In his 2000 craft book On Writing, Stephen King says,
The key to writing good dialogue is honesty. And if you are honest about the words coming out of your characters’ mouths, you’ll find that you’ve let yourself in for a fair amount of criticism.
This week I’ve talked about why dialogue needs to define your characters and why your dialogue overall needs to be strong. The last thing to touch on when it comes to dialogue?
As you go through your scenes, you need to make sure what your characters are saying is honest.
When Stephen King says being honest at all times in your writing might set you up later for criticism, what he’s really talking about is having your characters use profanity. Many people don’t like to read profanity in fiction, even if the characters he or she is reading about would use profanity in real life, and especially in the situation he or she is currently in.
When I’m reading an adult novel, and hundreds of pages go by without any swearing, I start to question if the author is doing his or her job. It’s totally fine if you’re writing a main character that doesn’t ever use profanity. I haven’t heard my aunt swear once in nearly thirty-five years, so if she were a character in a novel, having her scream “Shit!” at a high-stakes moment would be false dialogue, not honest dialogue.
But there are lots of people who scream “Shit!” when they’re startled, or they scream something worse.
And if you’re not showing your characters swear in the most trying circumstances of your book, it won’t read as authentic as it could. If you’re writing the book in the first person point-of-view of an adult, you also need to keep these thoughts in mind for the prose that exists outside of dialogue too.
What About in Books for Children?
Now there is one area of the book world where writing honest dialogue gets a little tricky, and that’s in the world of middle grade and young adult fiction, which I write. Your dialogue not only has to sound honest when it’s coming out of the mouth of, say, a twelve-year-old or a sixteen-year-old. But you also have to write your dialogue in a somewhat stricter set of rules, especially in middle grade.
I write MG horror, where my characters are constantly getting into stressful situations and terrifying circumstances, but in the cases of books for this age market, profanity is essentially off limits. Thankfully it’s honest for the most part to not have these characters swearing. I know I didn’t start swearing well into my high school years.
But what happens when you have adult characters talking in middle grade? Are they allowed to swear?
Still no. Kids as young as five or six are reading middle grade, and you have to make sure the language of your story is age appropriate.
Now the world of young adult fiction is even trickier because, yes, most teens swear, and to write 300+ pages about teenagers where nobody ever uses profanity is not being honest. The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas is an example of a recent YA novel that has lots of swearing, and The Fault in Our Stars has a much needed f-bomb at the end.
At the same time though, you don’t want to go overboard.
Dropping f-bombs in every other line of dialogue might limit your potential to reaching lots of readers, and so you have to be careful. If one of your characters swears all the time, have him or her swear often. But again, you need to question every use of profanity too, and see how much you might be able to cut later while maintaining honesty in your dialogue.
Bottom line is this: make sure your dialogue is true to each of your characters.
As you revise your work, pay attention to what each character says and how each character says it. Would he or she say something different, more profane maybe? Don’t hesitate in using profanity if it’s honestly what your character would say.
There’s so much that goes into writing good dialogue. Honesty is definitely one of the key factors!