As for outlines, I tried one once and it was disastrous, like trying to play the piano from inside a straitjacket.
Isaac Asimov (1920-1992)
Isaac Asimov (1920-1992)
Last week I got an e-mail from a reader about punctuating dialogue. I was glad to get the question, because it’s also a pet peeve of mine. Here’s her question:
I’ve been reading a lot lately, and I also do beta-reading for some of my writer friends. My problem: it seems like everyone has a different way of punctuating dialogue, and I’m at a loss to figure out what’s right. I’ve read up on the subject but I’m still kind of confused. Is there a simple explanation you can give me?
Answer: There is a simple explanation, but it’s not a short one.
One of the modern style choices we have is substituting character actions for dialogue tags. This can be quite effective in making a sentence or scene more active. However, the punctuation needed in each case is different, and bad punctuation is one way to appear as a novice writer (as well as annoying any grammar nerds among your readers).
So, what makes a dialogue tag? There are two criteria: it must identify the speaker and describe the dialogue, though it doesn’t always have to be in that particular order. He asked, she said, John murmured or whispered, Stacey shouted or screamed―these are all dialogue tags.
“I’ll walk you back to your ship,” she (identity) said (description).
“I need to take a nap,” he (identity) mumbled (description).
“Do you want to go out tonight?” John (identity) asked (description).
“I don’t know who did it!” shouted (description) Stacey (identity).
The proper punctuation of the first two sentences shows the comma inside the closing quotes, followed by the dialogue tag. In the third & fourth sentences, the question mark or exclamation mark takes the place of the comma, again inside the quotes. If the first word after the dialogue is not a proper noun (such as John or Stacey), that word is not capitalized.
So the first thing to remember is that whatever punctuation you use for the spoken words, whether it’s a comma or ellipses, question mark or em-dash, it’s ALWAYS going to come inside the close quotes.
And what happens when you want to include a character action after the dialogue tag?
“I’ll walk you back to your ship,” she said, falling into step beside him.
You identify the speaker, describe the dialogue, then follow the dialogue tag with the additional information. The rules for punctuation stay the same.
But what about that substitution we talked about earlier, where you want to replace the dialogue tag with a character action? That’s where it all goes sideways. The wrong way is to follow the dialogue tag rules, like this:
“I’ll walk you back to your ship,” she fell into step beside him.
Because while “she fell into step” gives you the identity of the speaker (“she”), it does not describe the dialogue, so it doesn’t meet the criteria for a dialogue tag. Therefore, that phrase needs to become its own sentence.
“I’ll walk you back to your ship.” She fell into step beside him.
The dialogue ends with a period within the closed quotes, and the pronoun “she” becomes the first word in a new sentence, so it must be capitalized.
“I need to take a nap,” he mumbled wearily.
“I need to take a nap.” He could feel his whole body drooping.
“Do you want to go out tonight?” John asked with a grin.
“Do you want to go out tonight?” John gave her a suggestive grin.
“I don’t know who did it!” shouted Stacey, then stalked away.
“I don’t know who did it!” With a final angry look, Stacey stalked away.
So, simply put: if your phrase identifies and describes the dialogue, it’s a dialogue tag (even if you add additional elements to it). If it describes a character’s action rather than the character’s words, it’s not a dialogue tag and needs to become a new sentence.
Now, who’s got another grammar/punctuation peeve?
“Ask Giff” gives you real answers to real sentence construction problems. Whether you have a general question or a specific sentence that needs help, feel free to submit it on the contact form with the subject line “Ask Giff”.
If you’re like me, when you get to the end of a manuscript, you’re a few thousand (or maybe ten thousand) words over the optimal word count for your genre.
A lot of common editing advice can make a difference in MS length. Directives like “find stronger verbs” will eliminate some adverbs, while “make sentences tighter” can increase tension while removing excess verbiage. Condensing descriptions is also a good way get your word count down.
I’m going to assume you’ve done all that and your numbers are still not under control. What more can you do?
Here are three more ideas that can help bring your word count:
A. Contract “not”, especially in dialogue. Use “didn’t”, “couldn’t”, “wouldn’t”, etc. instead of “did not” “could not”, “would not” et al. Since “did not” counts as two words and “didn’t” as one, it adds up quickly. I eliminated almost 2000 words in a 108k manuscript with this single trick.
Word of caution: I tried doing a “search & replace” for “not” with a universal change to “n’t”, and got sentences that looked like this:
I willn’t go to the party on Saturday.
I told hern’t to spend more than twenty dollars.
UGH! Fortunately, an immediate “undo” took care of that fiasco. To search & replace efficiently, make sure you put a space before “not” in the search box and no space before “n’t” in the replace box. Then pick through the changes individually. It’s still faster than reading through to find them all.
B. Look for “and then”. It’s not only redundant but contradictory. “And” implies “in addition to”, while “then” implies “thereafter”. Each situation should only need one of these words.
