Friday, August 29, 2014

Punctuation Problems: Breaks

There is a set of punctuation marks that are used to separate thoughts in writing, which I like to refer to as Breaking Punctuation. They are the comma ( , ), the em dash ( — ), the semicolon ( ; ), the colon ( : ), parentheses ( ), and the period ( . ). Each of these has a subtly different meaning from the others, which we’re going to break down here.

The Period

The period is the ultimate and strongest form of breaking punctuation, which is why it’s known as a “full stop” in the UK. It is placed at the end of the sentence to indicate an end to that statement and a transition to a new one.

The Comma

The comma, on the other hand, is used to provide a bridge between very closely related statements or between sequences of incomplete statements. You’ve probably noticed that proper comma usage can be very tricky to master, and you’re not alone in that experience. We’ll cover the full depths and complexities of comma usage in another post (or several posts), but for now just remember: the comma connects closely related thoughts, and the period separates finished, more-or-less unrelated thoughts.

The Semicolon

The other forms of breaking punctuation fall on a spectrum between the comma and the period. The semicolon is halfway between the two; it generally separates statements that could be broken into individual sentences, but which the author wants to be connected in the mind of the reader. Use it sparingly—it tends to create sentences that are very long and difficult to follow.

The Colon

The colon serves the specific purpose of introducing information; it can only be used if the text preceding it says something along the lines of, “I am going to tell you this.” So, for instance:

Gary picked up all of the items on the list: a pickaxe, a jump rope, and—for some reason—a huge container of lard.
This is what I was sent to tell you: that you must put an end to your company’s project, or your world will be destroyed.
You have chosen the greatest hamburger of all: the Beefinator.

Remember: the colon should only be used if the text before it is somehow introducing the text that comes after it.

The Em Dash

The em dash is the jack of all trades. It swings back and forth between the comma and the semicolon and the colon. It can be used in place of a comma to provide a little more emphasis to the pause between related information, or in place of a semicolon to provide a little more connection between statements. It can also serve as a sort of weak colon, separating an initial statement from another that provides more connected or explanatory information. Often, I’ll simply use it to create variety when I’ve already used several commas or semicolons. But be careful about using it too much—the em dash is wide and easily noticeable, and a cluster of them in the same area of the page will tend to stand out garishly.

We’ll discuss each of these punctuation marks in more depth in later posts; we’ll also discuss parentheses and parenthetical statements. For now, simply remember that breaking punctuation separates thoughts and statements: the comma is weakest, separating closely related information; the semicolon separates weakly related or unrelated statements; the colon separates introductory text from the information it’s introducing; the em dash can serve as a strong comma, a weak colon, or a weak semicolon; and the period is the full stop that means that the previous statement is complete and we are moving on to something else.

It may seem like there is considerable overlap between the uses for these breaking punctuation marks—that’s because there is. Often, you’ll be able to use either a period or a semicolon; in other cases, either a colon or a semicolon or an em dash would work. What punctuation you choose should depend on how connected you want the information it breaks apart to be, on how much you’ve already used each form of breaking punctuation, and how you want the sentence or sentences to flow. That is the reason for this post—to let you know how the breaking punctuation can be used, so that you know what your options are when you have more than one.

If you want some helpful homework, go back over this post again and pay particular attention to the breaking punctuation. You’ll notice that I’ve used each form of breaking punctuation at some point, and in just about every way they can be used. Find each point where I’ve used a breaking punctuation mark, and make sure you understand why I chose that particular mark at that point in the text. Good luck!

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

"Looking With Eyes"—Avoiding Redundant Description

Here are some sample sentences from works I've edited:

  1. Derek surveyed their surroundings with his cloudy gray eyes.
  2. She kissed the envelope with her full lips, leaving a bright red lipstick mark behind.
  3. He grasped the sword hilt in his shaking hands.

What's the problem here? Take a moment to look again.

The problem is that each of these sentences contains an awkward, redundant phrase. In example one, the phrase "with his cloudy eyes" is unneededhow else would someone survey their surroundings, after all? In the second example, of course she kissed "with her full lips." That's the body part that kisses. In example three, we already know that he's grasping with his hands, so telling us that is redundant and unnatural.

So why do writers do this? If you'll look at our example sentences, you'll notice that each of the named body parts is preceded by an adjective: cloudy eyes, full lips, and shaking hands. These adjectives are the reason the authors included the redundant phrase. 

