Self-publishing Writing Advice from the Book Doctor

The Book Doctor runs through word choice for the self-publishing author

Q: A newspaper reporter in my writing club took me to task for using ‘whether or not’ in fiction dialogue. I see why the corsetry of reporting would not use this phrase, but isn’t fiction dialogue supposed to be somewhat the same as the way people actually talk?

A: First I must comment on the use of corsetry (the making of corsets or other binding garments). It made me smile; I’ve never seen the word used to refer to the limitations of journalism, but it certainly fits.

You’re completely correct that journalism has its confines, while dialogue in fiction has almost no such restrictions. All bets are off and all rules dropped when it comes to dialogue in fiction. While narrative has its guidelines, dialogue should sound natural.

People naturally speak in contractions and use expletives, slang, idioms, clichés and wordy phrases, all things that narrative should not use. Human beings repeat themselves and pick the wrong words, sometimes, too, which can add humor to dialogue. I saw much of that tactic used in the dialogue on the TV show The Sopranos. I recall one character kept saying, “I’m having prostrate trouble,” when the correct word is “prostate,” but many people incorrectly use the word “prostrate” in this sense.

Do people say “whether or not” when they speak? You bet they do, and it’s your choice as the author whether to use it in dialogue, but avoid it in narrative.


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