Ask Giff: Dialogue Tags, A Punctuation Primer

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.

design desk display eyewear

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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 screamedthese are all dialogue tags.

Examples:

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.

More examples:

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”.

3 Simple Ways To Reduce Your Word Count

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.)

 

7 Great Authors Take on the “RULES OF WRITING”

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?

pile of books

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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.

Getting back in the swing of things

#amwriting #sabbatical

So, it seems that I managed to take another 8-week sabbatical this holiday season. However, unlike last year, this one was not full of family, friends, and celebrations (although we spent a lovely day at my brother’s house on Christmas). At home, we had only one tree instead of our usual five, and only two of our wreaths made it out of their boxes. While I had managed to get the cookie jars and reindeer distributed, there wasn’t a single Santa, snowman, angel, polar bear or penguin to be seen.

No, at the beginning of December, I managed to wreck my knee. Not quite sure how, as the pain wasn’t there before I stood up. I don’t remember falling, or tripping – though I have to confess I trip so often it wouldn’t register in and of itself. I am definitely not a Tuesday child full of grace, and when they make a Sunday Child, grace is the one positive attribute they just happen to leave out.

At any rate, I’ve spent the last 8 weeks using a walker or wheelchair and in pretty extreme pain. Things are finally getting better, but it’s following that old “two steps forward, one step back” rule. And since painkillers tend to make me less than lucid, I’ve spent my time reading instead of writing or blogging.

But I’ve made some real progress in my reading: my grandmother left me about 600 mystery novels published from the 50s to 70s, and I’ve chewed my way through about half of them. Some are great, some are pretty pitiful, but all of the authors were popular when the books were printed. Many of them would have a very hard time finding an audience now.

Styles have changed so much through the past 30 years or so. Leisurely descriptions are no longer in vogue. Dialogue tags, however fanciful, are frowned upon. And adverbs – heaven help the author who puts an adverb in every paragraph.

No, right now the pros tell use that the use of language must be limited to nouns, verbs and a smattering of adjectives. Description cannot be flowerly, cannot exist for the mere sake of description. Every single word must add to characterization or move the plot along.

Last year, I read several modern books, most of which came highly recommended. One of them stood out from the pack: What Boys Are Made Of by S. Hunter Nisbet. Not because the writing was flowery, or there were leisurely descriptions, or because adverbs abounded. No, because the minimalist style was so beautifully suited to the story. It would be hard for me to imagine that book being so effective if it were written in any other style.

If What Boys Are Made Of had been a romance, I’d have been very disappointed in the style and flavor of it. Yet I’ve read romances that utilize that same style; they’ve left no lasting impression on me.

One of the hardest things for writers right now, I believe, is to decide WHICH style rules to follow, WHAT style best suits our story. With so many people – professional writers and editors, textbook creators, and bloggers like you and me – putting their advice out there for everyone to see, it’s simply not possible to write a book and follow all these rules.

So get out there and be daring! Tell your love story with flowery descriptions, your hero-quest with profligate adverbs, your historical with dauntingly clear details of the scenery. Give it a go!

You’ll never know how good it can be if you don’t try it.

Because the best thing about writing in this day and age is that if you don’t like what you come up with, it’s really easy to revise.

4 Reasons Automated Checks will Never Replace an Editor

#amwriting #amediting

There is a great benefit to automated checkers, because they’ll alert you to the possibility that you’re spelling a word incorrectly, using an inordinate number of adverbs, repeating pet phrases. But there’s more to good writing than that, and here are four of the reasons that you need a great editor.

1.) SPELL CHECKERS: No spell checker has every English word built into it, and that goes double for common foreign words and phrases (“joie de vivre” is one my checker always flags, while it lets “da nada” go when it should be “de nada”). What’s more, spell check won’t tell you if you’ve used the wrong word.

Having worked in financial services for twenty-odd years, I constantly type “form” when I mean “from”. Since “form” is an English/American word and it’s spelled correctly, it will never be flagged, and it’s up to me to catch every one. I also make a mistake when I type “to the”; as my thumbs seem to work more slowly than they should, what comes up quite a bit is “tot he”. As both “tot” and “he” are words in English, it doesn’t get flagged, regardless of the fact that it makes no sense at all!