C. Create a Word Cloud. In addition to showing words you use too often, a study of it will bring a focus to words you don’t need. In a recent cloud, I found “back” was one of my highest rated words. When I looked at the MS, I found most of them attached to verbs that didn’t need it (eg: sat back down, looked back out the window). I was able to eliminate so many of them, “back” disappeared from my cloud. I use the Word It Out program because (1) it’s FREE, and (2) it can analyze an entire manuscript in just a few moments. But it’s only one of many options out there.
So now you know which words you want to look at, but doesn’t it mean going through the entire MS again to find them?
No, because there’s an easy way to identify the words you’re interested in:
1. Input a word or phrase into the “find” function of your WP software;
2. Click “Find All”;
3. Click “Highlight” before moving on to the next word.
This process will mark every usage of each word for you. If you highlight every word on your list before you start to edit, you can run through your manuscript once, and you only have to read enough of each passage to make the appropriate decision.
Now tell me, do you have any time-saving editing tricks up your sleeve? (Asking for a friend who really needs to know.)
There is no limit to the lunacy of men when they think themselves superior both to laughter and humility.
G. K. Chesterton (1874-1936)
Anyone who’s a fan of the Old West is familiar with the Colt .45 and the Buntline Special. Like most old & new revolvers, both of these have a rotating 6-chamber cylinder. But did you know there was also a gun with six rotating barrels?
That’s right. Ethan Allen (no relation to the Revolutionary War hero) & his partner Charles Thurber created the revolving multi-shot pistol in the 1830s and for two decades, it enjoyed much popularity. Known as the pepper-box or pepper-pot for its resemblance to a kitchen pepper grinder, these firearms came in 4, 5, and 6 barrel styles, with barrel lengths available from 3” to 6”.
The pepper-pot was not the world’s most reliable pistol. In his book Roughing It (1872), Mark Twain describes his experience with it:
George Bemis was our fellow traveler… He wore in his belt an old original “Allen” revolver, such as irreverent people called a “pepper-box”. Simply drawing the trigger back, cocked and fired the pistol. As the trigger came back, the hammer would begin to rise and the barrel to turn over, and presently down would drop the hammer, and away would speed the ball. To aim along the turning barrel and hit the thing aimed at was a feat which was probably never done with an “Allen” in the world. But George’s was a reliable weapon, nevertheless, because, as one of the stage-drivers afterward said, “If she didn’t get what she went after, she would fetch something else.” And so she did. She went after a deuce of spades nailed against a tree, once, and fetched a mule standing about thirty yards to the left of it. Bemis did not want the mule; but the owner came out with a double-barreled shotgun, and persuaded him to buy it, anyhow. It was a cheerful weapon―the “Allen”. Sometimes all its six barrels would go off at once, and then there was no safe place in all the region round about, but behind it.
It’s really no wonder the pepper-pot pistol was known as “the gun that won the East.”
We’ve all heard about the RULES we need to follow in order to be “good” writers. No adverbs, no passive voice, no split infinitives, show don’t tell, limit dialogue tags to “said” & “asked”, use only one POV per chapter―these are just a few of the absolutes we’re faced with every day.
I’ve heard some RULES that are downright silly, such as: only one comma per sentence; no more than 4 sentences per paragraph; no conjunctions. The latest one to make the make the rounds is “no gerunds”, where most proponents of the RULE think a gerund is any word ending in “ing”. (It’s not. In fact, the only two gerunds in this article are “writing” and “painting”. For more info, read this post.)
The problem, it seems to me, is taking the style choice an author has made and proclaiming it a universal RULE.
Yes, I said “style choice”. You can decide that adverbs are not for you, that you always want to show and not tell, or to use no dialogue tags at all. A thriller writer may make some choices that a literary writer might denounce. But imagine if everyone took their favorite style choice and pronounced it a RULE for all to follow. That would almost surely lead to a cookie-cutter approach to writing, and individual creativity would suffer.
What would the state of literature today be if Faulkner followed Hemingway’s choices? if Fitzgerald was ruled by Cervantes? if Cain followed Chaucer’s? Cormac McCarthy consistently uses only the period and comma as punctuation. Should we all, as modern writers, follow his example?
Don’t be so blinded by the authority behind a RULE that the choice you make hurts instead of helping. Focus on the rhythm of your work first―do you want staccato or lyrical? are you chasing a serial killer or relating a love story? or maybe both in one novel? There is no RULE that says you can’t have it all as you craft your manuscript.
The rhythm you seek will give you the choices that best benefit your story. Then you can join the ranks of these esteemed authors who know all the RULES and when to break them:
Truman Capote: Writing has laws of perspective, of light and shade just as painting does, or music. If you are born knowing them, fine. If not, learn them. Then rearrange the RULES to suit yourself.
