified what he’d just heard: ‘So, you’re telling me that you don’t do that and in fact you do something completely opposite’. (It wasn’t quite that bad, but you get the gist).

What I wanted was for character a) to show the reader something about himself, by having character b) confirm it as he made the connection.

But it came across all clumsy, like I was holding my reader by the back of the head and pressing his or her face into the page at the appropriate point.

I made a few changes, but I realised the key crime here was the use of the word ‘so’. I mean, it just comes out all on its own and says, ‘I am about to confirm a fact for you, the reader, so that part of the plot or a character trait is clarified.’ The thing is, I HAD to put character b)’s comment in, otherwise character a) would have been necessitated to state out of the blue: ‘By the way I don’t do that and in fact I do something completely opposite’. It would have been even worse surely?

So…Uh…I mean, therefore, I turned to one of my many writing influences, the late Craig Thomas, whose character’s converse in such intense, emotive, tones that nothing is corny or too conspicuous. How did he do it?

By burying his revelations in detail and argument. Almost all of his dialogue is confrontational, and if it’s between colleagues or comrades, then there’s still the element of banter. A level of disagreement or some undertone of disrespect (or else forced deferral).

Thanks to Craig Thomas, I went back to my little exchange and still offered the suggestion of a surprise character trait, revealed by character a) but instead of just having character b) mindlessly confirming it, I made him argue the point. In fact he denied it outright. ‘Rubbish! No way in the world are you like that. Sorry – try again!’ Or something like that.

It didn’t matter that character b) had actually done the opposite of confirming (and thus clarifying) what character a) was inferring; the statement had been made, the words put into print and, hopefully, the reader sneaked up upon. Because subconsciously, that reader is going to be at the very least wondering if it’s true or not. A few little hints and actions later will be enough to compound the supposition into fact.

Does any of this make sense? If not, just think about it next time you’re trying to wedge some essential element of plot into your writing and it comes across as if you’ve drawn a big pointy finger on the page with a note saying ‘Psst, N.B.’ next to it. And go and read one of your favourite authors to see how they do it. They, after all, will show you much better than I can tell you..

Oh and I bet they almost never use the dirty word. 

That’s it, rambling over for now – I’m off to bed.


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