Friday, January 30, 2015

Word Mix-Ups: "Looked Like" vs. "Appeared As"

“Appeared as” is not a synonym for “looked like.”

And there you have it. Have a nice day, folks!

I suppose I could elaborate a bit.

We all know how to use looked like—we do it every day. Here’s some examples:

     He looked like a construction worker.

     That cloud looks like a porcupine.

     My girlfriend’s uncle looked like an angry honey badger.

Pretty simple, right? Looked like is used to indicate that two objects have similar appearances. I’ve seen quite a few people try to use appeared as in the same way, but it just doesn’t work:

     He appeared as a construction worker.

In this sort of usage, appeared as seems to indicate that the person we’re discussing has the ability to alter their appearance at will and has chosen this form to appear to our characters. Like this:

     The angel appeared as a construction worker.

     God appeared to Moses as a burning bush.

The genie appeared as a bee. Because he literally changed his form and appeared out of nowhere.

Many an author has created unintentional hilarity through the misuse of appeared as. This can be particularly confusing if you’re writing speculative fiction of some sort—if your story is already full of magic or might-as-well-be-magic levels of technology, then your audience won’t always know just what you meant. For all they know, the dimension-hopping monster or planet-eating alien can actually appear as whatever they want.

    My girlfriend’s uncle appeared as an angry honey badger. He is a wizard, you see.

Now, there is a situation where looked like and appeared as can be interchanged a bit more freely. In all of the examples above, looked like was used to create similes—to imply visual similarity. But it can also be used to describe the literal nature of a person or object—to describe what something is. For example:

     The room was in shambles, furniture in pieces, window shattered, blood on the floor; it looked like a nasty fight happened there.

     The room was in shambles, furniture in pieces, window shattered, blood on the floor; it appeared as though a nasty fight happened there. (Appeared that would work even better, but I wanted to keep the as in the phrase.)

The distinction between visual simile and literal description of nature is important in these situations. Looked like can be used in either scenario, but appeared as cannot.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Punctuation Problems: Unfinished or Interrupted Dialog

When a person is speaking and doesn’t finish their thought, it happens in one of two ways. Either they trail off gradually, drawing out the last word and dropping in volume, or they cut off abruptly in mid-sentence or even mid-word.

Trailing off can indicate that the person has become lost in thought (and possibly forgotten to finish their sentence), that they have become distracted by something they see or hear, or that they are trying to suggest the unspoken final words without actually saying them. Whichever the circumstance, trailing off will always be indicated by ellipses at the end of the sentence:

     “Well, the experiment might work if we switched out the copper conductors . . .”

     “What in the world is going on . . .”

     “We do know someone who takes care of these sort of problems . . .”

Most writers use ellipses properly to indicate trailed-off dialog. However, I also often see them used to indicate speech that has cut off abruptly or been interrupted, which is incorrect. In those cases, the em dash is the appropriate punctuation:

     “I’ve figured it out!” Javid shouted. “The murderer is—”
     A gunshot cracked through the night, and Javid suddenly collapsed.

     “I am speaking,” Bernadette said, “even though I don’t—”
     “I am interrupting you, madam!”  Gabriel interrupted, “because I love the sound of my own—”
     “Well I shall simply interrupt you back, sir! For I must—”
     “Fool! My capacity for interrupting others far exceeds your own.”

Remember: ellipses indicate trailed-off dialog, and the em dash indicates abruptly cut-off dialog. No exceptions.

It's unfinished and incomplete, see?

Look, some elements of grammar and punctuation just don't lend themselves to perfect visual metaphors, all right? Trying to find a good picture for this post was hard. Thanks for reading, just move on now.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Dialog to Avoid: "As a ____, I . . ."

Here’s an irritating little phrase that we’ve all heard or read some variety of in a story: “As a _____, I . . .”

     “As a mortician, I can tell you that her description of the embalming process is accurate.”

     “As a psychologist, it is my expert opinion that this man is completely off his nutter.”

     “As your mother, I cannot allow you to meet with that girl anymore.”

     “As lord of these lands, it is my duty to care for the needs of the lesser beings under my rule.”

     “As someone who blogs about prose and grammar, I am constantly showered with praise and entirely deserved adoration.”
"And money. Don't forget all the money."

Nine times out of ten, this phrase and its variations are unrealistic, unnecessary, or unintentionally arrogant. Unrealistic, because they tend to be a form of maid-and-butler dialog, where a character tells people information they should already know. Take that third example above—whoever the woman’s child is, they already know that she was their mother. She didn’t need to say it. It feels like breaking the fourth wall; the woman isn’t identifying herself as the other character’s mother for the purpose of speaking to her child, she’s doing it because the author needed to let the audience know that she was the other character’s mother (and even then, it was probably already obvious to the readers).

