Archive for the ‘Writing’ Category

Most of us have heard the typical advice about writing dialogue—make sure your characters don’t all sound the same, include only what’s essential, opt for the word said over other dialogue tags, and so on. Here’s more granularity. 

1. “Dialogue should stay on topic.”   In real life we talk in spurts, in jumbles, in bursts and wipeouts and mumbles and murmurs and grunts as we try to formulate our thoughts. We stumble and correct ourselves. We pause and reflect. We backtrack. We wander into tangents, and then get back to the point.

It’s often said that on the page, good dialogue doesn’t do the same thing. But I disagree.

Tangents reveal character traits and priorities. If dialogue is too focused and direct, it’ll become predictable. Readers want to see the motivations, the quirks, the uniqueness of each character. The prudent use of digressions can add texture to a story.

People don’t always respond to what was said or to the questions they’re asked. They interrupt, change the subject, and attempt to stay on their pre-determined course even after the conversation has taken a turn in a different direction.

“How come it’s so hot out here?”

“It’s supposed to hit 90 today. Hey, listen, do you want some lemonade?”

“Ninety? Man, I hate this. Remind me why we left Maine in the first place.”

“Ninety’s not so bad. So, lemonade?”

Even in this brief exchange, multiple conversations are taking place. They overlap, reveal the character’s attitudes and add verisimilitude to what’s being said.

At times you’ll want your dialogue to pool off into tributaries. This doesn’t mean it’s unfocused or random, but rather that it’s layered with meaning to show the goals of the characters, the social context of the conversation and the subtext that’s present in the scene.

In fact, sometimes you’ll want your characters to discuss trivial things. Subtext brings depth to triviality.

In Hollywood there’s a saying: “The scene is not about what the scene is about.” In essence, this means that what the readers (or viewers) are witnessing on the surface is not what lies at the heart of that scene.

Scenes that are primarily about romantic tension will often have dialogue in which the characters banter or engage in small talk. But in those instances, it’s what’s going on beneath the surface that matters most. Identify the core tension of the scene, then plumb subtext and use apparent triviality to your advantage in dialogue. (Caveat: This, like many literary techniques, should be used in moderation. There’s no need to show subtext in every scene, nor should you. Chase scenes, for instance, are best approached as what you see is what you get. An attempt to layer in subtext will only become a distraction.)

Don’t be afraid of digressions. Use them to insert red herrings, foreshadow important events, reveal clues about what motivates your characters, or add new dramatic elements to the story line.

2. “Use dialogue as you would actual speech.”

Although in real life people speak primarily to impart information, in fiction a conversation is not simply a way for something to be expressed—it’s a way for something to be overcome. As you’re writing, rather than asking yourself, “What does this character need to say?” ask, “What does this character need to accomplish?”

A woman wants to confront her husband about his overspending; he wants to watch the game.

The cops are questioning a suspect; she’s being evasive.

In both of these instances, the mutually exclusive goals of the characters create tension that affects how the conversation will play out.

When determining your character’s response to stimuli, remember that his agenda toward the other person will trump the topic of conversation.

“There’s this crazy thing they invented called the Internet. You can look stuff up on it. You should check it out sometime.”

“Ah. Now, that was sarcasm, right?”

“Um. No.”

“But that was?”

“What do you think?”

“Wait—was that?”

She looked at me disparagingly.

Words can be barbs. They can be sabers. They can be jewels. Don’t let them be marshmallows that are just passed back and forth.

Give each character a goal. The speaker might be trying to impress the other person, or entertain her or seduce her or punish her. Whatever it is, the agenda—whether stated explicitly or not—will shape everything that’s said.

“You’re not going to tell him about us, are you?”

“He’ll find out eventually. I should be the one to—”

“No. Listen, we have something special here. Do you really want to lose it?”

“It’s not just that. I have the kids to think about. What’s best for them.”

Here, neither question is answered directly. Often you can move the story forward more effectively by having the characters respond in a way that implies an answer, showing that they’re reading between the lines of what was said or have questions of their own.

3. “Opt for the speaker attribution said over all others.”

It’s true that you’ll want to avoid cluttering your story with obtrusive speaker attributions. Having a character consistently chortle, exclaim, retort, chip in, quip and question rather than simply say anything will become a distraction. Readers will stop being present in the story and will start searching for your next synonym for said. They get it. They know you own a thesaurus. Just tell the story.

On the other hand, the use of said can become tiresome when it appears repeatedly on the same page. And, when used improperly, it can also be a giveaway that you’re an inexperienced writer.

“Bob said” does not equal “said Bob.”

To hear how your dialogue reads, try inserting the pronoun instead of the character’s name. For example:

“That’s an awesome car,” Bob said.

“That’s an awesome car,” he said.

Both of those statements make sense. But look at what happens when you write it the other way:

“That’s an awesome car,” said Bob.

“That’s an awesome car,” said he.

If you wouldn’t write “said he” then don’t write “said Bob.” Stick with placing the speaker’s name before the verb unless there’s an overwhelming contextual reason not to.

Don’t use attributions simply to indicate who’s speaking. Use them to create pauses reflected in actual speech, to characterize, and even to orchestrate the pace and movement of the scene.

“She was strangled.”

“So,” he muttered. “Another one.”

That snippet of dialogue reads much differently from:

“She was strangled.”

“So, another one,” he muttered.

Additionally, speaker attributions can be used to maintain or diminish status. Compare the two following sentences.

“Come here,” he said. “Now.”

“Come here now,” he said.

See how the placement of the speaker attribution in the first example creates a pause that emphasizes the last word while also raising the dominance of the speaker?

4. “Avoid long speeches.”

Sometimes allowing a character to have her say reveals more about her than forcing her to speak in sound bites ever could.

In this excerpt from my novel The Pawn, a teenage girl is speaking with her stepfather after her mother’s death in New York City.

“Why didn’t you ask me if I wanted to move to Denver?”

“What do you mean?”

“After Mom died. We just picked up and moved. Why didn’t you ask me if I wanted to move?”

“Well, I just thought it might be best for both of us to get some space and—”

“For both of us?”


“And how did you come to know what would be best for me?”

“Tessa, I—”

“We’re supposed to be a family. Families make choices together about what’s best for everyone, not just for the one in charge.”

“Listen, I—”

“You took me away from all my friends. My mom dies, and you make me leave everyone I know and move across the country, and all I ever wanted was a family like Cherise has—a mom and a dad—and when Mom met you, I thought maybe it would happen, just maybe I’d finally have someone to teach me the things dads are supposed to teach their daughters—I don’t know, like about life or guys or whatever and maybe come to my volleyball games and make me do my homework when I don’t want to and tell me I’m pretty sometimes and give me a hard time about my boyfriends and take a picture of me in my prom dress and then stand by my side one day when I get married …”

“I never knew—”

“You never asked!”

The girl’s run-on response does more to show her attitude and personality than a back-and-forth exchange would. It also reveals characterization, expresses desire and provides escalation.

(Incidentally, notice how the dashes are used when a character is cut off, and ellipses when the girl’s thoughts trail off. Dashes and ellipses are not interchangeable.)

When deciding whether to let a character launch into a diatribe, consider if she’s trying to get her say in before anyone else can interrupt. Also, take into account the buildup of tension that precedes the speech. Like a garden hose, the more pressure, the more dramatic the release.

5. “Be grammatically correct.“

Always be willing to break conventions when it’s in the service of the story and the reader.

Kyle spoke before Daniel could: “So you told your dad? I mean, about the visions and everything?”

Although some editors might want to replace the colon in this example with a period, the primary issue should be how the punctuation affects the flow rather than how closely it follows a stylebook. Because the urgency of the scene has Kyle speaking quickly before Daniel has a chance to reply, a full stop would undermine that. A colon serves to better convey the scene’s uninterrupted pace.

Notice also in the above example that question marks indicate an upward inflection at the end of a sentence, not necessarily a question. So your primary concern isn’t always “Is this a question?” but “Do I want this to sound like a question?”

In dialogue, sentence fragments sound more realistic to readers than complete sentences do. Cut semicolons from dialogue. If you find them, it’s usually because you’re trying to include complex sentences that wouldn’t sound natural if they were spoken aloud. Choose commas and periods instead.

6. “Show what the characters are doing while they’re talking.”

Too often this results in on-the-nose writing and an overemphasis on the minutia of body language. If you find your character brushing his nose or repositioning his chair or crossing his legs and so forth for no other reason than to provide a respite from the dialogue, recast the scene.

Just as dialogue should reveal the intention of the characters, so should the actions that they take while they’re speaking. When we read that a character folded his arms, we’ll naturally wonder why he’s doing that. What is it meant to convey about his attitude or emotional response to what’s happening? Don’t confuse your readers by inserting needless movement. Rather, include action only as long as it adds to the scene or enriches it. If the action doesn’t convey anything essential, drop it.

7. “Keep characters’ speech consistent.”

I used to agree with this until one day I overheard a man in his late 20s talking on his cell phone in a hotel lobby. After a moment or two it became clear that he was a lawyer and was speaking with a client. He was articulate, spoke in complex sentences and sounded well versed in legal terminology.

A few moments later he received a call that was obviously from an old college buddy. Suddenly, his entire demeanor changed. He was joking around and talking more like a frat brother than a law school grad.

If those two conversations appeared in a book they would sound as if they came from two entirely different characters. That man’s history with those people affected his tone, word choice, grammar, sentence structure, use of idioms, everything. Even his posture changed.

Dialogue needs to be honest for each character in that situation. Don’t try to make your characters consistent in the sense of always sounding the same, but rather allow them to remain in character within each unique social context.

So, if a character is highly educated and every time she speaks she’s using impressive words, it’ll get old. She’ll seem one-dimensional. Or if she’s from the South and you have her saying “y’all” all the time she’ll become cliched.

Few people are always blunt, always angry, always helpful. We speak differently in different situations. Mood, goals, state of mind fluctuate. This ties in with character believability. Remember: status, context, intention.

Give characters a goal, a history and an attitude toward the other people in the conversation. And always strive for honest, believable responses rather than canned ones.
From Writers Digest 

Revisiting Grammar 

Posted: October 13, 2016 in Writing

1.0 Subject

We’ll start with something basic. This is a biggie, because almost every sentence has one: the subject. It’s the word or phrase that performs the action in a sentence. (“Action” here is being used loosely; many sentences have nothing we’d typically call “action.” Another way of putting it is that the subject is the word or phrase that does the “doing” or “being” in a sentence, whatever that doing or being may be.) To get all grammar-splainy here, subjects are technically nouns, noun phrases, or pronouns. Here are some subjects being subjects, but in bold:

I hear yodeling.

The yodeling is coming from over there.

Information about grammar can apparently be yodeled.

Those grammarians are excellent yodelers.

There is another yodeling grammarian.

We are surrounded by yodeling grammarians.


Note that the subject usually comes first. In the fifth sentence, though, it comes after the verb is. This is because the there at the beginning of the sentence is really just a place holder.

Note too that not every sentence has a visible subject. In the last sentence, there is an understood (and, in this case, desperately hoped-for) subject that is “you” (or “someone” or “anyone”).

2.0 Predicate

The word predicate has two grammar-related meanings. One is simple, and that’s the one we’re treating here. Predicates are usually everything in a sentence or clause that’s not the subject. (A clause is a part of a sentence that has its own subject and verb.) They express what is said of the subject, and usually consist of a verb and other stuff that’s not the subject. Here are some predicates in bold:

I had a dream about those yodeling grammarians last night.

People who are not grammarians yodel too, but I don’t dream about them.

Here come yet more yodeling grammarians.

Please don’t yodel anymore, grammarians.

The predicate is often much bigger than the subject. As the second sentence shows, though, it can be smaller. If clauses are joined by a conjunction like but, or, and, or although, the conjunction isn’t part of the predicate.

3.0 Nouns and Verbs

If you’re interested enough in grammar to have made it this far, you likely feel pretty confident about your understanding of what nouns and verbs are. Both are super important, though, so we’ll review them here anyway.

Teachers often tell us that a noun is a person, place, or thing. That’s mostly right. A more nuanced definition is that a noun is a word that refers to a thing (book), a person (Betty Crocker), an animal (cat), a place (Springfield), a quality (softness), an idea (justice), or an action (yodeling).

You may think of verbs as “action words” but that too is a little oversimplified. Verbs can express an action (yodel), an occurrence (develop), or a state of being (exist). They’re often the grammatical center of the predicate and typically have full descriptive meaning and characterizing quality—except when they don’t; some verbs really only serve to connect, like the is in Grammar is complicated.

Verbs have multiple forms. The basic form is called the infinitive. It’s the stripped-down form like, yodel or flee.

Nouns and verbs often go about with other word-friends. Sometimes they form noun phrases or verb phrases. Such phrases can do a lot of the same things that nouns or verbs alone can do. To qualify as a noun or verb phrase, a group of words must: express a single idea; function as a single part of speech; not include both a subject and a predicate. Noun phrases refer to one of the things nouns refer to and answer the question “What?” or “Who?” Verb phrases express what verbs express: an action, occurrence, or state of being.

4.0 Pronoun
A pronoun is a word that is used instead of a noun or noun phrase. Pronouns refer to either a noun that has already been mentioned or to a noun that does not need to be named specifically.

The most common pronouns are the personal pronouns. These refer to the person or people speaking or writing (first person), the person or people being spoken to (second person), or other people or things (third person). Several of the personal pronouns have singular and plural forms. Like nouns, personal pronouns can function as either the subject of a verb or the object of a verb or preposition. Most of the personal pronouns have different subject and object forms.

Here are some personal pronouns in bold:

I hear the grammarians yodeling again.

They have been yodeling since noon.

Do you think he or she can make them stop?

We have had problems with yodeling grammarians before.

5.0 Object

While the subject performs the action (or does the doing or being) in a sentence, an object is on the receiving end. There are two main kinds of objects: direct and indirect. Direct objects are more common. They indicate the person or thing that receives the action of a verb:

The grammarians are yodeling a song about nouns.

In this sentence, the direct object is a song about nouns. It receives the action of are yodeling; it answers the question “What are the grammarians yodeling?”

An indirect object can only occur if there’s already a direct object, and it only occurs after some verbs. An indirect object indicates the person or thing that receives what is being done or given—that is, who or what is on the receiving end of the direct object. It comes between the verb and the direct object:

I gave the yodeling grammarians a dirty look, but they kept yodeling.

“A dirty look” is the direct object because it’s the thing that’s given. “The yodeling grammarians” is the indirect object because the yodeling grammarians are the ones who receive the dirty look that’s given.

Plenty of sentences don’t have either kind of object:

Yodeling grammarians are a dime a dozen these days.

Although the phrase “a dime a dozen” comes right after the verb—which is definitely direct and indirect object territory—the phrase does not receive the action of the verb are.

There’s a third kind of object we haven’t mentioned yet: the object of a preposition. More on those on the next page, in the part about prepositions.

6.0 Prepositions

Prepositions show direction, location, or time, or introduce an object. They are usually followed by an object—a noun, noun phrase, or a pronoun. The most common prepositions are little and very common:

at, by, for, from, in, of, on, to, with

Also common are:

about, above, across, after, against, along, among, around, because of, before, behind, below, beneath, beside, between, close to, down, during, except, inside, instead of, into, like, near, off, on top of, onto, out of, outside, over, past, since, through, toward, under, until, up, upon, within, without

Prepositions typically show how the noun, noun phrase, or pronoun is related to another word in the sentence.

a grammarian friend of mine

the grammarian with the fierce yodel

assaulted by someone who was sick of hearing yodeling

everyone except that yodeling grammarian

Prepositions with their objects form prepositional phrases.

7.0 Gerund

A gerund is a kind of noun that looks suspiciously like a verb. Gerunds end in -ing, just like the present participle of a verb (i.e., an -ing verb; don’t worry, we’ll get to that one). In fact, you can’t tell the difference between a gerund and an -ing verb until you see it in action. If it’s a gerund, it’ll be acting like a noun, as in these examples:

Yodeling is not all those grammarians can do. (Yodeling is the subject of the sentence.)

Don’t pretend you’re not impressed by their yodeling. (Yodeling is the object of the preposition by.)
8.0 Participles

Almost all verbs have two important forms called participles. Participles are forms that are used to create several verb tenses (tenses show when an action happened); they can also be used as adjectives.

The present participle always ends in -ing; it’s the form that looks just like a gerund: yodeling, remembering, going. The past participle usually ends in -ed (yodeled, remembered), but there are plenty of exceptions to that rule, such as forgotten and gone. (The past participle is usually the same at the plain old past tense (yodeled, remembered), but not always: forgot, went.)

As we said above, a participle can also be used as an adjective (that is, to describe a noun or pronoun). A present participle (an -ing word) describes the person or thing that causes something; for example, an invigorating yodel is one that invigorates. A past participle (usually an -ed word) describes the person or thing who has been affected by something; for example, an invigorated person is one who has been affected by invigoration. Or good yodeling.


