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COLUMNS: Coffee on the Deck: The Editor's Ramblings on the Writing Life | Crafting Fabulous Fiction, by Victoria Grossack

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Crafting Fabulous Fiction
by Victoria Grossack

February 7, 2013:
Interjections and Profanity

What do your characters say when they're angry? Or upset? Or expressing some other and intense emotion? How do they speak when they're angry and upset with each other? In this column we'll discuss the expressions used in interjections, and how they can be used to develop voice, story and character.

Definitions

An interjection is one of the eight parts of speech (the others are verbs, nouns, pronouns, adjectives, adverbs, prepositions, and conjunctions). In many respects, the interjection refers to the "other" category of parts of speech -- those words that don't fit into one of the other seven categories.

Wikipedia gives the following definition:

"An interjection or exclamation is a word used to express an emotion or sentiment on the part of the speaker. Filled pauses such as "uh, er, um" are also considered interjections. Interjections are typically placed at the beginning of a sentence."

Wikipedia goes on to explain how interjections are used:

"An interjection is sometimes expressed as a single word or non-sentence phrase, followed by a punctuation mark. The isolated usage of an interjection does not represent a complete sentence in conventional English writing. Thus, in formal writing, the interjection will be incorporated into a larger sentence clause."

Interjections, although they are not used much in formal writing, are frequently used in dialogue, and if you are writing fiction, you will probably be writing dialogue, or narrative that has the rhythm and sound of dialogue. Hence, spending some time thinking about interjections can be useful.

Interjections have several roles in your writing. They can be used to convey information. They can be used by your characters to express emotion. They can also be developed to show the setting and the individual voice of your characters.

Greetings and Information

"Hello." "Good-bye!" If you combine greetings with a name, reminds or informs your readers of who is in the scene and whether they are coming or going. The greeting can be useful by indicating the time of day as well.

You can also use your choice of greeting to indicate the country or language. If you are setting your story in Germany but you are writing in English, you can start a bit of dialogue with "Guten Tag, Fräulein Schmidt," and then continue the rest of the passage in English. "Ciao" could indicate that your story is in Italy or that your characters speak Italian, or "ciao" could mean that you're writing about cool characters (or characters who think they're cool).

Some greetings in other languages indicate more than they do in English. "Au revoir" indicates good bye but also that the speaker expects to see the listener again; "Adieu" is a more permanent farewell -- in which the speaker expects never to see the listener again, which is why when you translate it literally you come up with "to God."

Emotions

Interjections are wonderful for expressing emotions; here are a few examples:

  • Surprise. Wow!
  • Disgust. Yuck!
  • Alarm. Oh, no!
  • Pain. Ouch!
  • Admiration. Great!
  • Shock. Oh, my God!
  • Disbelief. Really!
  • Comprehension: Aha!
  • Hesitation. Um...
  • Stalling. Well, well.
  • Salutations: Hi!
  • Toasts: Cheers!

In fact, these interjections are extremely useful for helping you to show instead of to tell -- a goal worthy of several more columns, so I will give only the briefest example here. Instead of writing, "Riley was surprised," you could write, "'Wow!' Riley exclaimed." The former is telling; the latter, showing.

Pace

Interjections can speed up the pace of your story. They do this because they are frequently expressing intense emotions, as above, or because they're followed by exclamation points, which are naturally exciting. Sometimes they stand alone as sentences. Shorter sentences usually mean that the story is moving quickly.

Voice of Your Characters

Varying your interjections is a way of making sure that your characters have different voices. This may take a conscious effort, because many of us are not aware of how we use these interjections. For example, I am awed by how J. Michael Straczynski wrote nearly all of the Babylon 5 episodes -- 92 out of 110, over a five-year period -- now that's productivity! Still, I could tell that a single writer was in charge because the voice changed little from one character to the next (and because Straczynski gave both leaders of the space station, Commander Jeffrey Sinclair and Captain John Sheridan, his own initials -- but, heck, he earned that particular vanity). Many of the characters used the same phrases, the same expressions, and even the same cadence, and not just because they were from the same environment (although perhaps they were all using the same universal translator).

