Because thrillers usually involve really bad characters, the temptation is to write dialogue for them which mirrors the way real bad guys talk. Unfortunately, real bad guys (and many real good guys) can season each sentence with a half dozen F-bombs. No reader wants to see that. But, you can’t have a hardened serial killer who just escaped from prison say, “Jeepers, those darn police are still on my tail!” You want your story to be realistic, but you don’t want to turn off your reader. What to do?
While you’ll see a wide range of styles, I can think of no successful thriller writer who bathes his dialogue in profanities. That doesn’t mean you won’t find a few F-bombs scattered throughout the book, but use of profanity will be judicious and never gratuitous.
One device which I found helpful is the profanity cut-off. When a tough guy in a stressful situation might naturally drop the F-bomb, you can cut him off:
The bullet sliced through Dak’s hand, sending the Glock spinning across the floor.
“Freeze!” said John.
Some writers substitute the word “frigging” for the F-bomb. While this can work if it’s not overdone, personally I’ve found it unrealistic to read a hardened killer say, “frigging.” Sometimes it’s better to use, “Shit!” as a more acceptable expletive. (Interestingly, I had a Hollywood producer tell me once that a studio conducted a survey finding women reacted more strongly against he word, “shit,” than other profane words, and scripts were routinely scrubbed to reduce the use of the word.)
Speaking of the female point of view, best-selling author Catherine Coulter has observed that women who write thrillers tend to use heavy does of profanity because they believe they won’t be taken seriously by male readers unless they do. Catherine points out this approach is, “Dead wrong.”
In this regard, it’s interesting to look at the work of best-selling horror-thriller writing contemporaries, Dean Koontz and Stephen King. In over 60 books, I don’t believe you can find a single F-bomb in Dean’s work. Mr. King, on the other hand, is not afraid to drop one every now and then. Yet both authors have been hugely successful. My style probably tends more towards King, as I believe a few dashes of hard profanity can make a story more realistic, and therefore more frightening, i.e., this could really happen!
In my recent thriller, Dead Light, I was faced with the profanity question when writing dialogue for a tough-as-nails female police detective. She would not be the kind to say “frigging,” so I made her use of profanity part of her character. That is, in an attempt to clean up her salty language she invented a new cuss word, “shuck,” to use whenever she would normally drop the F-bomb.
Bette Midler, the bad-girl singer who paved the way for Madonna and Lady Gaga, said it best: Profanity should be a spice, not the main dish.]]>
More on the subject of: How do writers get their ideas? The answer is, we look around. To illustrate that ideas are as close as the morning newspaper, I’ve randomly selected the March 25, 2013 edition of the Washington Post. Let’s look for ideas in each of the sections of the newspaper:
1. National News Section
On page A-6, there’s a story about a former White Supremacist out on parole killing the Colorado prison warden as retribution for breaking up a White Supremacist prison gang.
This story could write itself. You need a protagonist—maybe the police detective or the warden’s son who’s a former Navy Seal. We’ll call him John. In investigating the shooting, John discovers the White Supremacist network has tentacles into all major prisons in the country. John discovers a plot to assassinate former prison wardens who segregated White Supremacists during their tenure. It turns out, the governor of (pick a state. Lets say Virginia) is a former prison warden, and he happens to be running for his party’s nomination for the Presidency. The plot is being orchestrated by a mysterious leader on the outside. John needs to identify the leader. There’s a ticking clock. (There always needs to be a ticking clock.) John has to go undercover into a prison to find out the details of the plot before it’s too late. Oh, and to make it interesting, let’s make John an African-American.
2. Metro Section
On page B-4, a tragic story appears telling of a marine tactics instructor who shot and killed two Lance Corporals, a young man and young woman, at the Quantico Virginia officer candidate school before taking his own life.
Again, the possibilities for a story are near endless. We could go the love triangle route. Or the love triangle could be camouflage for something much more sinister. Maybe the instructor had been a test subject for a new, secret drug meant to enhance the stamina and ferocity of our fighting men and women. Except something went wrong and the side effects caused by a combination of the drug with a common substance (e.g. alcohol, shaving cream, coffee) turns the man into a crazed killer. The military brass who were in charge of the secret program are covering their butts. In the meantime, select military personnel all over the world are going tilt, killing randomly. Our hero, John, must uncover the secret, figure out the common catalyst and track down the 3 star general who is behind the whole thing. Oh, and maybe the bad guys inject john with the drug, so he has to fear that any common food or substance with which he comes in contact could turn him into a killer, too.
3. Style Section
Page C-1 contains a feature article on Dr. Ben Carson, famed Hopkins neurosurgeon and new darling of the political right.
What a great character. A poor black kid from the slums of Detroit rises to become a world renown healer of our sickest children. Let’s say our story begins with an automobile accident where our Dr. Ben is killed. The nation and the world mourn. But our hero, John, inadvertently discovers the crash may not have been an accident. Who could’ve wanted Dr. Ben dead? Liberal extremists? A deranged parent of a child who, despite Dr. Ben’s best efforts, dies on the operating table? A jilted secret lover? A small African totem found in Dr. Ben’s pocket leads John to Nairobi, Kenya where Dr. Ben had established a children’s clinic. There he must face the wrath of a 21st Century witch doctor who captures John and transports him to a desolate part of the country where he’s subjected to the shaman’s diabolical whims.
4. Sports Section
Page D-1 contains a story about former Baltimore Raven linebacker, O.J. Brigance who is suffering from ALS, Lou Gehrig’s disease.
ALS is a horrible disease. I’ve had a friend suffer through it and die young, unable to breathe. So how to cultivate a story from this disease? The key to ALS is the victim’s mind remains sharp; it’s the body that fails around him. In the later stages (as is the case with Brigance), communication is through a computer reading eyeball movements. So what if our ALS character, Mary, knows a horrible secret? She’s a former secretary to the CIA Director. The Director is a right-wing zealot who finds the President weak and indecisive. He devises a strategy to create an ersatz conflict with North Korea. The President hesitates to engage. The Director goes public with his saber-rattling. The President fires him, as he planned. Our hero, John, learns of the plot to have a CIA mole cause the Koreans to fire a nuclear missile at California. The Director is willing to sacrifice a million or so Americans to motivate an enraged public to oust the President and elect him. John needs the location of a secret memo outlining the Director’s plan. Mary knows where it is, but she can’t speak and she’s past the stage where she can even use the eye computer to communicate. And the clock’s ticking.
These were just first ideas from a single random newspaper. Life is planted thick with story ideas and the daily newspaper is an easy way to find them.]]>
On August 23, 2011, a mag 5.8 earthquake struck the Washington area doing significant damage to the Cathedral. While still structurally sound—ecumenical services as well as daily tours continue—many of the pinnacles, gargoyles and buttresses were damaged. The Cathedral welcomes any and all contributions to assist in restoration.]]>
Gearing up for the April 4 launch of Dead Light. Gratified by positive early reviews and hope you will like it. Have been asked if upcoming books will follow Dead light as a series with the same protagonists. Same church, different pew. All protagonist are members of the Booker family—brother, cousins—but so far I’m allowing Estin Booker, our Dead Light hero, well-deserved time off to spend with a certain Baltimore detective. After all, saving the world can be exhausting.]]>