That brings us to the second problem—such phrases are generally unnecessary. You’ll almost never encounter a situation where a character needs to explain who they are or what qualifications they possess before they speak. Usually, if you’ve done your job right, you’ll have explained all that far more smoothly in some other situation.

So often, when this phrase pops up, it is because the author wanted to remind the readers who this character is or what their qualifications are. Maybe the character hasn’t been around for a while, or you simply haven’t mentioned their profession in some time. In those situations, find a smoother way to work a reminder in. Or, better yet, trust your readers to remember what you told them before. If they don’t, maybe you need to make the character’s profession or position a stronger part of their character so that your audience won’t forget who they are.

But what about situations where the people around a character genuinely don’t know who a character is? That would justify them beginning a sentence in this way, right? Well, yes . . . but . . . that brings us to the final problem with this phrase: unintentionally arrogant.

Writers tend to be a loquacious bunch—we usually have respectably large vocabularies and a great fondness for words. We tend to read a lot, sometimes far more than we actually speak to other people. Being insulated into a group that so loves wordplay and a well-spoken turn of phrase can skew our perspective on how people actually speak. It can also blind us to how we ourselves sometimes sound when we speak.

So, that said, here is a variety of ways to express the thought “As a ____, I . . .”:

     “Oh, I can answer that—I’m a nursing student at the U. I think she actually got the details of the procedure pretty close to perfect.”

     “Hon, I know you don’t like it, but it’s a father’s job to look out for his daughter. I don’t think you should go out with that boy again.”

     “Well, if you want an engineer’s opinion, I’m happy to give mine. That whole design is completely infeasible.”

     “As an artist, I am frequently misunderstood by those around me.”

Which of those sounds the most arrogant? Now, this could just be me, but I generally feel like “As a ____, I . . .” is pretty much the most puffed-up way of expressing one’s qualifications.

Of course it’s possible to use this phrase in a way that doesn’t sound arrogant. But in those cases, the lack of arrogance is generally conveyed through tone and body language. When you’re writing, you can’t rely on those tools. So you have the distinct possibility that people will supply their own emphasis and tone to words which make them think of these sorts of people:

     “Well, as a vegan, I don’t believe in hurting any creatures in any way, especially for my own mere comforts.”

     “As a Christian, I would never let my daughter behave in that manner. It’s just not right.”

Now, sometimes you’ll have a character who is rather puffed-up with their own importance, or who is very loquacious and maybe a little oblivious to how they sound. If that’s the case, then it might be worth busting out the “As a ____, I . . .” phrase. Most of the time, however, people just don’t speak that way—it’s redundant, odd, and often viewed as an indication of self-importance.

Friday, January 23, 2015

The Editor's Lake

I’ve seen an excellent graphic floating around the internet that I wanted to share with all of you:

This graphic was made by Gabriela Pereira to illustrate the approach she takes to editing her manuscripts. From her original article:

     “I begin the revision process with the most basic points (character and plot) and then work my way to the nitty-gritty details (theme and language). This idea is based on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, where you want to fulfill your book’s more basic and urgent needs first, then move on to the smaller components. This means focusing on your overall book first, then breaking it down act-by-act or scene-by-scene for more detailed revision.”

This is a great way to approach the editing process, and I hope it will be helpful to all of you as you’re revising your stories.

Now, several of the steps shown in the illustration are elements that I focus on here at the Story Polisher: narration, POV, tense, voice, description, dialogue, grammar, punctuation, spelling, and word choice. All of these fall into the category of writing that I call Prose. You’ll notice that most of them are quite high on Pereira’s pyramid, and I believe that she was right to place them there—the nitty-gritty details of prose are details that are usually best left until the meat of your work—your Plotting and Creativity—are more or less where you want them. In fact, if I were to make any revision to Mt. Revision, it might be to move the “Narration” step up under “Description” and “Dialogue.” For many people, details of point-of-view and tense will be best left until later in the editing game.

But it is important that all writers realize something: just because the elements of prose are small details that can be left until later in the revision process does not mean that they are less important than the meaty elements of your story that you’ll revise first. To explain why prose is so important, I have drawn up an illustration of my own:

This graphic illustrates the order in which an editor or agent will encounter the elements of your writing once you’ve submitted a manuscript to them. They’ll begin on the surface of the lake and slowly plumb more deeply into the waters as they read on. First, they’ll notice your prose: your grammar, punctuation, spelling, and word choice, your narration, perspective, tense, and voice, and the quality of your description and dialogue. Only once they’re past these layers will they be able to delve into character, plot, and world building, and only very deep into the story should they encounter the dark waters of theme.

