Thursday, June 23, 2011

To Say Yes and No

Surrounding the island
There's sea.
But what sea?
It's always overflowing.
Says yes,
Then no,
Then no again,
And no,
Says yes
In blue
In sea spray
Says no
And no again.
It can't be still.
It stammers
My name is sea.

This is the first stanza of "Ode To the Sea"" by Pablo Neruda

Yes and no. They seem simple enough, but as I write I often have trouble expressing how my characters say yes and no. Because characters don't always use the words, do they? "Yes," for instance, can sound too formal at times. "No" can be too hard.

So, I sometimes have my characters shake their heads. To me, this means "no," but I've had people tell me that shaking one's head can mean either yes or no. What do you think?

And what about those grunts that people use. How do you spell "Uh huh" and "Unh unh"? Do you trust that people will understand you?

Just an ever-so-gentle reminder that there are a few days left to enter if you want to win a novel critique by me, with some extra help by Scott and Michelle. The contest runs until the end of the month!


  1. To me, nodding always means yes (except where it means falling asleep, but nodding off is different than nodding, isn't it?). Shaking your head means "No" or "I have water in my ears." I'm not aware of people shaking their head yes.

    I try to stay clear from utterances in dialogue (mm-hmm, uh-huh, nuh-uh, etc.) because they don't read well.

    Here are some examples of affirmative and negative responses from some of my book THE MAN IN THE CINDER CLOUDS:

    "Nice core. Can I take it to the lab and study it?” Jason said.

    “No time for games..."

    “You buckled?” Dan asked.

    Jason and his father gave Dan a thumbs-up.

    “Hold on, then.”


    “I still have one more fir grove to tend to. Then I have to meet the High Council at noon.”


    “Yep.” Kris looked up at the sun. It was getting close to its mid-day peak.


    "I found distant relatives in a place called Oldenton. It’s far away, across the water. I want to go there. I want to make contact.”

    “Absolutely not!” The Council members spoke in unison.


    "I must stay hidden from view. But I’m allowed to leave an anonymous gift for every child in Oldenton.”

    Eldwin laughed. Kris didn’t.

    “You’re serious?”

    Kris nodded.

    "Well dip me in Faerie dew..."

  2. Rick, you brought examples! I like that. Thank you. I do still wish I could figure out how to use those utterances, though. And sometimes I nod when there's water in my ears.

  3. I rather like the finality of a simple 'yes' or 'no.' Depending on the character. It's also nice to have a simple 'yes' or 'no' character throw in the singular 'yep' for good measure.

    Diggin' Rick's 'thumbs-up.'

  4. Suze, I think it does depend on the character. Some of my characters can say yes and no. Others never would.

  5. I agree, shaking your head means no; nodding your head means yes.

    I like to keep my responses in character. One character might say "yeah" and "nah" while another say "absolutely not" or "indeed".

    And I do use utterances like "uh-huh", but I found there's some variance in how writers spell those, so the best I can do is keep them consistent within my writing.

  6. Domey- Hopefully some others will share snippets from their work too. Seeing a variety of examples is entertaining and informative.

    Suze- Thanks! Goes to show there are non-verbal responses in addition to nodding and shaking. I do use a plain yes and no at times:

    Kris and Eldwin sat atop a hill overlooking the river. “I told them my master plan,” Kris said. “We discussed it for many hours.”

    “Are they going to let you go through with it?”


    Eldwin stood up. “Really?”


    "I thought so.”

    For utterances, I don't try the various affirmative / negative utterances, but will do things like this:

    Kris and Elaana climbed on to the sled, and Elaana yelled, “Mush!”

    The dogs didn’t move.

    Kris yelled, “Mush!”

    The dogs turned around and barked.

    “Hmph. Man’s best friend, indeed.”

    Also an occasional "Ahhhh!" or "Shhh..." Those are easier for a reader to understand.

    And when neither a yes or no will fit, there's always the suspenseful ambiguous retort:

    “Do I want to know what you’re about to do?” Eldwin asked.

    “Probably not."

  7. Linda, Internal consistent is really important. I totally agree with that. If you play by your own rules, then hopefully the clarity will come through.

  8. Rick, I just scanned through some of my stuff for yes and no scenes.

    Here's something from Bread:

    Vincent smiled. Though he had been nervous before, he did not feel insecure now. Instead, with Yves, he felt a sense of delight and confidence that he seemed to have turned on in himself. He said in English, “Are you working late tonight?”

    He was not sure if Yves would understand, but Yves, after taking a moment to organize his thoughts said, “No, uh, no, no, I finish soon, then I go home.” He stood up from his chair. He said, “You want we walk to home together?”

    Vincent nodded. He was feeling anxious now. He did not know how far this was to go and he felt that he did not want it to go far.