In example one, for instance, Derek is being introduced to the audience for the first time. The author wanted the readers to know that his eyes were a cloudy gray, but didn't simply want to say "Derek's eyes were a cloudy gray."  And that was a good goalthis is a more interesting way to find out what the character looks likebut you can usually do better than an otherwise-redundant phrase.

Here are some examples of how these sentences could be reworked.

Make the body part the subject of the sentence: Just about every sentence needs a subject, after all, so it's unlikely to be redundant.
  1. Derek's cloudy gray eyes surveyed the surroundings.
  2. Her full lips kissed the envelope, leaving a bright red lipstick mark behind.
  3. His shaking hands grasped the sword hilt.
Give the body part something else to do: Add a phrase or sentence that further describes the action of the original sentence.
  1. Derek surveyed their surroundings; the blinding light made his cloudy gray eyes water.
  2. She kissed the envelope. Her full lips left a bright red lipstick mark behind.
  3. His hands shook uncontrollably as he grasped the sword hilt.
Try to work the adjective in somewhere or somehow else: This can be the trickiest solution, but also often the most subtle and graceful.
  1. Derek surveyed their surroundings. Lina studied his eyes; they were intense and focused as he searched, the same cloudy grey as the water beneath the boat.
  2. She kissed the envelope, leaving behind full red lipstick marks.
  3. He grasped the sword, trying to keep the point from wavering. It didn't work.
Remember that specifying that a character performed an action "with" something is fine if it wasn't clear how the action was performed. For instance:

He sliced the steak with a worn shark-tooth knife.

This is a fine way to describe the knife. It's not redundant because there is more than one tool for slicing steak, so it's natural to explain what the character is using to slice.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Word Mix-ups: Between and Among (or Amid)

When it comes to describing the location of characters, novice writers are constantly confusing the words between and among (or amid, which means the same thing as among). Now, both between and among essentially mean "in the middle of"; the difference lies in "in the middle of what?"

The easy answer:

Historically, between would be used if the subject in question is directly in the middle of only two points, and among would be used if the object is in the middle of more than two points or a group. So:

1. Penny stood between Jason and Mike.
2. The hammock was strung between the two trees in the backyard.

3. Penny stood among Jason, Mike, and Katie.
4. The cylon stood among the humans, waiting for the time to strike.

The full, trickier answer:

Take a look at example three again. Does it seem a little strange to you? That's because the proper usage for between and among has evolved over the years. Nowadays, it's common for between to be used in any situation where the points that the subject is standing among are specifically and individually named. So, it would not technically be wrong for example three to read:

3. Penny stood between Jason, Mike, and Katie.

Example four, however, would not be changed, because the cylon is in the middle of a "group," which is a collective noun. If the humans were all listed by name, it would be a different matter; but in this instance, among is correct.


Now it gets even trickier. All the examples we've discussed so far involved stationary subjects, but a subject can also move between or among objects.

If a subject is moving, then the above rules for between and among still apply, with one change: between can now be used with a collective noun. Take a look at these examples:

5. The specter flew between the buildings of the city.
6. The specter flew among the buildings of the city.

Both of these sentences are grammatically correct, but here's the important thing: they don't mean the same thing.

When between is used to describe movement, it implies that the subject has a particular destination or goal in mind, or that they are following a specific path. When among is used, the connotation is that the subject is moving or searching in a more aimless, uncertain, or roundabout manner.

So if you were writing a story about a specter flying through a city, you would use example five if the specter was hurrying to a meeting or rushing to locate the person it once loved. In this case, the buildings are essentially an obstacle it has to circumvent. If, however, the specter was simply wandering the city to see the sights, or was lost and trying to find its way out, or was searching for someone (but not in a rush), you would use among to describe its movement.

These rules also reply to figurative positions. So, negotiations between the two companies, but negotiations among the soldiers.

Also, remember that amid means the same thing and works the same way as among. Amongst and amidst are simply older forms of these words, so the same rules apply to them.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Variety in Dialog Tags: What to Avoid

We discussed the two schools of thought on dialog tags last time; today we'll go over the kinds of dialog tags you should avoid. These fall into three classes: grandiloquent, repetitive, and non-dialog.


Grandiloquent means "overly high-minded, pompous, or pretentious, especially in language," and it is a condition that afflicts many new authors. My preferred term for this behavior is highfalutin. 