Now, if the waters at the top of the lake are murky—that is to say, if you have poor grammar and spelling, if your story is riddled with perspective errors, awkward dialogue, and bland description—then few editors will dive deeper in to find the character development, plot, or world building. It’s not their fault; all those nitty-gritty details of prose are how story is conveyed. They are impossible to ignore. A writer who expects their story to be taken seriously despite its faulty prose is like a real estate agent trying to sell a stable but nauseatingly filthy house—it might be a good house underneath all the grime, but no one will ever see it.

So remember: when you’re editing, don’t slack off in the final laps. Pay careful attention to your prose, as it’s the first thing anyone will notice about your story.

If you’d like to read Gabriela Pereira’s original article on revision, head over to

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Organized Paragraphs and Missing Sentences

Last time, we discussed rogue sentences: lines that should, thematically, reside in a different paragraph than the one in which they’re found. But not all rogue sentences jump to the wrong paragraph. Sometimes, they don’t even get written. They are missing sentences.

Sentences, paragraphs, sections, chapters, and even books themselves all serve to divide content up into easily-processed portions. A sentence is a single thought—when reading, we rarely focus on more than one sentence at a time. A paragraph collects sentences which need to be processed together, helping us to easily find the connection between a series of thoughts. And a series of thoughts can easily become a narrative—a small story in its own right. And no matter how short a story is, it is always jarring when it doesn’t come to an end:

You can find the missing panel here.

Just as you can tell when a panel has been left off of a comic strip, your readers will be able to tell when a sentence has been left off of a paragraph:

     Borya knelt on the carpet before his king. As a general, he was not required to press his forehead to the ground as others would in the presence of the monarch, but he would still be forced to wait for his audience to begin. That would not happen until the king’s small army of servants had finished grooming and pampering their corpulent ruler. Young women and girls darted about, straightening the king’s clothing, powdering his face, and buffing his nails. Borya tapped his fingers on his knees impatiently for several minutes before the women began to finish and withdraw.
     The king snapped his pudgy fingers and a young slave boy hurried to his side, bearing a heavy tray loaded with sweets. The boy winced as the king reached for the tray, ducking his head to the side as though he expected the massive hand to descend in a blow rather than to snatch one of the treats. The king picked up a chocolate-covered plum and bit into it, sending purple juices dribbling down his chins. He frowned down at the chocolate and then spat the mouthful into the boy’s face. As the boy blinked the mess from his eyes, the king swatted the tray from his hands, sending the sweets scattering across the carpet before Borya.
     “What is it, general?” the king said at last. Borya stood and approached the throne.
     “The Gorilam has arrived in the harbor, your majesty.”

Do you see were the thought is incomplete? We had an entire paragraph on that slave boy—his approach, his reactions to the king’s movements, and the unfortunate abuse he suffered. Then, the paragraph ends without completing the narrative. What happened to the boy?

Was he forced to crawl along the floor, gathering up the sweets, all while spit and chewed chocolate dripped down his face? Did he immediately dart from the room, leaving the sweets scattered over the floor? Is he still standing there between the king and Borya while they converse? All we need is that one missing sentence to tell us what happened.

To be fair, the boy’s story doesn’t need to be completed in that same paragraph. We could mention the boy’s movements during Borya and the king’s conversation, and use them for further character building. What is important is that we finish the narrative that we began—because the boy was such a prominent focus of the scene, the scene won’t feel complete until his little story has been finished in some manner. It doesn’t matter if the boy leaves or if he’s still there when Borya leaves, as long as his presence is consistently acknowledged or resolved.

The importance of finishing this sort of paragraph-sized narrative is proportional to the amount of focus and activity you’ve given it. Since the boy was the prominent focus of an entire paragraph, he deserves at least a sentence of resolution. If there had been a single sentence about servants with massive palm fronds fanning the king, they wouldn’t have required resolution—they are largely inactive, part of the scenery rather than the narrative.

Just as your readers would be irritated if you left a chapter off the end of the book or a paragraph off the end of the scene, so will they notice if you leave an important sentence off of the end of a paragraph. Every portion of the story will have its own narrative arc, even the smallest—don’t let missing sentences ruin even a part of your work.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Organized Paragraphs and Rogue Sentences

In these two posts, we discussed how to organize paragraphs through subject and dialog. Today, we’ll discuss a common error that crops up in paragraph organization, which I like to call the rogue sentence.

     Quincy’s heart began to race as Maria smiled at him. She waved, and he waved back. Then he froze, uncertain. Had he waved back too quickly? Did he seem overly eager? He needed to calm down and act natural.
     He didn’t want her to leave because he was acting weird. Maria crossed the street, and he did his best not to stare. She was wearing a dark purple sweater with a wide neck that fell down onto her shoulders and a denim skirt that came down to her knees. Her boots were brown and tall, coming up just past mid-calf. Quincy started and lifted his eyes, blushing.
     He hoped that she hadn’t noticed how long he’d just been looking at her legs. Fortunately, Maria seemed focused on the cars that were approaching and not on him. He kept his eyes on her face and smiled as she reached the sidewalk.