    They walked from the fifth arondisement over the bridge of Ile de France and up rue de Temple toward the third arondisement, where they both lived. During the walk, they did not speak much. Every exchange that was started was started by Vincent asking questions about the city. Most of the time Yves answered with only a “yes” or a “no.”

    This one might be confusing out of context, but it's from a novella I'm calling A Settled Matter, and this is a conversation between an older couple, Oskar and Adriana, and a neighbor who brought them cookies:

    “I just wanted to say I’m sorry. I don’t know what got into her.” She handed the plate over and Oskar took it with a smile.

    “So lovely,” Adriana said. She tugged at the edge of the cellophane and the material rustled.

    “It’s just a little something. Honestly, I don’t know what happened to her.”

    “Nonsense,” Adriana said. “Oskar is a grumpy old man sometimes.”

    “Oh, it wasn’t anything he did! Not at all!” She turned to Oskar and then smiled to Adriana. “She can be so unpredictable!”

    “No, no. It’s good,” Oskar said. “It’s good for a little girl to be afraid of strangers.”

    “But you’re not a stranger, Mr. Tanko,” the neighbor said. “You’re our neighbor!”

    “Maybe when she’s older she’ll understand,” Oskar said.

    “Yes, I’m sure it’s just a matter of making her more comfortable around you,” the neighbor said. “The things that get into a kid’s head. I’m embarrassed, Mr. Tanko.”

    “Nonsense, nonsense. Thank you for the cookies,” Oskar said.

  9. Davin- You did well in the first example by paraphrasing the series of yes/no responses. I don't really like the "uh" in the dialogue prior to that, though.

    In the second example, I like the repetition of the no / it's good / nonsense, it gives a feel for that character's diction and makes Oskar stand out in the conversation.

  10. How fun is this??

    Rick, I really like your example of the simple 'yes' and 'no' with Kris and Eldwin-- especially since you didn't kill it with a description like, 'No,' s/he said, deadpan.

    Domey, I'd consider axing Oskar's second 'nonsense.' I can hear it, sort of, but then I don't and it feels more natural with just the one. (Two cents-- take 'em or toss 'em into a wishing fountain.)

    Okay, here's mine:

    'Tell me how to get to you.'

    I hesitate. 'Do you know Roy’s Diner?'

    'Just off the highway. Jukeboxes on either side of the dining room?'

    'Yeah, that’s it.'

    'Do you want me to come pick you up so we can go there?'

    I’m not ready to tell him where I live. Not that I don’t trust him or anything. I’m just not ready. 'Will you meet me for breakfast at the diner?'

    He laughs a little. Then, 'Yes.'


    He pulls out a sugar packet and starts to fiddle with it. I tear mine open and dump it in the coffee with cream. He just keeps tapping at his.

    'You know what image I had of you in my mind?' I stir my coffee. 'Still.'

    'Still?' He doesn’t move.

    I nod. 'Sitting under the shade of a boulder, somewhere. Lying in wait for some rare petal to unfurl, shutter at the ready.'

    'So, how am I different from that?' He starts to flick the sugar packet again and I pry it from his fingers. He follows it with his eyes as I place it on the table a few inches away.

    'Do you take sugar with your coffee?' I ask him quietly.


  11. Suze- Those are both good. I especially like the second one, some nice plays on words (still...he doesn't move) and it's very kinetic...nice descriptions of action and movement around the dialogue.

    And the flicking the sugar packet, but not taking sugar in the coffee...that's cool, and it really worked well within such a short sample!

  12. Cool. Thanks Rick and Suze for giving the feedback.

    Rick, in your scene between Kirs and Eldwin, I do really like the way you used the yes and no. There is something forced about the yes that reveals insecurity. I think it gets the emotion across.

    Suze, I also like the play with the sugar. The adverb "quietly" works well there, in my opinion. I wonder if your first scene would work without the explanation:"I’m not ready to tell him where I live. Not that I don’t trust him or anything. I’m just not ready." It's maybe a little risky, but I think his laugh at the end implies all of this subtext in a good way.

  13. Rick and Domey, funner still. Thank you so much for your feedback.

    Domey, I tend not to overexplain in the text but I write Women's Fiction and have had more than one beta reader tell me that they want to know a bit more about what's going on in the narrator's head since my narrators tend to feel emotionally stingy for some readers. :) I like what you've said and it rings very true with my basic, somewhat spartan inner monologues. I'll give it a second contextual look-- thank you.

    I look forward to more of these conversations!

  14. "Yeah," is a casual way of saying yes. My male characters say that a lot.

  15. I find during my revisions that my characters nod, shrug and shake their heads way too often! I always have a lot of edits in that department!

    I'm gonna go check out the contest now...I don't think I knew about that!


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