How to Talk Tough

by James Scott Bell

Mickey Spillane

Those of us who write thrillers, noir, and crime fiction know that a huge part of our craft is tough talk—dialogue from the mouths of hardboiled protagonists, street hustlers, cops, thugs, hitmen, femme fatales, homme fatales, and other denizens of the dark side.

It’s not easy to do it artfully, for it is much more than littering the page with the F-bomb and its misbegotten progeny.

I saw a movie the other day, a highly-touted crime thriller. I won’t name it because I don’t like to put down other writers, but I will say the dialogue was pretty lame. What I mean is that there were a lot of F words tossed around without any originality or élan. Characters would just spout “F you” or “F that.” (But that’s how people talk in real life! you might be thinking. Well, you’re not writing real life. You’re writing fiction, which is a stylized rendering of life for an artistic purpose. Just recreating “real life” sounds doesn’t move the needle.)

So how can you talk tough without falling into the lazy lacing of platitudinous profanities? Let me suggest a few:

  1. Be Witty

This is the toughest (!) form of tough talk, but it pays big when you can pull it off. The master of this kind of gab, of course, was Raymond Chandler. His novels featuring PI Philip Marlowe are filled with snappy banter that works because (and this is the key) it is perfectly in Marlowe’s voice. It never seems to be a strain. Like this exchange in The Long Goodbye:

“See you around,” the bodyguard told me coolly. “The name is Chick Agostino. I guess you’ll know me.”

“Like a dirty newspaper,” I said. “Remind me not to step on your face.”

Or this from The Little Sister: 

“That slut. What does she say about me?” she hissed.

“Nothing. Oh, she might have called you a Tijuana hooker in riding pants. Would you mind?”

The silvery giggle went on for a little while. “Always the wisecrack with you. Is it not so? But you see I did not then know you were a detective. That makes a very big difference.”

“Miss Gonzales, you said something about business. What kind of business, if you’re not kidding me.”

“Would you like to make a great deal of money? A very great deal of money?”

“You mean without getting shot?” I asked.

“Sí,” she said thoughtfully. “There is also that to consider. But you are so brave, so big, so—”

“I’ll be at my office at nine in the morning, Miss Gonzales. I’ll be a lot braver then.”

Take your time with exchanges like this. Don’t force the issue. Play with the language. A different word here or there can make all the difference. I like the line from Lawrence Block’s short story “Headaches and Bad Dreams.” A detective is describing a suspect who is not exactly lovely to look at. “God made him as ugly as he could and then hit him in the mouth with a shovel.”

  1. Be Crisp

Tough talk is often clipped. It gives nice white space to the page, too. This was Robert. B. Parker’s preferred method. Here’s a bit from one of his Sunny Randall novels, Melancholy Baby:

“Sarah took a lot of drugs.”

“More than grass?” I said.

“Oh, yes. Hard drugs.”

“Like what?”

“I don’t know. I don’t use drugs.”

“Good for you,” I said.

“I graduate this June, and next year I want to be in a really good MBA program. I don’t want to do anything to spoil my chances.”

“So her drug use was disruptive?”

“Yes. She’d come in at night, late sometimes, and act crazy.”


“Like she’d be crying and seeing things and …” Polly shook her head. “Did you ever go to college?”

“I did,” I said.

“What did you major in?”



I could tell that Polly found that puzzling.

“How did you do?”

“I was a good artist and a bad student,” I said.

Go over all your dialogue scenes and look for words to cut. Replace some verbal answers with silence or an action beat. You’ll love the results.

  1. Be Over the Top

This is the opposite of #2. It should be done sparingly. But every now and then consider having one of your characters give vent with a paragraph or two of straight tough talk.

Mickey Spillane liked to do this. He of course invented the quintessential hard-boiled PI, Mike Hammer. But he also wrote stand alones. In The Long Wait (1951) the narrator, Johnny McBride, has been dragged in by the cops for questioning. McBride insults the cops (this will get him beaten up later) and tells them to inform him of the charges or let him walk. The lead detective says:

“I don’t know what kind of an angle you think you’re playing, McBride, and I don’t give a damn. The charge is murder. It’s murder five years old and it’s the murder of the best friend a guy ever had. It’s murder you’ll swing for and when you come down through the trap I’m going to be right there in the front row so I can see every twitch you make, and there in the autopsy room when they carve the guts out of you and if nobody claims the body I’ll do it myself and feed you to the pigs at the county farm. That’s what the charge is. Now do you understand it?”

Pick a tense moment of tough talk and put yourself inside one of the characters. Write a 200 word rant. Do not pause to edit. Come back to it later and review. Even if you only end up using one line, it’ll be a good one.

  1. Be Suggestive

As I said, tough talk does not have to be laced with expletives. You’re a writer. You have a whole palette of possibilities open to you.