If you’ve read my previous posts on paragraph organization, then that example passage should seem wrong. Why? Because of the first and last sentences of the second paragraph. They are rogue sentences, lines that have jumped from the paragraph where they clearly, thematically belong to take up residence in another paragraph. They’re out of place.

Little did you know that you've been training for this for years.

The first paragraph is about Quincy, about how he’s feeling and what he’s thinking; the second paragraph is about Maria’s appearance; and the third paragraph is about Quincy’s efforts not to get caught admiring Maria’s legs. So the sentence, “He didn’t want her to leave because he was acting weird,” clearly belongs in the first paragraph—it’s about Quincy, not Maria’s appearance. Likewise, the sentence, “Quincy started and lifted his eyes, blushing,” has nothing to do with Maria’s appearance. In fact, it is the sentence which introduces the problem discussed in the third paragraph, so that’s where it belongs.

     Quincy’s heart began to race as Maria smiled at him. She waved, and he waved back. Then he froze, uncertain. Had he waved back too quickly? Did he seem overly eager? He needed to calm down and act natural. He didn’t want her to leave because he was acting weird.
     Maria crossed the street, and he did his best not to stare. She was wearing a dark purple sweater with a wide neck that fell down onto her shoulders and a denim skirt that came down to her knees. Her boots were brown and tall, coming up just past mid-calf.
     Quincy started and lifted his eyes, blushing. He hoped that she hadn’t noticed how long he’d just been looking at her legs. Fortunately, Maria seemed focused on the cars that were approaching and not on him. He kept his eyes on her face and smiled as she reached the sidewalk.

See how much better that flows? 

Rogue sentences are quite common in novice fiction. Look through your writing, paragraph by paragraph, and make sure you don’t have any of these where they don’t belong. If you’re having trouble spotting them, ask a friend to read this post and then read your story to find any rogue sentences.

The great thing about rogue sentences is that they’re almost always an easy fix—just move it up or down, and you’re done!

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Formatting for Publishing: Find and Replace

A subtle way to polish up your finished manuscript before sending it to a publisher is to do a few quick “find and replace” runs.  There are a lot of little formatting errors that crop up in a manuscript while you’re working—some are simple mis-types, some are the result of editing, and others can be the consequence of opening a document in multiple programs (Microsoft Word and Google Docs, for instance). Most of them can be easily fixed en masse.

Open the “Find and Replace” window by hitting Ctrl+H in Microsoft Word or Google Docs (command+shift+f and command+shift+h in their respective Mac versions). If you’ve never used “find and replace” before, it’s simple—whatever combination of characters you type in the first text box will be replaced by the combination of characters you put in the second text box. You can change each instance one at a time or all of them en masse.

Image from

A note of caution: it is very easy to create new errors with the mass “Replace All” option. For instance, say you’ve written a scene where one of the characters is using a pen. You decide afterward that you want them to be writing with a pencil instead, so you do a “Replace All” to replace the word pen with pencil. Unfortunately, the “Replace All” option has now substituted pencil for every instance of the letters pen. Open had now become opencil, pensive is now pencilsive, and so forth. So use this carefully.

Here are a few easy clean-ups that you can use to make your manuscript more presentable:

     Find:                                                       Replace with:
     Repeated spaces ([space][space])           Single space                      

If you need an indent, use paragraph formatting or tabs. Repeat this replacement until you get 0 results.

     Find:                                                       Replace with:
     Repeated paragraph breaks (^p^p)         Single paragraph break (^p)

Most “Find and Replace” features recognize a “carat p” (^p) as a formula representing a paragraph break. If you need space between paragraphs use the “add space after” feature in paragraph formatting. Repeat this replacement until you get 0 results.

     Find:                                                                    Replace with:
     Space at beginning of paragraph (^p[space])      Paragraph break (^p)

Or if you used tabs for the indents at the beginning of your paragraph:

     Find:                     Replace with:
     (^p^t[space])         (^p^t)

The ^t indicates a “tab” in most programs. This replace ensures that your paragraphs will all be aligned properly. If you’ve already replaced all of the repeated spaces, you shouldn’t have to run this replacement more than once.

     Find:                                                                       Replace with:
     Space at the end of a paragraph ([space]^p)          Paragraph break (^p)

This is very minor clutter, but there’s no reason to leave it.

     Find:                                                      Replace with:
     Repeated periods (..)                             Single period (.)

