Where do I Put it?

Of late, I’ve been receiving manuscripts for editing with the same issue: misplaced punctuation in dialogue.  It’s like . . . uh, I’m not sure where to put it, so maybe I’ll just throw it there.  Looks good.  I’m good.

I like the exuberance I sense in people’s stories; it spills across the page/screen like an overflowing spring stream.  I don’t so much like that little time has been applied to give their [good] stories the proper editing/proofreading they require.  It seems that some just type, type, type and never return to reread what’s been written.  It’d be great to see the aforementioned exuberance applied—just a wee bit—to the “final product”. 

So, my dear friends and fellow writers, here’s some quick guidance on how to punctuate dialogue in North America.  Notice the placement of commas, periods, and other punctuation marks.

♦  “Say, what’s happening over there?”

♦  “Please stop making all that noise,” she said with a roll of the eyes, “and get ready for dinner.”

♦  “Hold on!”

♦  “Hey, what’s up?”  With a grin, Glenn raced over to the group.

Anything within quotation marks is separate from the rest of the sentence.  Use capitals for full-sentence dialogue/quotes.

When closing a quotation, ensure the period or comma falls within the quotation, not outside.

Utilize commas to introduce text, except when using “that”.

♦  With a shake of her head, Reena said, “It’s not good, John.  You’ll never get away with it.)

♦  Jake told us that “I’ve given up smoking once and for all, really and truly.”

When using a dialogue tag, you would use a comma before the closing quotation marks.

♦  “It’s gorgeous out today,” Jerry declared with a grin.

Dialogue tags, by the way, aren’t necessary if it’s obvious who is speaking.  So, per a couple of previous posts, please don’t feel that you need to add “she said”, “he said”, “Margaret said”, “Wilber said” every time a character speaks; readers can figure it out.  Really.

Don’t leave out punctuation that adds dimension to a sentence, like a question mark or exclamation point.

♦  “Don’t worry about it,” he said.

♦  “Don’t worry about it!” he said. 

The second one conveys more emotion, don’t you think?

Often, question marks, exclamation points, and em dashes fall within closing quotation marks—often, but not always.  It depends on the connotation.

♦  Here’s to Edgar, touted “the most likely to succeed”!

♦  Floyd declared, “I’ll win that award, no matter what”—and proceeded to immerse himself in the pursuit.

And single quotes?  Employ them within double quotation marks to denote quoted text within dialogue.

♦  Roger scratched his head and asked, “Was it Shakespeare who said ‘a rose by any other name would smell as sweet’ or someone else?”

♦  “Barry said, ‘I’m a real winner’.” 

Don’t forget that a new paragraph is required every time the character/speaker changes.  This will help define who is speaking and what is transpiring.  It also means dialogue tags can be kept to a minimum (and we like that).

One thing some writers seem to forget to do: search for rules.  Don’t take a stab (guessing) at what punctuation should be added to dialogue—and where.  Don’t place it wherever the mood (guess) strikes.  Look . . . it . . . up.  In other words, look . . . professional.  Even if there’s an editor down the road, it never hurts to learn something new . . . does it? <wink>

I Said . . . so Did He . . . and so Did She

I’ve posted on this one at least a couple of times over the last two years—the enthusiastic over-use of “said” in fiction writing.

It seems common in manuscripts by new(er) writers, so I felt compelled (once again) to review why using “said” with zealous abundance might not be in the writer’s, or reader’s, interest.  Literally.

“Yes, sir,” Malcom said with a nod.  “I’ll report my findings as soon as possible.”

“You’d better,” she said.  “And make sure you share them with Winters too.”

“I’ll do that,” he said.

She sighed and said, “Don’t forget to call after the meeting later; I need to know what’s transpired.”

“Yes, Mary-Anne,” he said and disconnected just as his executive assistant, Lee, entered.

“Looks like it’s gonna be a long day,” Lee said as he placed a folder on Malcolm’s desk.

“You said it,” Malcolm said with a sigh.

I’ve seen a lot of manuscripts that flow like this . . . as flat as flapjacks.  There’s no need to always state that a character said something.  Dialogue can stand on its own a lot of the time.  Readers are pretty smart and can gather who is speaking from the action and details.

This isn’t to say that “said” shouldn’t be used.  By all means, utilize it, but with a critical eye, and ear.  It serves a [valid] purpose, but it’s not always a terribly exciting word and, sometimes, dialogue needs more, particularly in a tense or action-fraught scene.