Henry David Thoreau: Any fool can make a RULE, And any fool will mind it.
Scott Turow: I think that you must be aware of the existing conventions. …That does not mean that you cannot reinvent them in your own way.
Anne Rice: …any RULE you hear from one writer [that] doesn’t work for you, disregard it completely.
Neil Gaiman: The main RULE of writing is that if you do it with enough assurance and confidence, you’re allowed to do whatever you like. (That may be a RULE for life as well as for writing. But it’s definitely true for writing.) So write your story as it needs to be written. Write it honestly, and tell it as best you can. I’m not sure that there are any other RULES. Not ones that matter.
G. K. Chesterton: I owe my success to having listened respectfully to the very best advice, and then going away and doing the exact opposite.
Joyce Carol Oates: Best tip for writers: not to listen to any silly tips for writers.
Mark Twain, whose real name was Samuel Langhorne Clemens, is an American icon. But in his time, he wasn’t the only one in his family with name recognition.
Twain’s older brother, Orion Clemens, was a newspaper publisher and had studied law under Edward Bates, who later became President Abraham Lincoln’s Attorney General. Orion was appointed the first (and only) Secretary of the Nevada Territory by Lincoln, and was second-in-command to the Territorial Governor, James Nye. A popular figure in Nevada politics Orion, acting as temporary Governor in Nye’s absence, deftly avoided the “Sagebrush War”, a boundary dispute between Nevada and California.
Orion was accompanied by his brother Sam as he traveled by stage from Iowa to his new post in 1861, and their journey is memorialized in the book Roughing It by Mark Twain.
The capacity of the human mind for swallowing nonsense and spewing it forth in violent and repressive action has never yet been plumbed.
Robert Heinlein (1907-1998)
The test of a democracy is not the magnificence of buildings or the speed of automobiles or the efficiency of air transportation, but rather the care given to the welfare of all the people.
– Helen Keller (1880-1968)
While doing research recently for an ESL student, I came across another “rule of writing”, to wit:
Don’t use gerunds; they make your writing weak.
To qualify as a gerund a word must be:
Take these sentences as examples:
I like hiking. (The gerund acts as the object of the sentence.)
Hiking is fun. (The gerund acts as the subject of the sentence.)
Now, I guess you could eliminate the gerund in the first sentence by saying “I like to hike”, but I don’t see much difference between the two statements. I think your choice would depend more on what your character’s natural speech patterns are than on any “rule”. (And if, like me, your manuscripts run over the recommended length for your genre, every little added “to” means you have to cut another word―a fate worse than death!)
Rewriting the second sentence as “To hike is fun” makes it sound formal. It gives me the feeling I’m reading a foreign translation rather than common American parlance.
And here’s the other, more important thing: in every article I read, the proponents of the “no gerund rule” were really objecting to sentences like this:
I was hiking in the woods.
But “hiking”, in this instance, fails to meet the qualifications for a gerund. It ends in “ing”, but it’s not acting as a noun. It’s part of the verb construction, specifically the past progressive tense.
So what the “no gerunds rule” proponents are trying to say is: there’s a “no progressive tenses rule”. By various examples, they also declare that there’s a “no conditional tenses rule”, and/or a “no perfect/pluperfect tenses rule”. In other words, write only in simple present, simple past, or imperfect tense.
The reasoning, from what I gather, is that all these other tenses fall into a subset of the “active/passive rule”. For a “more active” sentence, they’d encouraged you to write it this way:
I hiked in the woods.
However, the rewrite doesn’t give me the same anticipation factor. If you start a dialogue with “I was hiking in the woods…”, I’m immediately looking for a story to follow. “I hiked in the woods” is more self-contained, an answer to the question, “What did you do today?” It doesn’t give me a sense of more to come. So for me, it’s a less appealing choice, and even less so if you’re creating a scene of rising tension.
(See what I did there? In the last sentence, I used three words that end in “ing” and not one of them is a gerund. Don’t fall into the same trap the “no gerunds rule” folks did!)
In my opinion, most of the “rules of writing” we see today have nothing to do with writing correctly. Instead, they are style choices that individuals make and choose to follow in their own works. They are, in effect, guidelines for that writer, not rules for all writers.
In particular, the “no gerunds rule” is one that seems to have a limited practical application. And I’d say the same for the “no (whatever) tense rules”. They’re like the Oxford comma; if you don’t want to use them, then don’t. But there are going to be times when clarity (or word count) depends upon it.
When it comes to writing, my philosophy is always:
Choose the best word for the job.
It applies whether you use a noun, verb, gerund, adverb, adjective, dialogue tag, or a word you made up to bring your story’s world to life. Choose the best word and your readers will be so bowled over by your writing, they won’t stop to wonder whether that word qualifies as a gerund or past progressive tense.
So, what style guidelines do you prefer? What’s your writing philosophy?