The amount of grandiloquence you employ should vary depending on what you're writing. If you're working on a very flowery, "literary" type of story, then you'll want to be a little more eloquent, as florid prose is a hallmark of that genre. In any other genre, however, you'll generally want to ensure that your prose calls as little attention to itself as possibleyou want your readers to almost forget that they're reading and simply absorb the story, which they can't do if they have to stop and think over highfalutin language.

Here are some grandiloquent dialog tags that I often see crop up in novice writing:

"Dialog," he opined. < Just use said.
"Dialog," she queried. < asked, unless maybe the character is a computer.
"Dialog," I ruminated. < reflected, remembered, or recalled could all work here. 
"Dialog," it pontificated. < said, lectured.
"Dialog," John soliloquized. < said or reflected, depending on the context.

The line between being precise with your word choice and being too highfalutin is very finegenerally, I recommend leaning toward simpler language if you're ever in doubt.


Novice writers have a tendency to repeat themselves, and one way that they do this is often in dialog tags. Take a look at the following example:

"Welcome to the Nodsdown Fair!" the young woman greeted.

Here, the tag greeted is redundantthe dialog itself already made it very clear that the woman is greeting someone. The tag is only there to let us know who is speaking, so said would be more efficient here. Some other frequently-repetitive tags are cursed, pontificated, lectured, greeted, rambled, hinted, joked, agreed, elaborated, and explained.

Now, you might have noticed that some of those words can be found on my list of possible tags from the last post. Sometimes these words aren't redundant, and sometimes they are. It's an even finer line to walk than the grandiloquent line. Just be on the lookout for any redundant tags in your writing, and when in doubterr on the side of simple.


The final type of dialog tag to avoid is tags that don't actually describe the manner in which the dialog was spoken. Take this example:

"I think I can do that," John smiled. "Give me the stick."

Smiled doesn't actually describe the dialogyou can't smile words. This kind of construction usually arises from writers who are trying to cut out extra words and go a little too far. Cutting out excess words is good, as long as the remaining words still accurately state what they're intended to. Our example can be rewritten in several ways:

With dialog tags:
"I think I can do that," John said, smiling. "Give me the stick."
"I think I can do that," John said with a smile. "Give me the stick."

Without dialog tags:
"I think I can do that." John smiled. "Give me the stick."
John smiled. "I think I can do that. Give me the stick."

Some other words that I often see used as tags which don't actually describe the dialog are: nodded, shrugged, blushed, snorted, and ground (as in "he said while grinding his teeth").

(I'll also mention laughed, coughed, scoffed, chuckled, gasped, sobbed, grunted, and cried. These can be acceptable, as they describe the sounds coming out of a character's mouth simultaneous to the dialog. No, we don't actually laugh words, but we can speak while laughing. But try to use these sparingly.)

I also want to place special emphasis on my personal, most-hated non-dialog dialog tags:

"Dan here couldn't hit a baseball if it was the size of a pumpkin!" Mike jabbed.
"Maybe I should practice with your head," Dan returned.

I hate "jabbed" and "returned." Don't use them, not ever. They fall into both the repetitive and the non-dialog categories; what's worse, they always tend to be attached to back-and-forth teasing that isn't nearly as clever as the author wants to believe it is. Please do not use these words as dialog tags.


Many authors use the word sang to mean "shouted jubilantly." While this usage is not uncommon, it can be a little confusing; after all, it is possible to literally sing words. I recommend avoiding it.

Crowed can be used to mean the same thing, and I don't like it. There's nothing technically wrong with it; that's mostly just me.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Variety in Dialog Tags: Two Schools of Thought

In this post, I discussed how synonyms can be used to avoid repetition and to add variety to your prose, but I also cautioned that too many synonyms can make your writing seem forced and juvenile. Nowhere is the need for this caution more evident than in dialogue tags.

If you have a moment, go take a look at these two stories on "The President's Brain is Missing" by John Scalzi, and "Firstborn" by Brandon Sanderson. Pay particular attention to the dialog tags in each story.

There are two general attitudes towards using synonyms in your dialog tags. The first is exemplified in Scalzi's story: although the story contains more dialog than Brandon Sanderson's, you might have noticed that the variety of dialog tags Scalzi used is much narrower than the variety Sanderson used. Many authors and editors prefer to use only a very few, basic dialog tags and let the dialog itself convey any necessary tone or subtleties. These authors pretty much restrict themselves to eight or so dialog tags:

"Dialog," he said.
"Dialog," she asked.
"Dialog," I replied.
"Dialog," it answered.
"Dialog," John continued.
"Dialog," Mary shouted.
"Dialog," they yelled.
"Dialog," we whispered.