Do you think people will have “said” something when a bomb is about to detonate or a giant lizard is about to eat a bunch of tourists?  I suspect people would more likely have “declared”, “shouted”, “screamed”, “shrieked”, “commanded”, “cried”, or “bellowed”, to name but a few more thrilling and descriptive words.

Can’t you imagine Bob’s face as he shrieks a command to a fear-frozen coworker, as opposed to says?  Shriek, to me, suggests his face would be tense, his brow creased, his lips tight, his throat dry; maybe he’d be gesticulating or taking action as he shrills.  Say, to me, evokes an image of an unemotional face, someone who’s non-reactive.

How about we take the previous example and “activate” it a bit?

“Yes, sir,” Malcom promised with a quick nod and roll of the eyes.  “I’ll report my findings as soon as possible.”

“You’d better,” she advised with a hint of a threat in the tone.  “And make sure you share them with Winters too.”

He swallowed heavily and jabbed the pen into the edge of the desk.  “I’ll do that.”

She sighed loudly.  “Don’t forget to call after the meeting later; I need to know what’s transpired.”

“Yes, Mary-Anne.”  He disconnected just as his executive assistant, Lee, entered.

“Looks like it’s gonna be a long day,” Lee commented with a dry smile as he placed a folder on Malcolm’s desk.

“You said it,” Malcolm muttered, rubbing his temples.

It’s not an exciting scene to begin with, but we can make it a little more interesting or add a little more tension.  Always give thought as to how you can create more gripping or dynamic dialogue and scenes.  Pull those readers in; don’t make their eyelids droop from fatigue.

It’s difficult getting started on that first story, be it a short one or a novel.  There are many things to learn and apply.  It all comes with time and practice.  And that’s okay.  We all have a learning curve.

Churning something out, however, without reviewing, proofing, or editing, is something to avoid.  Per a previous post on this blog: there’s no need to be “perfect”, but do aspire to be the best that you can be.

I’m fairly sure, of the many manuscripts I’ve edited thus far, most haven’t read their final drafts aloud.  Do so.  This may sound daft but, trust me, it’s a worthwhile endeavor and it really doesn’t take that long.  You’ll be amazed what you will “hear” and pick up.

Hope what I “said” makes sense.

Which Word Works?

This week I felt compelled to review word usage in fiction writing (or any writing, for that matter).  The right word conveys the right emotion, message, action.

New writers sometimes feel a need to use words or phrases (and I’ve been there, I readily admit) to impress, or seem more “worldly” perhaps.  Occasionally, when editing, I come across ones that I’ve never seen before!  Wow, how impressive indeed—into the dictionary I delve!

Don’t aim for impressive; go for impression, the [desired] effect you produce in the mind of your readers.

At times, the selected word works, at times, not.  So, why was it chosen?  Because it sounded good?  Not a valid reason, my friends.  Because it’s popular?  Not a valid reason, my friends.  Because you really want to demonstrate how grand your vocabulary is?  Not a valid reason, my friends.

Upon hearing the news of her death, sadness flowed through him.

Upon hearing the news of her death, ruefulness flowed through him.

Upon hearing the news of her death, dispiritedness flowed through him.

Upon hearing the news of her death, forlornness flowed through him.

The bolded words share a similar meaning (to a degree) yet are not the same.

sadness:  causing, showing or expressing unhappiness or sorrow

ruefulness:  causing, showing or expressing unhappiness or regret

dispiritedness:  a feeling of low spirits

forlornness:  sad or lonely, chiefly from being abandoned or forsaken

Utilize the word the best works for the dialogue, action, scene—and not because a “bigger” word seems “better”.  Ensure the word or phrase is appropriate to the circumstance(s).  And if you want to use a new word, go for it, but check the definition.  Is it accurate for what is being written/conveyed?  Remember: the dictionary is our friend.

They say short and sweet is best, and that can hold true for words.  Sometimes, the clearest, most persuasive word is the shortest one.

And, if you’re writing a historical novel, think about how your characters speak—modern-day phrases and expressions really don’t have a place here, unless time travel is involved.

The same holds true of speech/dialogue.  Someone of royal blood or a person in a governmental position would not likely use “gonna” or “wanna”; he or she would speak with more precision and professionalism.  Moreover, characters—like everyday persons—would speak differently and employ unique phrases or expressions.  Contractions may or may not be used, given who the person is and where he or she hails from.