Note: if you format your ellipses as three periods (…), this will cause trouble. That’s one of the reasons I format my ellipses with spaces (. . .) instead. If you don’t have spaces in your ellipses, you’ll want to replace repeated periods one at a time (using “replace” and “find next” instead of “replace all”).

     Find:                                                    Replace with:
     Comma and period (,.) and (.,)            Comma (,) or period (.)

This is another that you’ll have to replace one at a time, since it’s the only way to ensure that you’re putting in the correct punctuation. Fortunately, there probably won’t be many of these in your manuscript. They usually crop up were a large section of a sentence was deleted but the old punctuation was missed.

     Find:                                         Replace with:
     Apostrophes ( ′ )                       Apostrophes ( ‘ )

Note the difference between those two apostrophes—one is straight, and one is curved. The straight apostrophe is an artifact of older typing programs or some non-text-focused programs that appears from time to time. If you’re using Word or Google Docs, however, the program will automatically replace each old-fashioned straight apostrophe with a curved one that faces the correct direction. (Note that you don’t have to hunt for an old straight apostrophe to put into your “find” box. Just put an apostrophe, and the program will figure it out.)

     Find:                                         Replace with:
     Quotation marks ( ″ )                Quotation marks ( “ )
Same thing—old-fashioned “double-prime” straight quotation marks should be replaced with curved ones.

     Find:                                          Replace with:
     Double hyphens (--)                  Em dash (—) or (^+)

Double hyphens aren’t actually proper punctuation—you’ll want an actual em dash in there instead.

     Find:                                         Replace with:
     Repeated tabs (^t^t)                  Single tab (^t)

Note: if you have used tabs as indentation, and you have any sections that indented further than the rest of the document (quoted passages, for instance), this could mess them up. It might be wise to replace these one at a time.

Now, I’m not saying any of these tips will get you published. They will, however, help you polish out a few common errors from your manuscript. This will result in a more professional-looking submission, which is an important step toward getting published. Good luck!

Monday, January 12, 2015

Phrases to Avoid: "Alarmed By"

If you’ve been writing stories for more than twenty-four hours, odds are good that you’ve come across the phrase “show, don’t tell.” What this advice essentially means is that action is more interesting than description.

For example, we could write that “Jane was angry.” This is simple and direct, but it is also the sort of thing that is more engaging to see than to be told. Instead of just telling our audience that Jane is angry, we could write this: “Jane punched the wall, red-faced and growling through her teeth.” This conveys Jane’s emotions more powerfully than a simple statement of anger.

Another advantage to showing is that it is more subtle than telling. You have to trust your audience to pick up on the things that you are not directly stating. This makes it more difficult to write, but also makes it more engaging to read.

“Show, don’t tell,” is the reason that alarmed by is a phrase that should usually be avoided. Here’s an example of how I generally see this phrase used:

     Gizem felt her way along the corridor. She kept one hand on her dagger while the other traced the rough stone of the wall. There was a dim light coming from up ahead.
     When she came around the corner, she found a narrow window. Moonlight poured through the opening, illuminating the still form of Hunsu. Blood covered his face and clothing and pooled on the gray wooden floorboards beneath him.
     Alarmed by the sight, Gizem scrambled to Hunsu’s side.

Do you see the problem? You don’t need to be told that Gizem was “alarmed by the sight” of Hunsu lying in a pool of blood, do you? It’s obvious. You don’t even need to know who the characters are for this to be clear.  In fact, when you think about it, it’s almost insulting that the writer thought you wouldn’t already know that was clear.

The entire phrase “alarmed by the sight” could easily be removed without harming the passage. If you feel it is necessary, you can leave the word alarmed:

     Alarmed, Gizem scrambled to Hunsu’s side.

But even that could probably be shown instead of told:

     With a nearly silent gasp, Gizen scrambled to Hunsu’s side, almost tripping on a loose floorboard in her haste.

Now, you don’t have to show all of that. Simply stating that Gizen is alarmed is much more economical, and sometimes that will be more important than the emotional effect of showing instead of telling. The problem with the phrase alarmed by, however, is that it forces you to re-state something that you’ve already shown. In our example above, we’d just barely seen Hunsu lying in a pool of blood. We can infer why Gizen is alarmed without being directly told. 

Imagine writing this iconic scene: "Alarmed by the sight of the pursuing T-Rex in the mirror, Muldoon floored it." Do you really think your audience wouldn't figure out why Muldoon was alarmed on their own?
There is almost no scenario where you would use alarmed by without already having shown the alarming scene or event. So trust your audience to put two and two together, and leave the phrase out.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Punctuation Problems: Separating Subjects From Verbs

If you have been reading the Story Polisher for a while now, you may have noticed that an understanding of the basic parts of the sentence is something I consider very useful (if not essential) for a writer. I try to explain things in such a way that you don’t need to know what a present participle is, much less the exact difference between it and a gerund. I don’t believe that you need to know and remember every grammatical term.

