Tuesday, January 10, 2006

On no

It's apparently an old saw in creative writing that characters should never say "no." It's not that they are supposed to be doormats; they just shouldn't use the word "no" in dialog. That's because "no" provides no information, whereas other forms of refusal do. I heard this from Charles D'Ambrosio at the Tin House workshop last summer, so I'll use his example:

Do you want a banana?
No. [=lost opportunity to provide information]


Do you want a banana?
You know I don't like bananas. [=intriguing implications about the speakers' relationship]

Since hearing this I've been going through my stories with the No Comb. And yet: "No" is fun to say. It's fun to write. It looks great on the page.


See what I mean? It's even better without quotation marks. It does stop the narrative, it is empty, more like punctuation than a word. That's it's power. There must be a use for these little dead spots in fiction.

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