Example:

The minister looked as his assistant.  “Bro, like I was tellin’ ya, I was wondering if we’re gonna like the proposals Major Martyn will propose, ya know?  I heard he’s kinda odd when it comes to—”

“No worries, sir, I’m sure you’re gonna like them just fine,” his assistant said.

How about something like:

The minister regarded Lester, his assistant, closely.  “I wonder if Major Martyn’s proposals will be practical.  I’ve heard he’s rather odd when it comes to—”

“No worries, sir,” Lester interrupted with an amiable smile.  “I’m sure you’ll find them appropriate.”

Incorrect word choices (or arrangements) can result in clumsiness, vagueness, and/or ambiguity.

Example of incorrect word usage:

“George, from here on in we will live our life together, don’t you think that’s awesome?  We can rely on each other, my honey-bun,” Margaret derailed George’s train of thought, like she knew precisely what he was so totally enthralled with.

Example of better word usage:

With a patient smile, Margaret derailed George’s train of thought.  “Going forward we’ll live our lives together.  We’ll have each other to rely on.  That’s amazing, don’t you agree?”

Avoid misusing words; again, check the definition if you’re not quite sure.  Make certain the context is correct.

Keep an eye on jargon, too.  It may work for a character or two, but it may not for others, and it may not work in descriptive sections.  Clichés can be appealing, at times, in the right situations, but they can also prove trite if not silly, so use them wisely.

Say what needs saying, and don’t “over-stuff”; you only need so many feathers for a comfy cushion.  Wordiness, unlike a dictionary, is not our friend.

ClipartKeydotcomABCaIn summation:  ♦  be careful when utilizing a word that’s unfamiliar  ♦  use a dictionary if you use a thesaurus, to be certain the new word you want to use is the right one  ♦  do not write to impress or sound like you know it all  ♦  watch for repetition (have you used the same word/phrase too many times?).

Reading aloud helps . . . really.  Try it.  See if it doesn’t help you with your word selection.  If something doesn’t sound good to your ears, it probably needs reworking.

This could easily be a five-page post because there’s so much to advise re word usage, but no one wants to plow through a lonnnnnnnnnnnnnng post, so here you have the main food-for-thought points.  I hope they help.

On that note, I bid you a short and simple adieu.

The End of the Beginning

Yee-ha!  Finished “HA-HA-HA-HA” . . . well, the first draft anyway.  For me, this has been—wow—over a year in the making.  Time to celebrate?  Maybe.  A little.

WPwineIf you’ve finished your manuscript, congrats.  Not an easy feat (not unless you’re a prolific writer who can put something together in a wink and a blink).  So, what now?  Have a celebratory glass of wine or cup of tea?  Why not?  Go for it.  Give yourself a [well-deserved] pat on the back?  For sure—you deserve it, so give yourself two.  Take a breather?  Most definitely!

“The End” truly isn’t the end, not when it’s only the first draft.  After that, you have to begin on the revamping, the refining.  You want your manuscript to be submission perfect, so make certain your “product” is good enough to send out to publishers, agents (if you’re planning on pursuing the traditional publishing route), acquisition editors, and the like.

I’ve undoubtedly touched upon the following in past, but a review is always worthwhile—for you and me.

Take the aforementioned breather—a few days isn’t enough, truly, so aim for a few weeks, even a month or, better yet, two.  I know, this seems like a forever when you’re excited about your manuscript and want to get it out there.  But you must step away to view/review your work with objectivity.  You’ve been living with the story for some time and need fresh eyes to see what’s what (what works and what doesn’t): you can only do that when you’ve stepped away for a decent period of time.

Once that breather has breathed enough, pick up that manuscript and read it all the way through before proofing/editing.  Get a feel for how it flows, what makes sense, what stands out (as in amiss or incorrect, or makes you scratch your head).  Now that you’ve got an idea of what requires doing, fix the critical items first—scenes that don’t work, plot holes, character inconsistencies.  Once you’ve got those smoothed over, begin the edit.  Take your time.

Second edit done?  Edit more—or refine, as the case may be.  Once completed, get feedback/input.  Receiving it from family and friends is okay (but how objective are they really going to be?).  Aim for writing communities and groups and beta readers.  See what others have to say but take their advice with a grain of salt; it may make [a lot of] sense, it may not.  Give the feedback serious—and non-subjective thought—and apply as you deem fit.