Examples that I’ve seen others make just within the past few weeks are:

He “lied” on the floor (and probably also lied to his boss at the office!)
He held a “taught” rope (yes, a really smart rope!)
He was easy “pray” (a very religious guy.)
He “expanded” on the subject (as he expanded his belly with a big meal.)

All of these are words in English, correctly spelled, and they will not be flagged. Though that last definition might be stretched (ahem!) to include conversation, the better word is “expounded”. But spell check won’t tell you that.

2.) GRAMMAR CHECKERS: Most of these, in my experience, have severe limitations. For one thing, they’ve usually been set up to identify adverbs as all words that end in “-ly”. So whether you’re writing about a wind that comes up “suddenly” or a “cuddly” teddy bear, you’ll get a flag. But say you write about a wind that comes up “all of a sudden”: the checker won’t flag your adverbial phrase, which can be a more egregious transgression. For now, not only have you used one unnecessary word, you’ve actually used four of them.

For the record, and as I’ve stated in previous posts, I am in favor of adverbs when they’re used judiciously. “Suddenly” happens to be one that, IMHO, is seldom needed. And if you use certain checkers, they won’t flag words like “seldom” as adverbs… It doesn’t end in “ly”, so well, you’re on your own there.

3.) DICTIONARY/THESAURUS: I have a friend who writes in English, her second language. It floors me that she would even attempt to do this, as after eight semesters of French, I can barely spell “joie de vivre”. But she does a magnificent job. We had quite a discussion a few weeks ago about the phrase “common practice”. The sentence was a question: Is it a common practice? Word™ kept telling her it should be “practices”. Why? because it was seeing “practice” as a verb, and the correct declention would be “it practices”. But here, it’s being used as a noun, and Word has no way of understanding the difference.

The biggest problem with on-line dictionaries and thesauruses (thesauri? My Latin’s no better than my French!) is lack of context. Take “expand” from Item 1, above. I checked four different sources and as a primary definition got: 1. stretched, 2. swollen, 3. broadened, 4. elaborate. Without the context of American English, where “expand” is usually understood to mean “grows” or “stretches”, the writer may feel he chose the best word for the job. He was going for the more obscure meaning of “elaborate”, and the dictionary/thesaurus would never tell him any different.

Context is everything. And no on-line checker is going to give you context.

4.) STYLE: Regardless of the perceived perfection of any automated checker, it will not take your individual style into consideration. If you write a horror novel, your style is going to be much different than if you write a cozy mystery. A dystopian novel will not utilize the same language as a historical romance. Any checker that professes to be “the best for everyone” can’t live up to its hype, because it will never recognize your style as distinct from everyone else’s.

Moral of the story: Take all automated recommendations with a grain of salt, and then have your story or manuscript reviewed by an editor. It doesn’t have to be a paid professional: if you’re lucky enough to have a critique partner or someone in your writing circle that can do the job, by all means make use of their knowledge. If not, seek someone out. Someone who has an AWESOME command of both language and grammar, and who understands the complexities of style.

Slainte!

#Quote of the Week

#quotes #amwriting #amediting

It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all, in which case you have failed by default.

–  JK Rowling

To Pants or Not To Pants – That is the Question

#amwriting #amediting

 There’s a great dichotomy among writers: plotters (those who outline) vs. pantsers (those who write by the seat of their pants).  Most writers fall into one camp or the other and sing the praises of their choice.  Nothing wrong with that.  Everyone’s mind works differently, and what works for you may not work for me.

I’m one of those rare birds who uses both methods.  I plot out a short story or an essay like this – it’s the only way I can make sure I don’t lose track of my theme somewhere in the middle.  But when it comes to novels, I’m a pantser.

I start out with a concept, plus a beginning, an ending, and a few scenes in between. But once I start writing, I let the characters take me where they will.  That process sometimes means the intended scenes don’t make it into the manuscript and, at least once, it’s meant that the ending isn’t what I originally envisioned.

Yet I can see the point of plotting, especially when the story is complex or there are more than a few characters to keep track of.  Not too long ago, I read a book in which all but one of the sub-plots was left dangling at the end, and I remember thinking that the author could have made good use of an outline.  That’s one of the benefits of plotting – making sure everything that’s started has a resolution.

But as far as I’m concerned, whatever works for you as an individual is fine with me.

