Craft

Realistic Language in Fiction

The “Your Questions Answered” Series

__________

I’m a former crime reporter and trauma survivor with lots of counseling writing a suspense novel. I’m trying to balance Christian fiction guidelines with the speech and behavior I’ve seen in police stations and at crime scenes. I’ve come up with some of my own ways to show through action that a cop is angry or frustrated, but can you guide us to some books where cops sound like cops without the swear words? I’m not a big fan of “he swore softly under his breath,” which I see a good bit. Also, is there such a thing as a character being too angry with God, as long as she turns back to him well before the story ends? 

I admire and understand that you want to be realistic. But since Christian readers are looking for uplifting fiction, I think you are safe focusing on the victory of God’s glory over the day-to-day grit of how some police officers and criminals might speak and act. At the same time, I agree that using the same dialogue as you would for small children would take the reader out of the story. Many an author before you has tackled this problem and succeeded. I recommend reading popular Christian authors writing in the suspense genre for guidelines. Here is an excellent link that will take you to 35 recommendations from Family Fiction online magazine. They often publish similar lists in various genres.

Steve Laube has also written about the broader topic in his post “Edgy Fiction.”

As for being too angry with God, as long as you write a convincing portrayal of the character’s journey and don’t make the conversion too fast or pat, you should be fine.

Your turn:

Do you think police officers and detectives are portrayed accurately in Christian suspense novels? Why or why not?

What is your favorite conversion story in fiction? Why?

For the entire series, click here: “Your Questions Answered.”

 

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Show Versus Tell – HELP!

The “Your Questions Answered” Series __________ Could you write about the difference between showing and telling? I am constantly mixing them up. Thanks! Telling is like giving readers a grocery list. They must memorize facts to absorb your story. For example: She never stood out in a crowd, any crowd. …

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What’s in a Name?

Years ago I was reading a book by Louis L’Amour, a favorite author of mine. I don’t remember which book it was (I haven’t yet read them all, but I’ve read many of them), but I do recall being confused throughout. Why? I’m so glad you asked. Because three of …

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He Said. She Said.

A blog reader recently left an excellent comment on an earlier post:

Tamela, fiction workshop presenters taught me that the best word for “said” is “said”–that others only tend to slow down the reader’s eye. I’d appreciate a discussion on this.

While I don’t know the workshop presenters in question, what I can guess they meant is to avoid substituting creative verbs for “said” as a tag. For example:

“Cyrus, tell that joke about the tortoise and the hare,” the cowboy chuckled.

“This caviar is not up to my standards,” the dowager sniffed.

These tags aren’t without merit, because they do help convey the emotions and actions of the characters. In fact, they could even be expanded into effective action tags. At the least, simple punctuation would keep these characters from performing the improbable task of sniffing and chuckling words:

“Cyrus, tell that joke about the tortoise and the hare.” The cowboy chuckled.

“This caviar is not up to my standards.” The dowager sniffed.

So why would fiction workshop presenters tell writers to use the word “said” as a tag? I would say that there is a time and place to use a simple tag. In a fast-paced scene, a simple tag will keep the action flowing. For example:

“Get the gun,” Bruce said.

“What?”

“I said, get the gun.”

“Why?”

“Don’t ask questions,” Bruce said. “Just do as I say. Now.”

In a case such as this, complicated action tags could slow down the rhythm and urgency of the scene, distracting the reader rather than adding to the story. The “said” tag is used infrequently to help the reader keep track of the conversation.

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Use Your Thesaurus and Dictionary Correctly

Today we look at how one writer uses his thesaurus and dictionary in a fascinating way. The following is a five-minute video from Martin Amis, one of Britain’s well-known literary novelists and essayists. I recommend clicking the “cc” close-captioned on the bottom next to the settings button. That way you …

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Letting Go of Your Babies

One of the worst mistakes writers can make is being too possessive of their words. They fight for each adjective, adverb, and conversation tag.

My early writing suffered from too many words. I once wrote an artist didn’t “really” understand the difficulties of making a living in his profession. The editor kindly cut all instances of “really,” “just,” “so,” “very,” and other weak words experienced editors call “weasel” words.

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Floating … Floating … Gone …

Writers conferences and blogs talk about this topic often so I don’t pretend to be breaking new ground with this post. Yet I still see some floating body parts and cliches creep into otherwise great stories. No, I don’t mean murder mysteries depicting a stray arm floating in a river. I mean much gentler fare.

Yes, floating body parts offer the reader — and writer — shortcuts. But relying on them as description in narrative doesn’t challenge anyone’s imagination.

Rolling eyes

The offender I see most often is:

“She rolled her eyes.”

Yes, we all know this means that her eyes went from the ceiling and back. No, wait a minute. Her eyes didn’t go the ceiling and back. Her gaze went to the ceiling and back. See the difference? No pun intended.

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Tag, You’re It!

One of the most common habits I see burdening stories is overemphasis on conversational tags, which goes hand in hand with not making good use of action tags. Here’s an example I just made up:

“No,” she exclaimed. She looked at the the pot of stew bubbling the stove and saw red juice splattering. She began to stir.

Unable to resist multitasking, I demonstrated several bad habits in the above sample of poor writing.

First, punctuation. When a character exclaims, use an exclamation point.

“No!”

“She exclaimed” adds no new information unless you need to designate a character from several so in almost every case, omit it. Same can be said for tags such as “said” and “asked.” In fact, “asked” accomplishes nothing because the question mark says it all.

Any tag should reflect what the character is saying. “He’s a slippery snake,” she hissed, trumps, “What a viper,” she hissed. If in doubt, entertain the office cat. Read sentences aloud to make sure the tag works.

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C.S. Lewis on Writing

by Steve Laube

On June 26, 1956, C.S. Lewis replied to letter from an American girl named Joan with advice on writing:

Always try to use the language so as to make quite clear what you mean and make sure your sentence couldn’t mean anything else. Always prefer the plain direct word to the long, vague one. Don’t implement promises, but keep them.
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