Have Your Characters Say What You Wish You’d Said

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

We’ve all been there. We’re driving home from a party where we were engaged in robust conversation. Someone said something boneheaded and we thought, That was a boneheaded thing to say. But not wishing to hammer that very obvious nail, we did not reply.

Now, halfway home, it comes to us. The perfect comeback! Witty, wise, pithy. If only we could go back in time! We’d be like the legendary members of the Algonquin round table. (“He and I had an office so tiny, that an inch smaller and it would have been adultery.” – Dorothy Parker.)

There’s an entire Seinfeld episode based on this premise. George is at a Yankees’ board meeting where a platter of shrimp is served. He over-enthusiastically consumes the crustaceans, prompting another board member, Reilly, to remark, “Hey, George. The ocean called. They’re running out of shrimp.” The other members laugh. George can think of nothing to say in return.

Only later does he come up with what he thinks is the perfect comeback. “Oh, yeah? Well, the Jerk Store called, and they’re running out of you!” George’s friends are not impressed and offer alternatives. “No!” George insists. “It’s Jerk Store!”

Now George has to elaborately recreate the encounter. Reilly has since moved to Akron, Ohio to work for Firestone. George sets up an entire meeting there to discuss a Snow Tire Day at Yankee Stadium. He also arranges for a platter of shrimp to be served. He starts stuffing his face, and sure enough, Reilly makes the same crack. George stands and fires his comeback, but is unprepared for the comeback to the comeback.

George: Oh yeah, Reilly? The Jerk Store called, and they’re running out of you!

Reilly: So what? You’re their all-time bestseller!

Leaving George hung out to dry once again.

This fate does not have to befall your characters, for you have the luxury of time and reflection to give them wit on the spot.

Now, let me state up front that wit does not always mean funny. Many times it is, but the real basis of wit is sharpness. It gets the point across crisply, memorably.

For example, in Casablanca Rick (Humphrey Bogart) is talking to Ugarte (Peter Lorre), a low-level schemer. At one point Ugarte says, “You despise me, don’t you?”

Rick says, “If I gave you any thought I probably would.”

That’s sharp, memorable, and perfectly in keeping with Rick’s character.

Which is the key. You don’t want to force wit where it doesn’t belong. It needs to sound like smoothing the character would really say.

Curving the Language

I took a comedy writing class years ago taught by the late Danny Simon. Danny was Neil’s older brother and a veteran of the early days of television. Both Neil and Woody Allen credit Danny Simon with teaching them how to write narrative comedy.

One of Simon’s primary lessons was never to write “joke jokes.” The comedy had to be something the characters would actually say in the moment. So to make a line funny and memorable, he advised “curving the language.”

To do this, you write a line as it comes to you, which is usually in a plain-vanilla sort of way. Then you play with it—you curve it—until it takes on a wittier shape.

I’ll demonstrate with a line from a Lawrence Block short story. Two cops are talking about a suspect who is not exactly lovely to look at. One cop asks the other how ugly is this guy?

Now, the plain-vanilla line could have been, “Really ugly.”

Not very snappy, is it? How about, “God made him really ugly.”

Keep curving. “God made him as ugly as he could.”

Getting there, but not quite. The actual line in the story is:

“God made him as ugly as he could, then hit him in the face with a shovel.”

That’s golden.

As a rule of thumb, try to put one gem of a line in each of the four quadrants of your novel: Act 1, Act 2a, Act 2b, and Act 3. Each time it happens, the character will jump off the page.

So try this in your novel:

  • In each act identify several lines of dialogue where your character conveys strong emotion or opinion.
  • Curve the language of each line, making them snap and sparkle.
  • Check to make sure it doesn’t feel forced, but is in keeping with the character you’ve created. Choose and use the best ones!

Characters who “jump off the page,” who are full and rounded and, at times, unpredictable in what they both say and do, make for a truly memorable reading experience. That’s what makes fans out of readers!

 

This post is adapted from my new craft book, Writing Unforgettable Characters: How to Create Story People Who Jump Off the Page. It is available in PRINT, as well as KINDLE, KOBO, and NOOK.

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30 thoughts on “Have Your Characters Say What You Wish You’d Said

  1. This is good info for the {semi)final edit I’m working on right now.
    – Yay, the paperback version of Writing Unforgettable Characters is out, so I bought it.

  2. And maybe that’s something that keeps us writing. Being able to have the luxury of time to create the responses that show up well after the fact in real life.
    And why writing is more than stringing sentences together. They’re words in the rough and need polish before they can shine.
    As always, wisdom from the master.

  3. Thanks for the great advice. I love playing with dialogue.

    Congratulations on your new book. I noticed this past week that the print version is now available and bought it. My current focused study is creating characters that readers care about and want to follow. I am particularly eager to read chapters 3, 16, and 23 – bonding reader and character, deepening readers’ emotional connection, and creating great series characters.

    Thanks for all your teaching!

    • creating characters that readers care about and want to follow.

      That really is job #1, isn’t it, Steve? I mean, you can have the twistiest, turniest plot, but unless you get those readers clinging to the pages in the beginning, and thinking “I need to see what happens to these people,” none of the rest will matter.

  4. Amen! Being able to revise your ms and say what you REALLY wanted to say is one of the coolest rewards of writing. We can’t go back and deliver that zinger in real life, but doing it in your fiction is the next best thing.

    BTW, you mention Neil Simon in passing. I learned much about effective dialogue reading his collected plays. That book sat on my bedside table for over a year. It was a nightly ritual to read and then re-read Simon’s masterpieces. I never had so much fun learning something.

  5. Thanks, JSB…another post copied and pasted into my file of go-to craft tips.

    In my current WIP, my editor called one of my characters brilliant for saying this in the middle of a scene where a dysfunctional mom and dad interact with their fourteen-going-on-thirty-year-old daughter: “This is like watching an episode of Father Knows Best Meets The Shining”.

    I guess her comment meant she liked the wit.

    Taking your advice, JSB. I like to read deep-themed stories with pointed wit, so maybe my readers will, too. 🙂

  6. Yes, it’s such a bummer when we don’t have those comebacks ready in real life, so it’s wonderful to be able to do it on the page. Just started reading Writing Unforgettable Characters this weekend!

  7. Hi, Jim

    A perfectly timed post for me. I’m working on my library cozy, and I very much want that sharpness of wit in my dialogue and characters. As it so happened, I just began reading your new writing book this morning before sitting down at the computer. My late editor used to tell me how I was a character focused writer, sometimes to the detriment of the plots of my first novels. However, my need to improve in writing characters is continual and never-ending. I may be focused on characters, but I could be so much better in depicting them. This is will really help. Thank you!

    Speaking of wit, we’re rewatching the M*A*S*H* TV series. Currently we’re in the middle of the third season, and Gelbart, Reynolds and their writing team never fail to give each character, even Frank Burns, their own moment of revealing sharp wit, tuned to the way each individual character would speak.

  8. I also ordered the print version of your new book, and it should be here tomorrow.

    Once again, you’ve moved the bar up a notch. My characters are warming up now, preparing to jump over that challenge and right off the page.

  9. All very true. Also, snappy lines don’t have to be consequence-free. They can ruin almost anything and even get characters killed. So a smart-mouthed character with imperfect judgment gives you a free pass to introduce extra conflict anytime he’s not gagged or unconscious. (Actually, getting him into deep trouble by mumbling a wisecrack in his sleep would be fun…)

  10. American Indian humor is based on such subtlety:

    Custer dipped as he entered the tepee of the medicine leader, removing his gloves, glancing around at the folded blankets, skins, some few belongs stowed in the corner. He smiled–a blank one, he knew–and without meaning to, rolled his nose against the smell of stale tobacco, the burning oak coal ember resting on a flat rock, and . . . something else he couldn’t quite place. He glanced at John Martin, who had followed him into the dwelling. Martin showed his discomfort. Custer knew the feeling.

    The other Cheyennes didn’t stand or show respect, of course. Custer seared in displeasure.

    But Custer knew he had to pass the Cheyenne medicine leader’s approval if he were to have a shot at all at meeting with the Cheyenne leader, Black Kettle. Or was Golden Otter a chief? He could never keep those things straight–Indians had to have so many damn kinds of leaders.

    The Cheyenne bade him and Martin to sit. Of course, Custer thought, he would have to sit on the blankets on the ground floor of the tepee–the place where the Cheyenne did nasty, disgusting things to and with his many women.

    Golden Otter–Custer watched him, wondering once again if that could really the Cheyenne’s name, or was that simply the meaning of the words they called they called him–tamped the tobacco into the bowl of the splendid pipe with the well-crafted bowl and stem. The stem, Custer thought, looked something like a long oboe reed.

    Golden Otter’s warm eyes rose to meet Custer’s stare. Golden Otter, perhaps, Custer thought, had smiled in a Cheyenne sort of way. The Cheyenne put the stem to his lips as another Cheyenne with bad teeth lifted the flat stone so that the Cheyenne medicine man could light the pipe. He took a long draw, closed his eyes, and moved his lips, the way a civilized man might do while enjoying a nice Rosé. This time, Golden Otter’s smile was genuine, Custer realized, as the Cheyenne leaned forward and passed the pipe–a sacred pipe kept for such occasions by a another leader of some kind, the Pipe Keeper. Custer felt the slight revulsion he had been trying to keep down as he knew it was his turn.

    He took the pipe one-handed, looked at the stem, and reached for the handkerchief just inside his uniform blouse. He had not worn the Gold Coat–no Indian was worthy of a meeting him in his gold coat. He could do nothing, he realized, about his eyes but he fought to keep the smirk off his nose and lips. He didn’t want the Cheyenne to think he was actually trying to be friendly. This was all diplomacy, Custer knew. He might actually have to kill the man sitting across from him one day.

    Custer realized his hand movements were impatient, dismissive–exactly as he wished them to be. He then put the stem to his own lips, taking a shallow draw on the tobacco. He was surprised–an unexpected surprise–at the flavor. Custer was tempted to take another draw, but he refused to show his pleasure. He passed the pipe back, shoving it rather than handing it, still holding it in his handkerchief.

    Custer smiled when Golden Otter’s face showed surprise. And displeasure.

    But the Cheyenne, bowed his head slightly as he received the ceremonial briar-like pipe. He turned the stem toward his lips and paused. He leaned forward and picked up a cloth-like piece of tanned hide, grasping the pipe with his. Then the Indian reached for the knife at his waist and placed it in his lap.

    Custer realized that Martin was reaching for his Dragoon revolver, the revolver he had traded for, despite the Army’s orders two decades ago, now, to change pistols, despite Martin having a difficult time finding ammunition for it, now. Custer flashed his hard stare at Martin. The aide-bugler Martin stopped.

    Custer, his own breathing a bit stressed, he realized, returned his gaze toward Golden Otter.

    The Cheyenne medicine leader, his hand movements deliberate, his gaze at Custer intense, wiped the stem.

    He reached for the knife.

    He cut the stem away from the rest of the pipe.

    The other Cheyennes in the medicine leader’s tepee began to laugh, chuckling at first, one of two bursting into guffaws.

    Custer, incensed, realized he had never been in danger. He had been mocked. Indian way.

  11. Reading “Writing Unforgettable Characters” this weekend and finding it inspiring. Thanks James Scott Bell!!!

    Love that you cite MOONSTUCK – what a perfect example of the power of dialogue. Beginning where Cher meets Cage in the bakery, seems to me it’s not only unexpected dialogue that makes it so brilliant. It’s dialogue that launches the love story, divulges necessary backstory, endears us to both love interests…AND foreshadows the romantic “complication”. Genius. Should the rest of us just give up? 🙂

    Always look forward to your posts.

    • Thanks, Sue. Could not agree more with your take on Moonstruck. Of course, we should not give up. As the saying goes, you can reach for the stars and even if you don’t quite make it, you won’t end up with a handful of mud.

  12. Brilliant (even a day late)! 🙂 The men in my family are all quick-witted. Every time they turn a phrase that I can use, I scrawl a note in my phone. It gives me an endless supply of one-liners.

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