However, I recently read a blog post by someone who swears by outlines.  The blogger spent quite a bit of time belittling those who don’t plot ahead, saying things like “some authors can’t be bothered to outline”, “an outline is the only sure road to success”, and “I never read a good book that wasn’t plotted out beforehand”.

Really?  This blogger contacted every author whose book she ever read to determine if the writer used an outline?  And never enjoyed a book whose author said “NO”?  What about those dead guys, like Cervantes, Twain, Dumas and Voltaire, whose works are still held in reverence – did she contact them by séance?

Or did she maybe just assume that bad books are not plotted and good books are?  You all know what happens when you assume…

So, in support of all the non-plotters out there, here are some quotes about writing from your fellow pantsers.  Now I haven’t read all of these books, but I’m fairly certain most of them are pretty good.

***

I’ve never written a book with an outline or a predetermined theme.  It’s only in retrospect that themes or subjects become identifiable.  That’s the fun of it: discovering what’s next.  I’m often surprised by plot developments I would not have dreamed of starting out, but that, in the course of the writing, come to seem inevitable.  Susan Choi (American Woman)

I don’t plot the books out ahead of time, I don’t plan them.  I don’t begin at the beginning and end at the end. I don’t work with an outline and I don’t work in a straight line.  Diana Gabaldon (Outlander)

I cannot outline. I do not know what the next thing is going to happen in the book until it comes out of my fingers.  Patricia Reilly Giff (Maggie’s Door)

In fiction, you have a rough idea what’s coming up next – sometimes you even make a little outline – but in fact you don’t know.  Each day is a whole new – and for me, a very invigorating – experience.  Peter Matthiessen (The Snow Leopard)

I do not outline.  There are writers I know and count as my friends who certainly do it the other way, but for me, part of the adventure is not knowing how it’s going to turn out.  Joyce Maynard (To Die For)

I don’t outline; I listen to a kind of whisper inside the material.  Jayne Anne Phillips (Shelter)

Writing is a process of discovering. I could never outline a narrative; that just sounds boring.  There’s no joy of discovery in what you’re doing if that’s your strategy.  Bob Shacochis (Swimming in the Volcano)

I don’t outline at all; I don’t find it useful, and I don’t like the way it boxes me in.  I like the element of surprise and spontaneity, of letting the story find its own way.  Khaled Hosseini (The Kite Runner)

I don’t write a play from beginning to end. I don’t write an outline.  I write scenes and moments as they occur to me.  … I sequence them in a way that tends to make sense. Then I write what’s missing, and that’s my first draft.  Richard Greenberg (Life Under Water)

The important discovery I made very early is that my novels had to be written without any given plan or outline.  I can’t do it in any other way. But then they are dependent on the sentences, my intuition, and, as I have experienced many times, the subconscious.  Per Petterson (Out Stealing Horses)

The way that I write novels in particular is I don’t usually outline; I just write.  Part of the fun is discovering what’s happening in the story as I’m going along.  John Scalzi (Old Man’s War)

I never work from an outline, and often I don’t know how the story will end.  Patricia MacLachlan (Sarah Plain and Tall)

Choosing to write a play is some kind of surrender. I don’t make an outline.  I sit and work, and suddenly the door opens, and out it comes.  David Rabe (HurlyBurly)

When I sat down and wrote the first paragraph, I was like, ‘Oh, I can go with this.’  I didn’t do an outline. I didn’t do anything.  I just wrote sentence by sentence, not knowing where the story was going.  Colleen Hoover (Losing Hope)

THE BRICKMAKER’S BRIDE by Judith Miller, book review

#amwriting #amreading #bookreview

Brick

I picked this book up on a whim: the title drew me in. I regret to say I didn’t really enjoy it. The writing was too simple for my taste and though the plot had great potential, the twists and the ending were telegraphed early on and there was nothing unexpected happening at any point.

Of the characters, I liked Ewan best. Even though he was too preachy for my taste, I could admire him for his love of his family and his work ethic.

The overriding theme of the book seemed to be that good things happen because of God and bad things happen because of people who don’t do God’s will. I found this extremely simplistic and even a bit insulting, as it dismisses outright any set of beliefs that don’t include the Christian God. There are absolutely good people who aren’t Christians, and evil is sometimes done by those who profess deep faith in the Christian God. The theme could have been presented much more subtly; if emphasis had been shifted to the romance plot and character development, this would, in my opinion, have been a much better book.

2 Stars