If you don’t yet have a social-media/on-line presence, create one.  You want people to know about your book and you, the writer.  How about a blog?  Promote your book—and yourself—there.  Spark interest.

I digressed a bit, because social media and the like is a whole other kettle of fish (and I’ve posted about this before).  Really, the whole point about “The End” is that there’s a beginning . . . which leads to it being final, faultless/flawless, and fabulous.

With that, I’m off to take a few breaths . . . hmm, just how many are there in a month?

Any Secrets to Editing a Short Story?

Not that I know of.  <LOL>  It’s JJ today.

Editing a short story is the same as editing a long one; you’re looking for, and correcting, the same issues.  And, before you ask or Rey blows me another [raucous] raspberry, yes, I have the qualifications.  As a former weather announcer who also produced community specials, I did a lot of writing which, of course, included a lot of editing.  And narrating our private-eye exploits isn’t done before thorough proofing/correcting.  (Ugh.  That just earned me another raspberry.)

So, before we visit Rey’s Full Moon over Plymouth, let’s summarize Linda’s guidelines on how to write a solid short story two posts past:

♦  make certain you know the [short story] genre; understand the perimeters

♦  present a conflict or complication, a quest or mission from the get-go; create interest immediately

♦  make sure your main character has just that: character

♦  ensure your “plot” is fresh and maintains readers’ interest; be imaginative/creative

♦  appeal to your readers’ emotions . . . and have your characters convey them, which will give them depth and make them likable (or unlikable, as the case may be)

♦  present a dynamic ending; it, like the opening, has to transpire quickly so bring adequate closure (even if you leave readers dangling).

And, with that, Editor JJ will comment on Cousin Reynalda’s short Full Moon over Plymouth paragraph by paragraph (and if she blows any more of those, I’ll have to fetch an umbrella).

Gisele Cooper stood ramrod straight as she steadily held the Luger and tracked Marshall Willis, the serial killer who had terrorized the New England coast for eight months now.  To the point and sets the mood.  Could have used a bit more description.  Something like: “Pretty P.I. Gisele Cooper, stood ramrod straight as she eyed the rural Massachusetts darkness . . .”

It was a cool early November evening and the pretty private eye was pumped.  She’d catch “Wicked Willis” if it was the last thing she’d do.  He’d dodged the cops, media, fellow private investigators, and her.  Enough was enough.  Not bad.  Gives readers a sense of time as well as purpose.

Willis, an average-looking guy of average height and average build, had bayoneted twelve men—that they knew of.  And they’d not have know it was Willis if there hadn’t been a witness.  Typo.  Slap on hand (playfully, of course) to Rey.  That is exactly why we proof/edit. 

Amos, a frisky Staffordshire Bull Terrier, had been at the last killing and had managed to take a bite out of the murderer’s arm as he plunged the knife, which was fitted into the end of an old musket.  Lucky Amos got away fast—with the weapon, no less!  Amos’ owner called the police and the rest, as the saying went, was history.  A little awkward sounding.  Might have approached it differently.  But the action/excitement is there.

At thirty-four, Gisele didn’t have many years of experience.  Just four.  But she had instinct and chutzpah and knew how to swing a mean left hook and wield a weapon.  Good.  A little insight into our heroine.  Might have moved this closer to the opening, though.

She’d gotten involved with this case—if she could call it that—when Harvey, a detective she sometimes dated, was assigned as the lead investigator.  After dinner and drinks, and nookie, he’d share updates, knowing she’d not divulge anything she’d heard.  Seems a bit flat.

So, here she was, trailing a nutbar after following a tip that Willis was living in a two-room shack somewhere along the Eel River.  She’d missed him by seconds.  The hot coffee mug and bitten egg sandwich told her that.  And the partially open rear door said he’d left that way.  So did the footprints in the soft drizzle-dense soil, visible courtesy of the camping lamp on a cheap plastic stand alongside the door.  I’d like a little more detail to give it more depth, excitement.  Something like . . . “She’d missed him by seconds—verified by the chipped hot coffee mug featuring a pirate’s visage and half-eaten egg sandwich that oozed ketchup like a gunned down doe.”

“You’re not escaping me, my friend,” she murmured into the breezeless night.  Wouldn’t she be more determined, more angry?  How about “she hissed”?

There was a mini flashlight in her leather bomber jacket pocket, but she had no intention of letting him, or anyone else, view her from afar.  Not sure if this is worth mentioning.

Willis hadn’t been on anyone’s radar.  The average man of twenty-four had been an average student and held an average job since finishing high school.  Nothing in his past screamed “serial-killer material”.  But once Amos had provided “evidence” and they’d narrowed down the possibilities, they’d zeroed in on Marshall Willis.  I might have detailed this a bit more.  (Sorry Rey.)

Gisele tossed her long blonde waves and surveyed the length of the sparkling river.  The stars and a full moon danced upon it.  Pretty, she thought, worth visiting one day under different circumstances.  Maybe with Harvey?  I’d add something like . . . “Maybe with Harvey?  She smirked and shook her head.  Focus, girl, focus.”

She stopped.  Had she noticed movement among the dense foliage?  No, it was a feral cat, that was all.  She laughed anxiously as she watched it scamper from view.  Nice.

That cost her.  Almost.  A swisssshhhhhhh from behind prompted her to duck and whirl.  The bayonet sliced the air instead of herPerfect.

“Damn, I missed.  Too bad,” Willis chortled.  “But I won’t this time.”  A little more dialogue and drama would be good.

Without thought, Gisele swung up and out, and caught him under the chin with the Luger.  The she swung again and caught him on the temple.  Before he could react or retreat, she had him on his belly and handcuffed.  Works for me.

“Gotcha.”  Necessary?

As if conveying approval, mockingbirds sang in unison.  Gisele bowed in acknowledgement and hauled Willis to his average-sized feet.  Nice touch with the mockingbirds.  I might have added a few other animals or sounds.

All in all, I agree with Linda’s A+ for effort.  As a short, it has its moments—a bit of tension, history, a dramatic opening (a dangerous mission) and an equally dramatic ending with an outcome.

Oh-oh.  That expression tells me my cousin’s not amused.  Better get that umbrella; I sense a glut of those contemptuous sounds coming my way.

It’s All About Almost

I’m giving the gals, particularly ever-enthusiastic Rey, a break from posting.  Given I haven’t touched upon editing recently, maybe it’s time to do so again.

In my editing travels, I’ve discovered that “about” and “almost” are two frequently overused words.  New writers, in particular, seem to adore them.  An abundance of these two words, however, is not always in the story’s—or writer’s—favor.

Both certainly serve viable purposes, but they can also be weak words that lend themselves to a flat storyline.

About (adverb, preposition)

It’s about time you showed up.  ♠  designates anger or impatience

He was about ready to explode.  ♠  doesn’t add anything

The story is about a teacher and his class.  ♠  yes, okay, doable

The childhood story reveals how a well-loved teacher encourages his keen, young students.  ♠  a little more dynamic . . . maybe?

Almost (adverb)

I’ve almost had it with him.  ♠  designates anger or impatience

Jason was almost scared.  ♠  was he or wasn’t he?

It’s almost noon.  ♠  okay, but stating it’s five minutes before noon is more specific

The thief wavered and almost climbed back down.  ♠  did he or didn’t he?  (hopefully, the next sentence/paragraph will provide more information)

The detective shot the culprit in the head; he died almost instantly.  ♠  the suggestion is he lingered (perhaps something [eventful] transpired in that second or two?)

WPget2An assessing ear helps: yours.  Read each sentence aloud.  Listen.  Attentively.  Do they work—are they stronger or weaker for adding “about” or “almost”?  Would they keep the reader interested?  Or might they create a “zzzzz” effect?

She was almost fearful of what might happen.  ♠  ech

She had a fearful look on her face.  ♠  okay, but not very dynamic

Fear flickered in her sapphire-blue eyes.  ♠  more descriptive, more visual

Words make [and sometimes break] your writing.  Be specific.  Be detailed, but don’t go overboard.  Take a simple sentence and build on it.  A high-rise is fine; there’s no need to go for a skyscraper.

♠  Detective Smith looked up at her partner and almost smiled when he was about to pass her a coffee.

♠  Detective Smith smiled cheerfully as she accepted the mug of steaming coffee from her chuckling partner.

♠  Detective Smith’s fern-green eyes glistened as a cheerful smile pulled at her glossy lips; she accepted the huge mug of steaming Kona coffee from her grinning partner, Jack Blake.

♠  A cheerful smile played upon young Detective Smith’s sensual . . .

. . . and on it goes.  You determine how descriptive you want to be.

Envision your story, characters, and events.  Paint a vivid picture.  Make the action come alive.  Don’t just reel those readers in . . . yank them!   

As said, “about” and “almost” serve their purpose, but you have to recognize when they do and when they simply serve as unnecessary [snoozy] padding.

Martyn was about to learn what the impact would be.    ♠     Martyn listened intently to hear what the impact would be.    ♠     Martyn perused the multi-paged report to ascertain what the financial impact would be.

Helena took note at the way everyone was seated, almost confused at the seating arrangements.    ♠     Confused, Helena observed how everyone was seated at the bare dining table.  Who’d decided that?

It’s not about almost accomplishing an outcome; it’s making it happen.  You can do it.  It’s merely a matter of application mixed with perseverance and determination.  Remember, Rome wasn’t built in a day . . . great writing takes time to realize.

It’s almost the weekend and I’m almost certain you’re about to have an awesome one.  I certainly almost am.  Cheers.

New Times Don’t Equal Slack Times

These days it seems that writers get away with a lot—misspelled names, flat dialogue, illogical action, incorrect information, and putting real sites/locations in places where they shouldn’t be, to name a few.  Fortunately, if you’re with a publisher, there’ll likely be an editor that will [hopefully] catch and fix the flaws.

As someone who’s been writing a long time—and readily admits to being old-school (where grammar and punctuation and spelling still count)—it’s rather, hmm, annoying to read work that demonstrates indifference.  But that’s another post and another rant.   <LOL>

So, folks, what shall we focus on today?  Hmmm.  Given I recently edited a historical story, let’s touch upon sites and times.

If you’re going to provide real settings, ensure all related details are accurate.

Spell the venue’s name correctly, give accurate location information, and appropriately depict the time/era you’re writing in.

The Eiffel Tower is in Paris, not Chartres.  The address for the Rockefeller Center is 45 Rockefeller Plaza, not 33 Rockefeller Way.  Hansom cabs did not exist in the Bronze Age, so do not put them there (unless you’re writing sci-fi and your characters are time travelers).

When a writer-associate was called on something re an iconic venue he’d used in his book (specifically, wrong streets) he offered a shrug and a simple reason (excuse):  it’s fiction.  Sure, the book is a work of fiction; the venue, however, is not.  Endeavor to get it right.  It’s not just about breathing life into your story, it’s about creating credibility for yourself as a professional.

Editing can prove daunting, no question.  And if you’re not up for it, then refrain from an intensive edit—leave that to someone else—but do check your facts and confirm consistency (don’t use multiple spellings, for example).  Clean up the manuscript to the best of your ability and patience.  Think of it as using a feather duster: an effective method to perform a quick clean-up (edit).

Consider: integrity.  What image do you want to convey about youthe author?  Many of us write for the love of it but, if we’re going to be honest, we wouldn’t mind generating [ample] sales, too. WP1thinkingMaking-The-WebDOTcom

But sales will only come if the product is “sellable” and “readable”.  So make your story the best it can be—by checking those, uh-huh, facts.

A Trifle or Piffle – The Insignificant So

So-o, let’s take a look at insignificant words and phrases in fiction writing.  Maybe you know them [too well]—“so”, “well”, “oh”, “hmm”, “uh”, “uh-huh”, and “you know”, to name a few.

While insignificant words can be found in narrative, descriptions, and details, they’re particularly evident [I find] in dialogue.  Writers seem to want to represent everyday speech, to strive for authenticity.  I get that.  Readers, however, are a different breed.  They don’t want to be bogged down with extraneous, no-value-add wording.  They want their books to pack punch—to be interesting and/or exciting, to keep them wanting to read on.

When everyday speech is mimicked in fiction dialogue, it actually sounds rather stilted.  Odd, but true.

No:  “Well, you know, I think John mentioned that the other day.  So, yes, of course, I understand.”

Yes:  “John mentioned that the other day.  I understand.”

No:  Sheila eyed him intently.  “Hmm.  That’s not what Jerry told me, you know, so maybe I’d better go and check with him first.”

Yes:  Sheila eyed him intently.  “That’s not what Jerry told me.  I’d better check with him.”

There’s also that repetition factor.  This can be quite effective when used appropriately; when not, it proves annoying.  Repeated words or information are the same as insignificant words or information.  So-o, avoid them.

Read your dialogue aloud.  Okay, you’ve thrown in “so” and “well” and other common expressions.  Yes, we utilize those words every day—so much so, we likely aren’t aware of it—and that’s fine for our real world.  It’s disastrous for our written one.  Remove those trifling, irrelevant, yawn-prompting words.

WPso6

Now read the dialogue aloud again.  Doesn’t it sound better, crisper?  Deliver a realistic sense of everyday conversation by providing only a hint of it—less is more.  The best way to accomplish this is to edit.  Rework dialogue until it cuts to the chase, telling the reader what he/she needs to know.  Add some tension or friction, excitement, emotion.  A teeny bit of chatter is totally doable, but ensure it fits the scene and action.

If it’s necessary to impart a multitude of details (such as the history of an event or locale), give thought as to how you’ll deliver it.  If dialogue/conversation is your preferred choice, complement it with an action or two:

“Let me sum it up this way, folks.”  Morris wagged a playful finger.  “That estate …”

“That’s not all.”  Solemnly, she peered from face to face.  “I learned that …”

“Chesterton provided the files,” Larry advised, slapping the desk.  “What I suspected is true!  The murderer is …”

You get the idea.  Create [strong] visuals and promote feeling—anger, sympathy, frustration, joy—to elevate the dialogue.  And, please, don’t “chunk” descriptive dialogue into one massively long paragraph.

In the same vein, avoid having characters actually discuss something insignificant.

Pasco said, “Isn’t the sun bright today?”

Larry agreed.  “Maybe it’s because we’ve had nothing but rain for the last week.”

“I know, it’s been so bleak,” Pasco nodded.  “So, you know, we should make the most of it and head to the beach.”

If characters are discussing the weather, or burnt toast, or shirt colors, there should be a valid reason for doing so.  Don’t throw in dialogue (or narrative) if there’s no value-add.  Dialogue and the words employed within serve a purpose: to move the story forward.

Jello, Yes – Gelatin, No

Love Jello.  It’s wiggly, it’s jiggly.  And it’s tasty, too!

Wikipedia describes gelatin as “is a translucent, colorless, flavorless food ingredient, derived from collagen taken from animal body parts”. Sounds ucky.

But that’s exactly what many characters are: colorless/flavorless … drab, banal … predictable … and translucent.  Gelatinous characters make for boring scenes and plots.  Sometimes, they serve as a good laugh, but not necessarily of the good kind.

Breathe life into fictional people.  Provide them with distinct personalities, traits, habits, expressions.  Don’t make them cliché or wooden, or just out-and-out silly … and [please!] don’t model your characters on pre-80s films and shows.

Here are a small handful of characters that pop up more frequently than they should:

♠  females who constantly sob/weep/cry or scream     ♠  women who cower with wide-eyed fright, watching Mr. Muscular Hero thrash and bash Mr. Bad Guy or Demonic Creature #3    ♠  ladies who allow men to do everything as they wait and wonder where the villains are lurking (apparently, they have no ability to do anything but look pretty and appear vulnerable)    ♠  protagonist with good physique is gosh-darn-good and constantly apologizes while providing gosh-darn-I’m-lovable smiles, and    ♠  bad guy, built like a box with ugly scarred face and questionable IQ, quotes bad film dialogue while taunting good guy.

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“I’ll take care of this,” Rudy declared, straightening to his full six-foot-seven height and putting an arm round each of the two women. Linda hugged him, but Marsha pulled away, sobbing, her head in her hands. He tried to pull her back to him.

The brute sent Ursula into some shrubs and turned to face Leonard with a smug smile. He urged him forward. Leonard stepped forward, but before the boxy muscle-bound goon could react, Leonard sent his right foot into the man’s belly, sending him flying into the sidewalk. Before the brute could rise, Leonard then kicked him in both kneecaps. The man yelled in agony and writhed on the ground. Leonard quickly hurried to Ursula and helped her to her wobbly feet. She smiled gratefully and, placing her face on his broad chest, started to cry.  “There, there,” he said soothingly, patting her slim back.

Barry held her slim hand with his free hand and helped Renata step over a gnarled tree root growing through the pavement. She accepted the help and allowed him to lift her over a larger root that followed. His strong hands felt natural around her slender waist, and he lifted her with effortlessness. Gently, he lowered Renata before him, their bodies brushing as he did so.  She smiled gratefully and whispered her thanks.