However, you do need to know the central, most basic parts of the sentence: the subject, the verb, and the direct object. So many of the errors that I explain here depend on your knowing these three things. The subject is the primary noun of the sentence, the person or thing that is performing an action. The verb is the action they are performing. The direct object is who or what they are doing something to (and isn’t always necessary for a complete sentence). Each of these parts of the sentence can be a single word:

     Katy       kissed       Gunther.
   Subject      Verb      Direct Object

Or a phrase:

     The red-haired little girl       has read       my favorite book.
                  Subject                       Verb             Direct Object

The ability to identify these three elements in any sentence you read or write is integral to being a good writer. There are so many errors that cannot be avoided if you don’t know where these three parts of the sentence are. For example, take this post that I saw going around Facebook and Twitter on December 31st:

The problem with this example is simple: that comma should not be there. How do we know? Because it separates the subject of the sentence (Tomorrow) from its verb (is). There are almost no situations where this is permissible. But if you don’t know how to find your subject and verb, then this error will keep popping up.

This error is particularly common in sentences with a long, complex subject. For example:

     The boy that I’d had a crush on for the entire semester, had just given me a rose.

In that example, everything before the comma is the subject of the sentence. Many writers, when faced with such a long subject, feel like there should be a comma somewhere in the sentence. The writers who know how to identify their subjects and verbs, however, know that there should (almost) never be a comma in that part of the sentence. So make sure you always know where your subjects and verbs are—it could save your sentence someday.

The only truly common exception to this rule is when you have a clarifying phrase, set apart by commas, between the subject and the verb. Here are some examples (two of which are from the paragraph above this one):

     My parents, Diana and Clark, want to talk to you.
     Many writers, when faced with such a long subject, feel like there should be a comma somewhere in the sentence.
     The writers who know how to identify their subjects and verbs, however, know that there should (almost) never be a comma in that part of the sentence.

If you remember from this post, a phrase that is set apart in this manner—be it with commas, em dashes, or parentheses—should be able to be removed from the sentence without rendering it illegible. That is, if you took the italicized phrases out of the examples above, they would still be whole sentences:

     My parents want to talk to you.
     Many writers feel like there should be a comma somewhere in the sentence.
     The writers who know how to identify their subjects and verbs know that there should (almost) never be a comma in that part of the sentence.

These commas serve to create an interjection, not a pause or break, and will always come in pairs. If you’re not inserting some sort of clarifying information, you probably shouldn’t have any commas between your subject and your verb.

This rule applies to other breaking punctuation as well: there should generally not be any em dashes, semi-colons, colons, or periods separating your subject from your verb.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Creating Distinct Character Voices

Creating unique voices for your characters can often be difficult. Each of us has our own voice, after all—our own habits and styles and mannerisms of speech—and it can be hard to set aside our own self and attempt to speak like someone else. Even when you manage that, you’re likely to need several different character voices for any given story, which just further complicates things.

So in an effort to help you create distinct and engaging voices for your characters, I’ve isolated some of the factors that make up a unique voice.


What sort of words does this character use? Do they use the shortest, simplest word possible, or do they use large, grandiloquent words, or are they somewhere in between? Vocabulary will often be a reflection of how educated and well-read your character is, but it can also reflect their humility. Perhaps they have a very large vocabulary but prefer to speak simply. Or maybe they use large words to show off how intelligent they are (and maybe they’re not as well-read as they obviously think they are).


How much does this character talk? Are they the strong silent type, the shy silent type, or the easily-cowed silent type? Are they fond of lecturing at length, of gossiping about anything and everything, or of being the center of attention? Talkativeness can be a useful tool for character building. If your character doesn’t talk much, what does get them to talk? What breaks through that shell? What do they enjoy discussing? On the other hand, if your character is self-absorbed and constantly talking, what would actually get them to shut up? What could leave them speechless?

Part of talkativeness is nervousness. How comfortable is this character with unexpected discussion? How about being asked to give a speech or simply tell a story? Do they stutter and lose their way when they are nervous? Or do they ramble and speak too much? If they are nervous speakers, what topics do they know well enough to always be comfortable with? If they’re not usually nervous, what topic does make them uncomfortable?


Some people are always serious, while others are almost always joking around. Most people are somewhere in between. Where does this character lie on that sliding scale? How do they compare to other characters in the story, and how does that affect their relationships with the other characters?  This can be used to show depth of character in much the same way as talkativeness: if your character is always serious, what can get them to loosen up and joke around? What don’t they take seriously, and why? If your character is irreverent and always joking, what actually gets them to sober up and be serious? What matters to them that much?