These eight tags can conceivably cover a good ninety-five percent of the speaking situations that you'll put your characters into. For many editors and authors, any more variety in dialog tags than this will seem overdone and irritating.

As long as you're doing your best to follow my advice from this post, you will never go wrong using the tags I've listed above. They may seem boring or overly common, but almost no editors will be bothered by them.

The second school of thought is a little more liberal when it comes to the variety of tags they use, preferring to pick more precise and nuanced words for any given situation. For instance, the very first dialog tag in "Firstborn" was commanded, which was not on our earlier list. Here are some other tags you might see in the work of an author who belongs to this second school of thought:

"Dialog," he exclaimed.
"Dialog," she shrieked.
"Dialog," I mused.
"Dialog," it teased.
"Dialog," John grunted.
"Dialog," Mary hissed.
"Dialog," they growled.
"Dialog," he interjected.
"Dialog," she wondered.
"Dialog," I rasped.
"Dialog," it grumbled.
"Dialog," John pleaded.
"Dialog," Mary begged.
"Dialog," they began.
"Dialog," we gasped.
"Dialog," he responded.
"Dialog," she insisted.
"Dialog," I interrupted.
"Dialog," it cut in.
"Dialog," John acknowledged.
"Dialog," Mary sighed.
"Dialog," they breathed.
"Dialog," we cried.
"Dialog," he sobbed.
"Dialog," she added.
"Dialog," I mumbled.
"Dialog," it murmured.
"Dialog," John warned.
"Dialog," Mary cautioned.
"Dialog," they announced.
"Dialog," we wailed.
"Dialog," he commanded.
"Dialog," she ordered.
"Dialog," I muttered.
"Dialog," it demanded.
"Dialog," John noted.
"Dialog," Mary whimpered.
"Dialog," they bellowed.
"Dialog," we boomed.
"Dialog," he admitted.
"Dialog," she screamed.
"Dialog," I called.
"Dialog," John groaned.
"Dialog," Mary moaned.
"Dialog," they explained.
"Dialog," we scoffed.
"Dialog," he suggested.
"Dialog," she agreed.
"Dialog," I snapped.
"Dialog," it hollered.
"Dialog," John conceded.
"Dialog," Mary elaborated.

If you lean more toward the second school of thought, here are some cautions you need to consider:

Don't overuse synonyms: Although "Firstborn" did contain a larger variety of dialog tags, the vast majority of the tags in the story still came from our first list of basic tags.  Don't try to find an unusual word for your tag when said or replied would work just fine.

Make sure the word you choose fits the dialog: I've read many a manuscript where new authors misuse words from this second list. For instance, a character who has just been scolded might grumble in response or mumble in response. Which one you choose should depend on the character's attitude. Grumble carries a hint of aggression, of dissatisfaction and unhappiness, while mumble is more submissive. So if your character is not angry about being scolded, they should not be grumbling in response. If you're not sure that the word fits the situation perfectly, don't use it.

Whether you lean towards the first or second school of thought, there are some categories of tags that you should always avoid. Read about them here.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Overview: Third-Person Limited Perspective

Today we'll continue our series of discussions on common perspectives. We've already discussed what perspective and tense are and first-person perspective; today we'll delve into third-person limited perspective.

Third-person stories are told from the perspective of someone who is not part of the story; hence, all of the characters are referred to as "he," "she," or "it," rather than "I" or "we." In third-person limited perspective, your goal should generally be to not draw attention to the narratorin a way, you're pretending that there isn't a narrator, that the audience is simply riding in a character's head and seeing what the character sees and thinks. Take a look at these examples from the first and second chapters of Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin:

     It was not until they were mounted and on their way that Bran allowed himself to taste the sweet air of victory. By then, his pup was snuggled inside his leathers, warm against him, safe for the long ride home. Bran was wondering what to name him.
     Halfway across the bridge, Jon pulled up suddenly.
     "What is it, Jon?" their lord father asked.
     "Can't you hear it?"
     Bran could hear the wind in the trees, the clatter of their hooves on the ironwood planks, the whimpering of his hungry pup, but Jon was listening to something else.
     "There," Jon said. He swung his horse around and galloped back across the bridge. They watched him dismount where the direwolf lay dead in the snow, watched him kneel. A moment later he was riding back to them, smiling.
     "He must have crawled away from the others," Jon said.
     "Or been driven away," their father said, looking at the sixth pup. His fur was white, where the rest of the litter was grey. His eyes were as red as the blood of the ragged man who had died that morning. Bran thought it curious that this pup alone would have opened his eyes while the others were still blind.
     "An albino," Theon Greyjoy said with wry amusement. "This one will die even faster than the others."
     Jon Snow gave his father's ward a long, chilling look. "I think not, Greyjoy," he said. "This one belongs to me."

     [Chapter Two]

     Catelyn had never liked this godswood.
     She had been born a Tully, at Riverrun far to the south, on the Red Fork of the Trident. The godswood there was a garden, bright and airy, where tall redwoods spread dappled shadows across tinkling streams, birds sang from hidden nests, and the air was spicy with the scent of flowers.

In this example, there is no narrator to speak ofwe don't know who is telling the story, because the narrator isn't a character. Instead, the narrator follows the thoughts and experiences of some perspective characters: Bran Stark in the first chapter and Catelyn Stark in the second. Even though Bran and Catelyn aren't personally telling the story, as they would be in a first-person narrative, we still see the world through their eyes. This is what limited perspective meansour view as an audience is limited to that of one character at a time. When the author wants to switch perspective characters, he begins a new section or chapter.

Advantages of Third-Person Limited Perspective

Reliable narrator: Because the narrative is not relayed by one of the characters, third-person stories tend to seem more trustworthy and objective. The audience feels like they're inside a character's head without a narrator, so what they are shown is probably true.
Character sympathy: While not usually quite as intimate as a first-person narrative, third-person limited stories can still feel very close to the charactersthe story takes place in their heads, after all.
Multiple perspectives: As demonstrated by the example passage, third-person limited narrative makes it very easy to switch from one perspective character to another. Some books have two or three perspective characters, while otherslike Game of Throneshave dozens and dozens.
Eloquence: Not all characters are as intelligent or well-spoken as others. If you wanted to write a first-person story from the perspective of a thick-headed thug, it would be difficult to describe the action as well as you would like with the thug's limited vocabulary. In third person, however, you can write a scene from the thug's perspective without sacrificing eloquence or creativity.

Disadvantages of Third-Person Limited

Easy to over-do: Just because you can write from multiple perspectives does not mean that you can do so well. Many new authors attempt to branch their story out among too many perspective characters, resulting in a slow and confusing story that loses track of its own plot. Yes, George R.R. Martin did itbut you're not George R.R. Martin. (Unless you are, of course. Hi George! Thanks for stopping by.) Try to keep your novel to two or three perspectives until you've really got the hang of juggling all those characters.
Difficult to withhold information from the reader: Since the narrator is so reliable in third-person limited, and since the audience is inside the heads of various characters, the audience will often feel cheated if you don't tell them information that the main character should have known.
Perspective errors: It is very easy to make perspective errors when writing a third-person limited story; in fact, this perspective probably sees more mistakes than any other perspective. We'll cover the many errors that writers make in third-person limited in future updates.

Saturday, August 16, 2014


Ellipses (or more properly, ellipsis points) are the three periods (...) used to indicate omission or hesitation in prose.

They can be formatted in several different ways. When indicating omission, you can have ellipses with no spaces (word...word); with spaces after and before the words but not within the ellipses (word ... word); or with spaces between each character (word . . . word). When indicating hesitation, you can have ellipses with a space after (word... word); or with spaces between each character (word . . . word). Personally, I strongly recommend ellipses with spaces (word . . . word).

In stories, ellipses are most often used to indicate hesitation in dialog. Some examples:

     "I think . . . that we should take the gorilla with us," Ben said.
     ". . . How are we going to fit it in the car?" Erin asked.
     "Well . . . we could maybe, um . . . well, no . . ."
     "No . . . ?"
     Ben shook his head. "No . . . I guess we can't take it with us."

Note that when ellipses are used to indicate hesitation at the beginning of the sentence (in the second line), the sentence still begins with a capital letter. When the ellipses indicate a question that has trailed off, they are followed by a question mark, as shown in the fourth line.