You can consciously decide that one characters will say, "Um," that another will say, "Oh," and a third will indicate salacious interest with a raised eyebrow and "Mm."

Furthermore, besides adding variety, your characters' interjections should reflect their personalities and their circumstances. A tipsy driver realizing he has just hit a stop sign may express his feelings using one sort of language, while a refined church lady may simply say, "Oh, my!" As I once saw in an old Family Circus comic years ago, it's apparent you're a parent when you burn your finger and cry, "Fiddlesticks!"

Setting of Your Story

Your choice of interjections should reflect your story's setting. They can add tremendous flavor and a sense that your readers are entering another world.

For example, my novels are set in Greece's Bronze Age, so the characters often swear using the name of a deity -- moreover, the deity that matters most to them. So a sailor might exclaim "Poseidon's trident!" while a married woman might say, "Dear Hera!"

Profanity

It is a truth that must be acknowledged: people use four-letter words and many other expressions designed to shock and offend their listeners. They even use these words to themselves, when nothing else will do!

Should you use profanity in your writing? And if so, how much?

This is an artistic decision -- yes, it really is -- influenced by story and character, your personal sensibilities and your hoped-for audience. For example, we always wanted Jocasta to be considered as a companion book to those reading Oedipus Rex in high schools (the book has made it into several) and to make it easier for teachers to choose our work, we held back on the profanity (despite the subject being about incest and offering plenty of opportunity). Restricting the level of profanity was possible artistically, because the story is told in the first person by Jocasta. She is both a lady and a queen -- and even if we had reason to think the word M*TH*RF*****R, given the particular story, we had no reason to use it nor to feel as if we were avoiding it artificially.

Another problem with profanity is that it can get old if you overexpose anything. I remember once listening to a comedian who used the F*** word over and over. At first it was shocking, and then it was repetitiously dull.

If you want to create your own profanity -- for example you may be setting your story in a newly-imagined fantasy world -- let me say that most profanity seems to be based on words from religion, sex, going to the toilet, or some combination of words from these subjects. (Editor's note: take a look at the terms invented for shows such as Battlestar Galactica or Farscape.)

A great resource

Hopefully I've persuaded you that interjections can enhance your story. Simply being aware of this fact should help you improve how you use them in your writing. However, you can greatly increase your repertoire by checking out the following:

http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/Category:Interjections_by_language

The above link provides a list of links to interjections in many different languages; if you are writing in English then you will want the section in English! I heartily recommend browsing through the lists.

Going too far

Can you overuse interjections? Of course. They are not the meat or the vegetables of the story, but the spice. You wouldn't want to be served a plate of nothing but cinnamon sticks and curry powder, would you? Yet used judiciously they add flavor to your story.

Column Index

Copyright © 2013 Victoria Grossack
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.


Victoria Grossack studied Creative Writing and English Literature at Dartmouth College, and has published stories and articles in such publications as Contingencies, Women's World and I Love Cats. She is the author of Crafting Fabulous Fiction, a step-by-step guide to developing and polishing novels and short stories that includes many of her beloved columns. With Alice Underwood, she co-authors the Tapestry of Bronze series (including Jocasta, Mother-Wife of Oedipus; The Children of Tantalus; and Antigone & Creon), based on Greek myths and set in the late Bronze Age. Her independent novels include The Highbury Murders, in which she does her best to channel the spirits and styles of Jane Austen and Agatha Christie, and Academic Assassination (A Zofia Martin Mystery). Victoria is married with kids, and (though American) spends much of her time in Europe. Her hobbies include gardening, hiking, bird-watching and tutoring mathematics. Visit her website at http://www.tapestryofbronze.com, or contact her at tapestry (at) tapestryofbronze (dot) com.

Want to learn more about crafting fabulous fiction? Get one-on-one guidance with Victoria Grossack's personal writing class; find out more at http://www.tapestryofbronze.com/VictoriasWritingClasses.html.


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