Some situations require greater formality than others. And some people do not speak or behave formally even in those situations. It might be because they don’t know how to behave in a formal, polite manner, or it might be because they refuse to. They might skip the “sirs” or “my lords” that other expect of them, or they might kick back and tell funny stories in a situation where no one else would.


How rough does this character’s language get? Some people never swear, and some people can’t seem to get through a complete sentence without cursing. If they swear, why do they swear? Are they perpetually angry? Or is it just how they grew up—a habit of speech with little to no emotion behind it? If they don’t swear, why not? Are they religious? Do they simply dislike it? Does it bother them when other people swear?

Beyond simple curse words, coarseness also encompasses subject matter—what topics does this character consider inappropriate for everyday conversation? Do they frequently make sexual and scatological jokes? Do they make dark, morbid jokes? Are they just flat-out immature? How do they react to people who would prefer that they reign in their coarseness? Do they tamp it down, or do they just get worse?


How easily does this character veer off of topic? Some people discuss one thing at a time without deviation. Other people will start discussing one topic, and then end up covering several other topics at length over the course of the conversation. Some people only do this in conversation—if they were lecturing or presenting to a group of people, they would have an easier time staying on topic. Other people would meander through various subjects no matter the situation.


What generally motivates this character’s speech? Are they highly emotional or very in control of their feelings? Are they more likely to appeal to logic in an argument or to emotion (possibly including threats, an appeal to fear)? Are they passionate and energetic or distant and thoughtful?

An excellent exercise is to take these various aspects and to rank some of your favorite characters in each—this way, you can see how their voice is built out of these traits. For example:

Firefly has one of the best arrays of unique character voices you’ll ever find in a story—creating character voices is one of Joss Whedon’s most impressive abilities. So let’s take a few of these characters and rank them in our categories:

Simon: High vocabulary, middle/low talkativeness (middle/high nervousness unless he is speaking on medical matters or defending his sister), high seriousness, high formality, low coarseness, middle/high focus, and mostly on the logical side of the scale (except on some occasions relating to his sister).

Kaylee: Middle/low vocabulary (unless she's discussing engines, in which case it spikes up high), middle/high talkativeness (low nervousness unless she’s trying to impress Simon), middle seriousness, low formality, middle/low coarseness, middle focus, and a little closer to emotion than logic.

Jayne: Low vocabulary, middle/low talkativeness (low nervousness most of the time), low seriousness, low formality, high coarseness, middle focus, and almost completely on the emotion side of the scale (made even more interesting by his low awareness of his emotions).

You can figure out the others on your own, or apply this scale to any other characters you love. Next time you’re stuck trying to create a distinct voice for a new (or old) character, pull out these scales. Figure out where each of your characters is on each scale, and then start sliding things around to create a little more variety.

You could probably come up with a few scales I haven't thought of—if you do, please let me know in the comments! I'd love to hear them. If we get enough, we may do another post on this.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Perspective and Parents' Names, Part Two

Last time, we discussed the subtle perspective error that can arise from calling your perspective character’s parents by their names in the prose—it creates a subtle implication of distance to the relationship. It’s a small problem, but one that writers should be aware of.

If you’re looking for ways of dealing with this problem (beyond simply calling the character “his mother” throughout the entire story), here’s a few tips and ideas:

Call the parents what you want, and make the relationship fit. There are a lot of reasons why a character might call their parents by name. You can easily work one of those into the relationship between your protagonist and their parent.

I’ve read plenty of stories where one of the central conflicts was between the protagonist and their disapproving/distant parent. If you’re going to have a conflict between the two of them anyway, why not ramp it up slightly? Perhaps your protagonist calls his father by name in order to upset his father. Perhaps he’s been so long estranged from his father that it feels odd to call him “dad” now, so he thinks of his father by name.

Perhaps your protagonist works with her mother, and her mother is concerned about potential accusations of nepotism. She might have the protagonist call her by name to avoid any appearance of favoritism. Perhaps there are other social circumstances behind the decision.

Or, barring external motivators, perhaps they’re simply the type of parents who prefer that their children call them by name.

Killing off the parents is always an option, too, though it can be a bit overdone. 

Call the parents by a different title. It often works surprisingly well to simply call the parent characters “Mom” and “Dad” without bothering to distinguish “my mom” or “so-and-so’s dad.” This only works if we’re very deep inside the perspective of the protagonist—usually because they are narrating in first-person perspective:

     I was ready to go, but mom was still loitering at the cash register, flirting with the perfume salesman. “Mom, we’re going to be late,” I called. She ignored me. Mom always got like that around cute guys.