Writers of the 40s and 50s often simply wrote things like: He cursed and walked out of the room. You know what? That still works. Readers can fill in the blanks in their own heads.

There are other methods. In Romeo’s Way I have a character, Leeza, who is young and foul-mouthed. Mike Romeo is trying to help her. She doesn’t want any. This character would definitely unleash a curse storm. But I didn’t want to lay that on the reader. So I did it this way:

She jumped back like I was the guy from Friday the 13th.

“I don’t think you’re safe here,” I said.

“What the h—”

“No time to talk. Come with me.”

I put my hand out. She slapped it. “Get away from me.”

“I’m on your side,” I said.

She began a tirade then, peppered with words with a hard K sound. She was a symphony of K. It was so constant and crazy, it hit my brain like woodpecker woodpecker peck peck woodpecker.

“Ease up,” I said. “There’s bad people who want you. Did you forget that?”

Woodpecker woodpecker!

“Your boss, one of your bosses, Kat Hogg, is in a car over there. Come with us.”

Leeza looked across the street. Then she turned and ran.

I said something that sounded like woodpecker myself and gave chase.

Dialogue, as I’ve said many times in workshops and in books, is the fastest way to improve a manuscript. So when it comes to tough talk, don’t be lazy about it. Be crafty.

Literary Fiction and Self-Publishing

James Scott Bell

English novelist Will Self writes literary fiction. You can tell, because in an essay on the “death” of the novel, he writes: “There is now an almost ceaseless murmuring about the future of narrative prose. Most of it is at once Panglossian and melioristic…”
When you use Panglossianand melioristic in the same sentence, you’re not exactly trying to communicate to the masses—which is one way to describe literary fiction!
I tease because I love. Literary fiction is by definition more challenging for the reader than the so-called “beach read.” It’s supposed to be. Which is why it does not sell in huge numbers.
Which does not mean anything in terms of quality or reasons to exist. I love a good literary read. And I laud those who choose to write less marketable prose out of a certain calling and love of literature. This often produces books that move and even shape us, that require us to ponder deep things and perhaps make us the better for it.
Indeed, there is even research to suggest that literary fiction makes us nicer than does its more popular cousin!
Let’s be honest, though. Just because something is considered “literary” doesn’t make it, perforce, superb. I’ve read some dreadful fiction published under impressive imprints. Why does that happen? Have a look at a famous essay if you want to delve more deeply into that little matter.
Will Self has a view of the literary novel that goes like this (note: pack a lunch):
The literary novel used to be “the prince of art forms, the cultural capstone and the apogee of creative endeavour. The capability words have when arranged sequentially to both mimic the free flow of human thought and investigate the physical expressions and interactions of thinking subjects; the way they may be shaped into a believable simulacrum of either the commonsensical world, or any number of invented ones; and the capability of the extended prose form itself, which, unlike any other art form, is able to enact self-analysis, to describe other aesthetic modes and even mimic them. All this led to a general acknowledgment: the novel was the true Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk.”
Now, I have to admit this very paragraph is a challenge. I am left wondering what the Gesamtkunstwerk is actually being said. I think I may have strained my simulacrum trying to read it. (I leave open the possibility that Self is running a bit of a goof on us, but I digress).
So yes, let’s settle on the fact that lit-fic can be “difficult” for the reader. As even a favorable review of Self’s latest book admits, “The novel isn’t exactly light reading.”
Then Will Self gets to the crux of the matter: “[T]he hallmark of our contemporary culture is an active resistance to difficulty in all its aesthetic manifestations.”
He has a point, though I’m not sure it’s limited to contemporary culture. As Mickey Spillane once explained, salted peanuts always outsell caviar.
The bigger challenge today, I think, is technological. As Stephen Henighan, in a thoughtful piece, observes:
More than a decade ago, when I moved to the university town where I teach, it was common to see students reading books on municipal buses. Now, with the exception of the occasional nerd stuck into a fantasy novel, or a diligent student poring over a diagram-filled textbook on her lap, this sight has disappeared. The students travel in stooped postures, jabbing their cellphones with their thumbs. Most of this jabbing is texting, or playing solitaire; but even when the students are browsing online course readings, what they are doing is not reading, because they are not performing an act of concentration, but rather one of perpetual distraction.
This leaves the writer of lit-fic in somewhat dicey circumstances. Traditional publishing has to make a profit, and so must concentrate on the tastes of the book-buying public––which is increasingly for distraction, entertainment, and short chapters. There is less time to nurture a literary career and less money to advance toward a livable income.
Yet this is not news, either. Literary writers of the past almost always had to supplement their incomes, many times by teaching creative writing at the college or graduate level.
A few made extra bank by churning out genre fiction on the side, using a pseudonym. Evan Hunter (The Blackboard Jungle) always considered himself a literary writer. But he needed money, so he cranked out pulp stories and paperbacks under the name Ed McBain. His pseudonym became a world-famous multi-millionaire. I don’t think Evan Hunter ever forgave him for that.
Gore Vidal wrote mysteries as Edgar Box.
So here’s my question for those who think the novel is “dead”: why shouldn’t literary fiction find vibrant new life in the world of self-publishing?
Let’s compare:
The chances of selling a lot of lit-fic copies the traditional way are slim. Look at the average sales of books nominated for the National Book Award. Two or three thousand, tops.
Now, the chances of selling a lot of copies of literary fiction via self-publishing are also slim. But time is on the side of the indie. 
A traditional book that doesn’t catch fire in the first couple of weeks is out of the bookstores for good, except perhaps on the remainder shelf.
But an indie title is always available and the author can do several things to move units, such as deal-alert services like BookGorilla and BookBub (which currently has 810,000 subscribers on their literary fiction list). Or just getting out there and plowing ground in social media.
Discoverability seems more likely in the indie world, too. Placing a literary novel in the right categories can unleash Amazon’s algorithmic ability to match author and reader. Contrast that with trying to get a book some real estate in the increasingly limited space within physical bookstores, which also have to make money and tend to be top-heavy with commercial fare.
In fact, I can see a whole new wave of literary authors gaining a cultural foothold via self-publishing. Something tells me that David Foster Wallace would have been all over self-pubbing had he come along at a later time.
So the novel is not dead––it’s spread.
Literary fiction need not go extinct––it can reproduce in various forms in the verdant world of indie publishing.
Why not? I ask. 

