By Noelle Sterne

You may be scandalized at the suggestion in this title. But consider this: As writers, we’re sensitive to words and probably almost always think about them. After all, they’re our currency. Even when we’re taking breaks, talking with other people, reading magazine articles, or watching television, we’re almost unconsciously evaluating—with disdain or grudging admiration—the words we hear. This sensitivity can help us assuage any lingering guilt for any time away from writing.

Admittedly a rationale for marathon TV watching, I discovered that television shows can teach us valuable lessons when we write. I’m talking about diction beyond the standard scripted sentences that are almost unavoidable (“I want my lawyer.” “Crash cart, STAT!” “We need to talk.”).

Once we recognize the penchant for too-easy words, we can avoid them in our writing. Here I describe two types of lazy language and suggest lessons we can learn from them and remedies to apply in our own work.

Explicit, Ethan!

In an episode of “Raising the Bar,” a TV series (unfortunately belated) about public defenders, a lawyer takes on elderly twin brothers who have illegally cashed a deceased friend’s Social Security check. In the first meeting, instead of acknowledging the seriousness of their case and listening attentively, the brothers (played by actual old-time comedians) barrage the attorney with a constant stream of jokes.

One brother rattles off a story about an old man who goes to the doctor. When the doctor asks for samples of bodily substances, the patient replies, “Doc, just take my underwear.” The other brother shouts, “No, stupid! Underpants! Underpants! Specific is always funnier.”

Lesson:  He’s right. Specific is also, well, more specific. How can you sharpen your language?

Remedy: Say you’re writing a mystery set in winter in Chicago about a man in dire circumstances. You’ve supplied enough of the backstory to show him believably forced into robbing a shipment of expensive fur coats. You write, “Jeffrey pulled on his jacket and headed out the door.”

Given Jeffrey’s poor circumstances in a freezing Chicago night and his motive for his choice of what to rob, the story is enlivened and our sympathies deepened when we know what kind of jacket Jeffrey pulled on. His personal situation contrasts radically with the luxurious coats: “Jeffrey pulled on his windbreaker, much too thin in the brutal weather, and headed out the door.” Or, better: “Jeffrey pulled on his thin windbreaker, threading his hand into the torn left sleeve, and headed out the door.”

One Sentence Fits All

Today’s trendy colloquialisms show up in many television shows. A ubiquitous offender I keep hearing on almost every primetime show is a question with particularly annoying, tortured syntax.

Only one example: In a series of TV movies adapted from Robert B. Parker’s Jesse Stone mystery novels, a Los Angeles homicide cop fired for drinking becomes sheriff of a small New England town. With recurring regulars, often absorbing plots, and a range of engrossing characters, nevertheless at some point almost every one of them asks another the same question.


When Jesse reveals an arcane statistic about the population of a far-off small Western town, the homespun woman deputy asks, “You know that how?”

When Jesse confronts his rather cool sometime love interest with a certain accusation, she asks, “You know that how?”

When Jesse’s shrink (and former cop) tells him about corrupt big-city cops, in an inspired variation Jesse asks, “And you know this how?”

Whatever the burning curiosity, why does every character speak the same way? We know this how? By listening to them.

            Lesson: Vary your dialogue! Match the speech patterns and idioms with your characters’ traits! Resist the temptation of today’s hot verbal fashions.

            Remedy: Your characters’ responses should reflect their natures, as in these possibilities instead of the how? question.

Homespun woman deputy’s question: “Wow, Jesse, where did you get to know that?”

Jesse’s lover’s response: “Ha, big man. I can’t imagine how you knew that.”

Jesse’s question to shrink: “You’re the former big-city cop. Who was your pipeline?”

If you’re stuck for a reply true to a given character, ask the character talk to you. James Scott Bell in The Art of War for Writers advises us, in one of his favorite techniques, to write a character’s “voice journal”: “The voice journal is simply a character speaking in stream-of-consciousness mode” (p. 116).

Author Karen Dionne relates how a character came to her and started talking: “I woke up in the middle of the night, and this character was in my head talking to me, telling me her history and who she was. I wasn’t dreaming about this character. She was just there, as real as if she were sitting in a chair beside me” (When Characters Talk, Writers Listen, 2014).

The first time writer Lucy Mitchell heard her characters talking to her, she called the experience “magical,” went into “a state of literary hysteria,” and zealously wrote down everything they said (When You Let Your Characters Talk to You, n.d.).

Invite your characters to speak. You may need to let them go on a while, but you’ll know when you hear the right answers, especially to that maddening “You know that how?” question. As you prompt your characters, you’ll notice their natural cadences and quirks. Your characters will become less one-dimensional, your story will ring truer, and your reader’s interest will perk up.

Photo credits: 1) 2)

Dr. Noelle Sterne


Author, editor, writing coach, writing workshop leader, and spiritual counselor, Noelle has published over 400 writing craft articles, spiritual pieces, essays, and short stories. Publications include Author Magazine, Chicken Soup for the Soul, Children’s Book Insider, Coffeehouse For Writers, Funds for Writers, InnerSelf, Inside Higher Ed, New Age Journal, Pen & Prosper, Sasee, Story Monsters Ink, The Write Place At the Write Time, Unity Magazine, Writer’s Journal, Writing in a Woman’s Voice, The Writer, and Writer’s Digest. Academic editor and coach, with the Ph.D. from Columbia University, she helps doctoral students wrestling with their dissertations and publishes articles in several blogs for dissertation writers. Her book Trust Your Life: Forgive Yourself and Go After Your Dreams (Unity Books) contains examples from her practice, writing, and other aspects of life to help readers release regrets, relabel their past, and reach lifelong yearnings. Her book Challenges in Writing Your Dissertation: Coping With the Emotional, Interpersonal, and Spiritual Struggles (Rowman & Littlefield Education, 2015) further aids doctoral candidates to award of their degrees. As part of pursuing her writing Dream, Noelle’s mission is to help other writers reach their own and create the lives they truly desire.

A Chicken Soup for the Soul podcast (May 16, 2017) featured her story “Time to Say Goodbye” from a 2013 volume(!):


Noelle’s books:

Author, Challenges in Writing Your Dissertation: Coping With the Emotional, Interpersonal, and Spiritual Struggles. Rowman & Littlefield Education, 2015.

Author, Trust Your Life: Forgive Yourself and Go After Your DreamsUnity Books, 2011.

Published posts on Two Drops of Ink:

1) Do You Want to Prevent Predictable Plots?




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  1. Michelle and Slug–

    Again, many thanks. I am so glad to hear that this post has helped you. Michelle, interesting that you mention screenwriting. I attempted plays but missed the opportunity for lush descriptions (most of which should come out anyway). Slug, love your “being” your characters. You might like to order a sandwich or Starbucks drink in each character’s voice to see what would happen. (Would the barista notice?)

  2. Hello, Dr. Sterne.

    TV is a goldmine for “show, don’t tell” examples. I hit the “pause” button often to jot down a phrase or shorthand a scene. The independents have discovered some superb screenwriters, scenes and dialogue far removed from the droll, redundant, Hollywood drivel of old.

    A “voice journal” would be an interesting method for discovering various speech patterns of characters involved.

    I always imagine my individual characters talking with what would be their natural voices and particular responses. It’s fun for me, I often physically and verbally mimic their involvement – act it out, so to speak (pun intended!).

    An illuminating post, Doctor. Thanks.

  3. This is full of wonderful insight of language use in the most common of places. Your encouragement to PAY ATTENTION is such an important skill for a writer! I think maybe you should be a screenwriter. 🙂

  4. Thank you all for your insightful and appreciative comments. We can learn from television, movies, podcasts, radio (what’s that?), and Starbucks eavesdropping (oops).
    So let’s keep attuned and have our notepads handy. Here’s to good listening and great writing.

  5. What a great idea you propose, but I must confess that after having watched all the Jesse Stone movies more than a few times, (you could say I’m a big fan) I never noticed the colloquialism you mentioned, and the reason why is because I often use this phrase. So, what is one person’s colloquialism is another’s natural language. The show supposedly takes place outside of Boston, and I live in Wisconsin. Interesting…

  6. Noelle, you certainly started the thinking with that title. You are right different people will portray the same sentiments in a different way. The young New Yorker may even have a little difficulty understanding the Yorkshire-man, although they are speaking the same language. That is what makes use of this language so exciting. These differences must be portrayed within the words of characters.

  7. Excellent advice, Noelle. Sometimes, when I hear a unique phrase from a family member, I’ll ask them if I can use it in a book. They never say no; they say they don’t want to be quoted though. 🙂
    Blessings ~ Wendy

  8. Excellent! I’m glad I’m not the only one sitting in the family TV room jotting down quirky quotes! And you watch the same shows I do. Crazy. My children have asked me to “put away the notebook” … I have been known to frequently press the pause on a great movie to copy a great line. Blessings! Love the writing. Thanks for the extra resources.

  9. Great article. Thanks. My characters become so real I feel like I’m almost them. I recently had another author do an interview with my main character, and it was such a fun exercise. I was my character for the interview.

  10. Noelle,
    I appreciate your helping my guilt for watching endless Seinfeld episodes. I’m a Seinfeld encyclopedia (laughing). I think you raise some valid points in this post. I think TV can really help with fiction writing and dialogue. We can really learn the use of the senses and learn how to “show and not tell” in our writing if we pay attention to TV with a writers mind, seeing how the screen writers prompt emotion from the actors.

    Creative writing has always been my nemesis. I’m a nonfiction writer at best, fiction escapes me. We appreciate your expertise and advice. And I know our readers enjoy your posts.

  11. Noelle, This post is packed full of helpful tips. It’s funny you mentioned certain word patterns while watching T.V. I have encountered that myself. I never really thought about it until you made reference to it. I always shrugged it off as coincidence.

    I enjoyed the lesson and remedy tips on varying dialogue. The one that resonated the most was allowing your characters to speak to you. That can be a little creepy, but useful. 🙂 Thanks, John

    • Many thanks, John. Glad you were helped. Characters speaking to you are simply your subconscious given voice. Another thing I’ve learned from watching TV is that no detail, closeup, or character introduced is ever random or coincidental. Plotwise, often the “nice” neighbor down the block, introduced for thirty seconds and bringing a welcome casserole when the heroine moves in, turns out to be the surreptitious serial killer.

      • Characters speaking has always been an interesting topic of mine. I’ve read articles about authors deeply involved with bringing fourth their characters. So much detail to bring out of thin air. It goes to show you the power of ones mind to create.

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