This is particularly effective when your perspective character is a child (or an adult narrating their childhood).

Change the perspective. This is both the simplest and most time-consuming fix for the problem. Time-consuming, because if you’ve already written a significant portion of the story, it will require a bit of work to switch it to a new perspective. Simplest, because it fixes the problem without gimmicks or major adjustments to character relationships or plot.

The “Parent Name Problem” is most prevalent in third-person limited perspective, when we’re inside the head of the protagonist. If you switch to first-person, you can easily use the “Mom and Dad” approach above. Or, you can switch to a third-person omniscient narrator, who can tell us what is going on in your protagonist’s head while still referring to them by name without it being a perspective error.

Friday, January 2, 2015

Perspective Errors: Parents' Names

 First-person perspective and third-person limited perspective are probably the two most commonly-used perspectives in fiction. First-person is narrated by a character in their own words, while third-person limited places the audience directly inside the mind of the perspective character. In both cases, the language of the prose and what the narrative focuses on should be filtered through that character, as we’ve discussed before. We’ve also discussed perspective in relation to the name placeholders that you use to refer to characters. Today, we’ll look at a specific name-related perspective problem that writers encounter again and again.

The problem is this: perspective characters often have parents. That’s a good thing—not every protagonist should be an orphan. 
"One would think that Fiction's entire collection of protagonists had been recruited solely from her orphan asylums. Which we know is not the case."
But parents create a rather unique problem when it comes to names and name placeholders. Take a look at this example:

     Teri crouched on the top of the tall brick wall, watching for danger. There was no movement on the grounds below or in the manor ahead, and the narrow street behind her was clear of people in her direction.
     From her left, she heard a soft whistle. “Johanna, Luis,” Alina called to Teri’s parents, “we’re all clear. Come on up.”
     Teri gave a thumbs-up to her parents, and they silently scuttled out of the shadows across the street and up the rough face of the wall. They crouched beside her; Johanna bore a long rope coiled over her shoulder, and Luis carried a bag of thieves’ tools on his back.
     “Good job, you two,” Johanna whispered. “If you see anyone headed our way, signal us in the usual way.”
     “If we’re not back in twenty minutes, head back to the hideout,” Luis added. “We’ll catch up to you there.”
     Teri nodded. “Be careful on the skylight, dad.”
     Luis ruffled her hair with a smile and climbed down into the manor gardens.
     “I love you, my little girl,” Johanna whispered, giving Teri a quick hug.
     “I love you too, mom,” Teri whispered back as Johanna followed after Luis.

Do you see the problem? This passage is written in third-person limited perspective, and we’re inside Teri’s head. Now, Teri calls her parents “mom” and “dad” when she speaks. It is therefore logical to assume that she thinks of them that way, too—most children do. Most people do, for that matter. No matter how old we get, most of us think of our parents as “mom” and “dad.”  But in the passage above, Teri’s parents are referred to by name in the prose, even though we’re in Teri’s head.

Now, this is a very common difficulty, especially if your protagonist’s parents are prominent characters in the story. It can be very awkward and clunky to refer to them as “so-and-so’s mother” over and over again in the prose. For example:

     Teri handed her mother the bag. Her mother began to dig through it, frowning. “I want the two of you to stay here until I get back,” she said.
     Teri and Alina glanced at one another. “But you’ll need spotters,” Alina said. “It’s too dangerous for you to go alone.”
     Teri’s mother shook her head. “No. The two of you aren’t ready for this kind of job. I’ll be back in a few hours.”
     Teri placed her hand over her mother’s where she was holding the bag open. “Mom, please. Let us help.”
     Her mother sighed and hung her head for a moment. “Not this time, little girl,” she said. When she looked up, Teri was shocked to see that there were tears in her eyes. She’d never seen her mother cry.

That gets a little awkward, doesn’t it? Besides “her mother” being a bit of a long name placeholder, we're forced to repeat it more than we would her name (to avoid confusion between all of the instances of she and her that get thrown around with three female characters in the scene). We’re also forced to repeat Teri’s name a little more than looks good (otherwise, we’d create situations where the her in her mother would seem to be referring to Alina and not Teri—hence we say “Teri’s mother” in the third paragraph instead of “her mother.).

This problem is kind of a Catch-22. There tend to be problems whichever way you go.

Referring to the parents as “her mother” and “her father” thoughout the prose will be more true to life. But the larger the parents’ parts are, the more difficult this will make the writing.

Choosing to refer to the perspective’s characters by their names in the prose is an acceptable option, even if it is technically a small perspective error. Plenty of authors have done this in the past—for instance, if you read the first chapter of The Eye of the World (the first book of Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time series), you will see that Robert Jordan chose this method of dealing with the problem. