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