Ellipses aren't often used to indicate omission in stories; that's a use that tends to spring up more in academic writing, when quoting another author. However, on occasion, you might use ellipses in your story to indicate that illegible or indistinct words have been omitted:

     Ben squinted at the old note. The pencil had smeared or faded in places, leaving many of the words illegible. All he could make out was, "Diana . . . should have met . . . before I left. I . . . have seen you . . . to face."

     Erin pressed her ear to the door. Her manager and the strange woman were having a conversation, but she could only make out bits and pieces of the conversation.
     "I don't think . . . be here," her manager said.
     "It doesn't matter . . . think. She's . . . with me," the woman replied.

Things to look out for

Be consistent: You can format your ellipses with or without spaces; just make sure that you use the same formatting throughout your entire manuscript.
Avoid using ellipses outside of your dialog: The primary purpose of ellipses in dialog is to mimic the natural hesitations and pauses of human speech. You can also use them in your character's thoughts to similar effect. However, unless you're writing in first person, you should avoid using ellipses outside of dialog, as it will make your prose seem overly informal and disjointed.
Avoid over-using ellipses: Even in dialog, a large cluster of ellipses will distract your reader's eyes and interrupt the flow of the text. Look at each ellipses in your manuscript and ask yourself, what does this ellipses mean? Is it indicating a meaningful pause for thought or showing a character's discomfort? Is this pause really necessary?
Don't break up your ellipsis points: Your word processor will split lines of text at any available space. This means that you can sometimes have one or two ellipsis points at the end of one line and the remaining one or two points at the beginning of the next line. It's not really a mistake, but it sure doesn't look good. If you spot this happening, try putting some non-breaking spaces between the ellipsis points (usually in the menu under Insert > Insert Special Characters > Non-breaking Space). These will give you the proper spaces between the points without letting the processor split them up.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Word Mix-Ups: Insure and Ensure

Insure and Ensure are two words that I see mixed up with alarming frequency.

Insure means "to provide or obtain insurance for." Some correct usages of this word would be:

I can't drive my car until it's been insured.
You should insure your house against flood damage.

Ensure means "to make sure or certain." Examples:

If he comes with us, I cannot ensure his safety.
Don't leave until you've ensured that all the cages are locked.

Basically, insure should only be used if you're speaking of obtaining some literal form of insurance.  If you could swap out the word with guarantee or make sure, than you should go with ensure.

Some dictionaries disagree with the definitions I've listed here. For instance, the Merriam-Webster dictionary states that insure can be used to mean the same thing as ensure.

The reason for this is that language is constantly changing. In this case, insure and ensure have been mixed up so much that many dictionaries are essentially throwing up their hands and saying, "Fine! If you're all going to misuse insure, we'll just change the definition to include how you're using it." It's the same thing that's happening with the word literally: so many people use it to mean figuratively but with hyperbolic emphasis that many dictionaries are accepting this as a new, legitimate use of the word.

But that doesn't mean that you can discount the definitions I've given you here. See, just because many people are using a word in a new way does not mean that they sound intelligent or professional when they do. Suppose you submitted to an editor who really dislikes the way that people are using insure to mean ensure. If that editor sees that you've used insure that way in your manuscript, it will stand out to them as an error, as a sign that you don't know what you're doing. Will they reject your manuscript over that? Probably not. But it could be the straw that breaks the camel's back. You're better off playing it safe and following the definitions I've given you here.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Overview: First-Person Perspective

I discussed here the most common perspectives and tenses that are seen in fiction writing. Over the next few weeks, we'll delve into each of these modes of writing with a little more specificity and discuss some of the strengths and foibles of each.  Today we'll look at first-person perspective.

A story told in first-person perspective is being told by one of the characters in the story, usually the central protagonist. Here's an example:

     I closed my eyes and jumped off of the roof, silently praying that Dall was as good a pilot as he claimed. The duke shouted in alarm, screaming for his men to stop me, and then his voice was drowned out in an angry rush of wind.
     I had been determined to keep my eyes closed as I fell, in hopes that I would be less afraid if I couldn't see the ground approaching. But it turns out that not knowing how far away the ground is was far more frightening than knowing. My eyes popped open after only a few seconds of falling.
    The ground wasn't nearly as far away as I would have liked, and for a brief moment I panicked; then Dall's skimcar appeared from around the side of the building. Dall waved at me from the cockpit as he pulled up alongside me, matching my pace. I reached out and grabbed the top of the car, my fingers clenching so hard that I thought they might actually bend the di-steel.
     Dall slowly maneuvered the skimcar beneath me and then slowed our descent. He slowed more abruptly than I would have liked, and I thudded into the cockpit with a grunt, spread-eagled. It wasn't bad enough that it hurt, but it did knock the wind from me.
     "Sorry, Joan" Dall said with that irritating grin of his, his voice muffled by the glasstic between us.
     "Just let me in!" I shouted.
     He shook his head. "Not until we come to a complete stop. Too dangerous otherwise."
     "Too dangerous?" I shrieked. "I just jumped off a three-hundred story building without knowing for sure that you were down here, and you think that would be too dangerous?"
      I should take a moment to mention that I'd had a little problem with heights ever since I was six years old, and Dall knew that perfectly well. He was just being a jerk.
     "You'll be fine out there for a minute or two," Dall replied, still grinning.
     "Two minutes?"

In the case of this example, one of the charactersJoanis telling the story, as though she were sitting in front of us speaking. She uses "I" to refer to herself, marking this as first-person perspective.

So, what are some of the advantages and disadvantages of first-person perspective?


Intimate: Because the character is relating the story themselves, first-person perspective often creates a more close, intense, and intimate feel than other perspectives, and the action often feels more immediate.
Strong Personality: When a character is relating a story "in their own words," so to speak, it can often be much easier to get their personality across than it might have been in another perspective.
Unreliability: If you want to tell a story with an unreliable narrator, first-person perspective is often the way to go. Since the perspective character is telling the story, their opinions and prejudices can color the narrative, or they can even outright lie to the reader. This can make for some very interesting stories.
Info Dump: It's easier in first-person for your narrator to step away from the story for a moment to explain something that the reader needs to know; Joan did it near the end of our example.
Simplicity: First-person can often be one of the easiest perspectives to write without making perspective errors.


Most limited perspective: Since one of the characters is telling the story, the author cannot relate anything that the main character cannot see. If you want your audience to know something, then your main character has to know. You can't just jump to someone else's head for a bit and then come back. (There are stories with multiple first-person perspectives, but these can be very tricky to write well.)
Difficult to explain character appearance:   After all, if I were sitting and telling you a story, I wouldn't need to explain what I look like, would I?  Look back over our example; there's not any information there on what Joan looks like, and it would be very awkward to try to fit in a description of her anywhere.
Difficult to make the audience worry for the character: Since first-person perspective requires the main character to be alive and well to tell the story, it is difficult to get your audience to worry about the safety of the narrator. How would the story be told, after all, if the main character weren't around to finish it?  This is particularly true of first-person stories told in the past tense.


Friday, August 8, 2014

Word Mix-ups: Passed vs. Past

Passed and Past are two words that are often mixed up, because they can be used in a very similar manner. Remember:

He walked past something; or, he passed something.

Past, in this usage, is an adverb which must be used in conjunction with a verb. Past will always have a verb with it when being used to describe movement.

 Passed is the past-tense form of the verb "to pass," and will not be paired with a verb. If you don't have another verb (like "walked" or "drove"), you may use passed.

So, in review:

Wrong: She walked passed the table without looking at him.
Right: She walked past the table without looking at him.

Wrong: She past the store and had to double back.
Right: She passed the store and had to double back.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Using Synonyms to Avoid Repetition

Previously, we discussed the need for avoiding the too-frequent repetition of words, and mentioned that you can use synonyms and descriptive words to this end. For example:

  • The manor loomed above her, at least three stories tall. The entire edifice was wreathed so thickly with crawling ivy that it was difficult for her to tell what the manor was made out of.

In this example, we've used edifice in place of manor in one spot, to avoid using the word "manor" three times in two sentences. The variety of descriptive words helps the prose to flow more smoothly.

The same thing can be done to avoid repeating a character's name too often. Take this example from Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn (emphasis added):

  • "Fears?" Kelsier asked, turning to look up at Sazed. Despite Kelsier's above-average height, the Terrisman was still a good head taller. I'm not sure if he fears anything, Saze."

Notice how the author avoided repeating Sazed's name by referring to him as "the Terrisman." It is the same method of avoiding word repetition.

Some cautions:

Don't use too many synonyms

In our first example, we used edifice in place of manor. Here are a few other words we could possibly have used:


But if you look at that example again, you'll notice that I chose to use the word "manor" twice rather than replace it with one of these words. Why?