“Quotations can bring writing to life―the reader imagines someone saying the words―but quotations are also vexing to format. Not only do you have to follow different rules depending on what other punctuation marks you mix with your quotation marks, but people in different countries also follow different rules, so you may see quotation marks handled differently in high-quality publications from different countries.

Quotation Marks with Semicolons, Colons, and Dashes

First, let’s review the easy (but rare) stuff: semicolons, colons, and dashes always go outside quotation marks:

Bob snorted and said, “I don’t believe in zombies”―right before thirty of them emerged from the tunnel.

Her favorite song was “Gangnam Style”; she spent weeks trying to learn the dance.

She sang her favorite line from “I Don’t Wanna Stop”: “You’re either in or in the way.”

Quotation Marks with Question Marks and Exclamation Points

Stepping up the ladder of quotation-mark complexity we find question marks and exclamation points: where they go depends on your sentence. If the question mark or exclamation point is part of your quotation, it stays inside; but if the question mark or exclamation point are not part of the quotation, they go outside the closing quotation mark.

In the next examples, the terminal punctuation is part of the quotation, so it stays inside the final quotation mark:

Reynold asked, “Can we have ice cream for dinner?”

Mom snapped and shouted, “No, we cannot have ice cream for dinner!”

On the other hand, in these examples, the terminal punctuation is not part of the quotation―it applies to the whole sentence―so it goes outside the final quotation mark:

Do you actually like “Gangnam Style”?

I can’t believe you lied to me about the ending of “The Sixth Sense”!

Quotation Marks with Commas and Periods

The most common question people ask about quotation marks is whether periods and commas go inside or outside, and the answer depends on where your audience lives because in American English we always put periods and commas inside quotation marks, but in British English periods and commas can go inside or outside (kind of like the American rules for question marks and exclamation points). I use this memory trick: Inside the US, inside the quotation marks. Here are some examples:

“Don’t underestimate me,” she said with a disarmingly friendly smile.

I can never remember how to spell “bureaucracy.”

Don’t get confused when you see this handled differently in The Economist or on the BBC website; just remember that it’s different in those publications because the British do it differently.

Compositors―people who layout printed material with type―made the original rule that placed periods and commas inside quotation marks to protect the small metal pieces of type from breaking off the end of the sentence. The quotation marks protected the commas and periods. In the early 1900s, it appears that the Fowler brothers (who wrote a famous British style guide called The King’s English) began lobbying to make the rules more about logic and less about the mechanics of typesetting. They won the British battle, but Americans didn’t adopt the change. That’s why we have different styles.


People often ask if there are exceptions to the American rule that periods and commas go inside the closing quotation mark. What if the thing in quotation marks is a title? What if it’s a word being defined? Nope. Those aren’t exceptions. The only exception I know of in American English is that sometimes in technical writing, when you’re designating something that a user should type into a text box, it’s important for readers to know whether the punctuation should be included in what they type. In such instances, it’s OK to break the traditional rules and put periods and commas outside the quotation marks if it makes your meaning clearer:

Although it is acceptable to break the rules, it is usually better to use a method other than quotation marks to highlight your instructions. Bold face, italics, and colored fonts all work for highlighting text.

Double Quotation Marks with Single Quotation Marks

Another British-American difference is how we use single quotation marks and double quotation marks. The British use single quotation marks far more often than Americans. In America, we use double quotation marks in nearly all cases, and we use single quotation marks if we need to place a quotation within another quotation:

The defendant testified as follows: “I heard Sam say, ‘Hide the files from Delia.’ ”

When the single quotation mark and double quotation mark fall next to each other, as in the above example, you can improve readability by putting a space between the two marks. Professional print typesetters use something called a “thin space,” which is thinner than a standard space. 


In summary, these are the ways you combine quotation marks with other punctuation marks:

  • Semicolons, colons, and dashes always go outside the closing quotation mark.
  • Periods and commas always go inside the closing quotation mark (in American English).
  • Question marks and exclamation points require you to think about the sentence a little to determine where they go. “

The aforementioned info was mashup from sites on the subject STRIpped of all capitalist schemes.

After the summarySummary: don’t get too anal about getting you quote marks right. Let the dwib techies do it in the edit stage if you in fact even really give a shit.  All said, I say use’em if writing someone else’s words exact  or paraphrased. Have fun!