Thursday, April 17, 2014

How to Write a Novel Part Thirteen

James O. Born

My thanks to Kat Carlson for pinch-hitting for me last week. In the coming weeks I have an impressive array of authors who will be contributing their viewpoints to the blog.

Today I want to start a multi-day discussion on dialogue. Perhaps one of the most important aspects of a modern novel. Of course I wanted to say modern "crime novel," but that's just my personal preference. I've published science fiction as well as crime novels, but I read everything. And I mean all different genres; from literary novels about feuding farming families in the Midwest to historical fiction about Rome. And I am here to tell you there is almost nothing harder than writing good dialogue and nothing that will sink a novel faster than bad dialogue. It doesn't matter if the novel is set in the 1920s or around the birth of Christ, in the South or in South Boston. The choices you make when writing dialogue will affect all aspects of the reader’s experience. I'm not trying to freak you out, but this is the nuclear arms race of writing. There is very little that's more important. Except college football.

Dialogue is one of the clearest and most direct ways to express your character. Even internal dialogue can let the reader know how smart, how funny or how sincere any particular character may be. It's fun to read funny dialogue spoken by characters who remain cool under pressure and can come up with great one-liners, but it is just as important to read dialogue that expresses sorrow or concern in a way that lets readers know the gravity of the situation and the depth of the character’s compassion. The word choices that a character makes in the story should have no reflection on you, as the writer. If you limit yourself to having everyone speak the same way you do, I can almost guarantee you've written a boring novel. The dialogue comes from the character’s background, not yours!

If you're writing a novel about the Ku Klux Klan and other modern racist organizations you should use words that are not generally accepted and I hope you don't use in real life. I had several long discussions with the late Elmore Leonard about the use of various slang for African Americans. He used them as a pointer to the hardest of the hard-edged characters. No one could ever call Dutch Leonard a racist. Eventually, I did use the worst of those words as a way to delineate just how bad the bad guys in my stories really were. I only met one person who ever considered it racist to put it in the novel. No matter how I tried to explain that it clearly had nothing to do with my beliefs, he said the use of such words in any form was racist. He may have a point, but I disagree. I don't think a writer should be censured for trying to make a story realistic and characters true to their background. It's a touchy subject and one you should address on an individual basis, but you can't be scared of it. My first agent once told me, "You can't write a book that you picture your grandmother reading." That is an excellent bit of advice.

Another man, who, after reading Walking Money, suggested that conversations around my house must be spicy with all the salty language. He seemed truly disillusioned when I told him that I rarely used foul language in real life and that that was just one particular character who would string together the most inappropriate and dirty words. In truth, even during the height of my law enforcement career, I ran across real-life people who said disgusting things. And I made it a point not to speak like that, certainly not around my wife and children. But sometimes people can't separate the character from the author. Break out of your comfort zone. Have your characters say things you would never dream of saying. We have a whole lot more to cover on this subject, but since the Miami Heat's final game starts in a few minutes and I do, at some point, have to continue writing novels in order to keep my house and my wife, I'm going to bring this discussion to an end.

But we will continue the discussion over at least the next week and perhaps two. There are so many aspects to writing dialogue that some of them just happen without thinking about it. How do you feel about reading uncomfortable language in a book? Does it sweep you up in the realism of the story? Or does it turn you off? I have very successful author friends who do not use certain words even in their hard-boiled detective novels. This comes back to the first major point of this series of blogs. When writing a novel, it’s up to you how you write it.

Today's quotes are:

“Be daring, take on anything. Don’t labor over little cameo works in which every word is to be perfect. Technique holds a reader from sentence to sentence, but only content will stay in his mind.” ―Joyce Carol Oates

"I write plays because writing dialogue is the only respectable way of contradicting yourself. I put a position, rebut it, refute the rebuttal, and rebut the refutation." —Tom Stoppard


  1. I've had readers complain about "salty language" (your wonderfully dated expression and attribute to me personality characteristics of my villain. I respond by saying the character is based on Jim Born.

  2. After my mother's caregiver read my first book to her (my mom was nearly blind from macular degeneration), she said to me: "You sure know a lot of words...and some of them you didn't learn from me."

    One of my favorite dialogue exchanges from CHINATOWN is when PI Jake Gittes is confirming that Curly's wife is cheating on him:

    Curly: She's just no good.

    Gittes: What can I tell you, kid? When you're right, you're right, and you're right.

    Curly: —Ain't worth thinking about.

    Gittes: You're absolutely right. I wouldn't give her another thought.

    Curly: You, know, you're okay, Mr. Gittes. I know it's your job, but you're okay.

    Gittes:Thanks, Curly. Call me Jake.

    Curly: Thank. You know something, Jake?

    Gittes: What's that, Curly?

    Curly: I think I'll kill her.

  3. Salty is only dated if you remember its introduction.


  4. I really like your series on writing. Are they all gathered in one spot?


  5. Hi, Jim.

    A character's language only makes me uncomfortable when it doesn't fit my impression of a character from the rest of the story (or from previous books in a series). For example, Robert B. Parker's P.I. Spenser has a reputation for poetic repartee, so when I began to notice him using cliches or old jokes, it bothered me.

    On the other hand, it baffles me that readers would pick up books about unsavory characters yet expect them to refrain from dirty deeds and profanity. If readers object to profanity, violence, or whatever, they can choose books about polite, repressed pacifists instead.

  6. You hit the nail on the head, Gerald. Long time no see. I hope you are doing well.


  7. Doing well, thanks, Jim. Since 2011, I've worked on a weekly crime poetry site, Glad to see you're back on Naked Authors. Take care.