Too many synonyms can become confusing to the reader; it becomes difficult for them to keep track of what they all refer too.  It also calls too much attention to the fact that you're trying to avoid repeating yourself, which can pull the reader out of the story. Usually, you don't want to use more than one synonym for a given word in a section. So in the first example, I might have described the manor simply as a building when the characters were far away and still approaching it. Then, when they have drawn close and I am describing the manor's appearance, I use manor and edifice, but no more than that. 

Make sure that it is clear what your synonym refers to

Another hazard of using synonyms is that they are not always as clear as the author thinks. We'll take the example of manor again. The Merriam-Webster dictionary lists the following words as synonyms for the word "manor":  castle, chateau, estate, hacienda, hall, manor, manor house, manse, palace, and villa.

The problem with most of these words is that most of them evoke a completely different image than the word "manor."  Take this example:

  • Amy was relieved to finally leave the manor behind. As they drove away, she turned and looked out the back window as the palace vanished behind the trees.

That didn't work at all, did it? Using palace almost made it sound as though there were two buildings, as if Amy left one building and is now looking at another. Don't use synonyms unless it is clear what they're replacing.

One more caution on using synonyms as placeholders for a character's name (as in the Mistborn example above) can be found in this post.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Avoiding Repetition

Too many repetitions of the same word in a short space, such as within a single paragraph or even withing a single sentence, can be distracting to your readers and throw off the flow of your prose. Take a look at the following example:

     The wall was too tall to climb, but only just; it was short enough to seem climbable but tall enough that a fall from anywhere near the top would kill you. Raek studied the wall carefully and realized that the top of the wall was covered in a slimy-looking green moss that would make climbing impossible. But if he couldn't climb it, how would he get over the wall? The wall was between him and the chalice. He had to get past the wall.

Notice how the words "the wall" get repeated over and over again? Six times in one paragraph. Some variation of the word "climb" appears four times as well. It feels awkward and clunky. Cleaned up, that paragraph might look like this:

     The wall was too tall to climb, but only just: it was short enough to seem scalable but tall enough that a fall from anywhere near the top would kill you. Raek studied the wall carefully and realized that the top was covered in a slimy-looking green moss that would ensure that anyone clinging to the rock would lose their grip. But if he couldn't climb the wall, how would he get over? It was between him and the chalice; he had to get past.

This version is smoother, with just three uses of "the wall" and two of "climb."  Some of the repeated words were replaced with synonyms ("scalable" in place of "climbable"), some were removed by heavily re-writing the sentence, and others were simply not necessary to begin with and could be removed without changing anything else.

Now, sometimes repetition can be used to great emotional and poetic effect; but unless you're very confident in your use of it, you should avoid it as much as possible.


This is one of the reasons I recommended that you avoid dialog tags as much as possible in this post. Dialog tags can get overly repetitive very quickly.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Using Actions to Avoid Dialog Tags

I told you here to avoid using any more dialog tags than you absolutely must. Here's another tip on how you can do that.

Often, your characters will be performing actions as they speak. For example:

"They can't have just disappeared," Jensen said. He peered at the dusty valley through his binoculars. "They're hiding out there someplace."

Having someone perform actions as they speak is natural and engagingreaders often have an easier time following dialog if they have a clear image of where the characters are and what they are doing while they speak. But having a character perform actions while they speak can serve another very useful purpose. Let's take another look at our previous example, but with the dialog tag removed:

"They can't have just disappeared." Jensen peered at the dusty valley through his binoculars. "They're hiding out there someplace."

See what just happened? Even though the text didn't explicitly state who was speaking, having Jensen perform an action in the middle of a line of dialog automatically implies that he was the one who spoke. This is one of the most useful tricks I know for avoiding dialog tags.

Look through your story for places where a dialog tag appears next to an action, and see if you can pare the text down to just the action. Sometimes you won't be able todialog tags can't always be avoidedbut I bet you'll be able to cut out at least a few.

As you're looking for places where you can apply this trick, keep an eye out for the words "as [he/she/they/it] spoke." New writers often use these words when they don't need to. Example:

The king took the sword and touched it to the shoulders of the knight as he spoke. “I dub thee Sir Gloudin of the Knights of the Broken Branch.”

Now, with the words "as he spoke" removed:

The king took the sword and touched it to the shoulders of the knight. “I dub thee Sir Gloudin of the Knights of the Broken Branch.”

If you place the dialogue immediately after a related action, readers will automatically fill in that the two are simultaneous. Neat!