Jasmine felt her glossy lips part in shock. A tear trickled down her flushed cheek. She closed her eyes, letting sympathy wash over her. Then, opening her eyes and taking a steadying breath, she smiled sadly. “Are you all right?” Vic asked, regarding her pretty face closely. “I shouldn’t have told you. I’m so sorry.”

Think of Jello; it comes in a variety of colors and flavors.  So do people, whether in real life or on paper or screen.  Variety is the spice of life, as it should be with characters.  They should be memorable—for the right reasons.

What’s in a Name?

Bee to the blossom, moth to the flame; Each to his passion; what’s in a name?

Too much sometimes.  As in eye-squinching, brow-furrowing overkill.  Some writers feel a need to ensure readers know who’s speaking, or being spoken to, frequently—as in all the time frequently.

Jeff jumped and almost dropped the phone when he saw the number on call display.  He stared at the phone for a couple of seconds in disbelief and then hit the answer button.  There was silence on the other end.  “Hello, who is this?” Jeff asked anxiously.

“Jeffrey, is that you Jeffrey?” a female voice on the other end asked.

Jeff hadn’t expected a female voice.  The number on call display belonged to Marcus Smith, who was only to call if urgent.

“Jeffrey, is that you Jeffrey?” the female voice at the other end asked again.

“That depends on who’s asking,” Jeff said angrily.

“Jeffrey, its Jane Holloway.  Marcus Smith gave me this number.  He’s been shot and told me to call you.  Marcus said he needs to see you, Jeffrey, as soon as possible. Please come, Jeffrey!”

“Jane?  Jane?  Are you there?  Where’s Marcus?”  Jeff suddenly realized that Jane had ended the call.  He stared at the phone and wondered what the hell was happening.

“Jeff, who’s Jane?”  Nancy’s voice from behind Jeff demanded in a voice that was both inquisitive and peevish.

Like anything, use names in moderation. Yes, sometimes readers need to be reminded who is speaking or being referred to, particularly if there’s a lot of dialogue.  By and large, however, we’re pretty decent detectives: we can deduce the obvious.

So, how about some quick rules about names?

Once you’ve given a character a name (or maybe a pronoun to refer to him/her), keep using it.  The hero’s name is George.  Don’t call him “the man” or “the government agent”, or “my older brother”, unless perhaps someone is describing him as such.

No:  The tall man stood and looked over at Henry.  “I want to know what happened,” George said.

Yes:  George straightened to his full height and eyed Henry warily.  “I want to know what happened.”

Don’t refer to relationships repeatedly.  Neddy, for example, has a habit of referring to his sister and girlfriend as “the two women” (over and over and over again).  Once in a while, depending on the action/scene, sure, do so.  Constantly, however?  No.  Nor does Neddy need to tell us that Margaret is his sister … over and over and over again.  We understood that the first time it was mentioned.  Don’t overuse titles and personal/professional relationships; stick to names and pronouns.

Now, some characters may have several names (maybe they work undercover, lead different lives, are criminals).  If this is the case, keep those to a minimum.  Too many names for one character can lead to confusion, particularly if they thrown here, there, and everywhere.  If a lover calls his sweetie “Cutie-pie”, cool.  Make sure no one else calls her that, unless maybe in jest.  Be aware of which character(s) would know and use that other name; ensure this is evident and logical.  Use common sense and consistency—give a character multiple names only if the plot/character warrant it.

When you open your story, keep your characters—and names—to an “understandable” level.  There’s no reason to introduce all the primary characters, and secondary ones, in the prologue or first chapter.  And if you name [a lot of] characters early on, give them a purpose.  Don’t throw them in for the sake of padding the plot or because you want readers know these characters exist.  Too many characters at once is, simply, too much.  Some can appear later, as the scene and story [logically] dictate.

One major rule: do not, please, constantly call people by name in dialogue. We don’t do this in real life (listen to conversations at work, on the bus, at home).  Characters shouldn’t do this, either.  It becomes annoying, to say the least.  Use names in dialogue with a particular purpose—basically, to let us know who’s speaking to whom (when dialogue is lengthy) or inform us that someone new to the scene is speaking.

Names should enable us to follow the story easily and effortlessly—to understand what is happening to whom.   ‘Nuff said.

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◊ Helen Hunt Jackson (American poet and writer; activist of Native American treatment by US government)