How to Write Your Last Page

James Scott Bell

It’s been a heady couple of weeks doing first pages here at TKZ. So I thought, just to catch our breath and balance things out, maybe we should go the other way for a moment.

What about your last page?

I love the Mickey Spillane quote: “The first page sells your book. The last page sells your next book.”

How true that is. How many times have we begun a novel or movie, only to be let down when the book is closed or the credits roll?

I love beginnings. Beginnings are easy. I can write grabber beginnings all day long. So, I suspect, can you.

But endings? Those are hard.

Why? First, because with each passing day another book or movie has come out, another ending has been rendered. So many great endings have already shown up. We who continue to write have the burden of trying to provide satisfactory surprise at the end when so much ending material is already out there.

Second, our endings have to tie things up in a way that makes sense but is also unanticipated. If the reader can see it from a mile away, the effect is lost.

I like what Boston University writing teacher Leslie Epstein said in a recent Writer’s Digest piece (“Tips for Writing and for Life,” WD March/April 2010). When asked if a writer must know the ending before he starts, Epstein says, “The answer is easy: yes and no. One must have in mind between 68 and 73 percent of the ending.”

Epstein’s having a bit of fun here, but his point is solid. If you have the ending 100% in mind, you’re in a straitjacket, unable to let your story sufficiently breathe, or twist, or turn.

OTOH, if you don’t have any idea where you’re going, you could easily fall into the meander trap, or the backed-into-a-corner trap.

There are some very helpful techniques for writing a great ending. Joe Moore discussed some of these last month. Type “endings” in the search box in the upper left of the blog, and you’ll get other thoughts by my blog mates. And I’ll humbly mention that I have also treated the subject in Plot & Structure.

But rather than focusing on principles, today I want to offer you my own personal approach to writing endings. It’s called Stew, Brew and Do.

Why is it called that? Because I made it up so I get to name it.

Here’s how it goes:

Step 1: Stew.

I spend a lot of time at the end of a manuscript just stewing about the ending. Brooding over it. I’ve got my final scenes in mind, of course, and have written toward them. I may even have written a temporary ending. But I know I won’t be satisfied until I give the whole thing time to simmer. I put the manuscript aside for awhile, work on other projects, let the “boys in the basement” take over.

I tell myself to dream about the ending before going to bed. I write down notes in the morning.

Step 2: Brew.

When I am approaching the drop dead deadline, I continue to outline ending possibilities. I will have files of notes and ideas floating in my head. When I know I have to finish I use Brew in both a practical and metaphorical way.

I take a long walk. There is a Starbucks half an hour from my office. (In fact, there is a Starbucks half an hour from anyplace in the world). I put a small notebook in my back pocket and walk there and order a brew—a solo espresso. I down it, wait a few minutes and then start writing notes in the notebook.

Then I walk another half an hour, to another Starbucks (I’m not kidding). There I make more notes. If I have to, I have another espresso. I am a wild-eyed eccentric at this point, but I do have ideas popping up all over the place.

Step 3: Do.

I go back to my office and write until finished.

Well, it works for me. I like most of my endings, but they were very hard work to get to. But hey, that’s good. If this gig was easy, everybody’d be doing it, right? Be glad it’s as hard as it is. Your efforts will pay off.

So what works for you? Do you find endings hard? Or do they roll out of your imaginary assembly line fully functioning and ready to go?

What are some of your favorite endings? Or better yet: what endings, to movies or books, would you change?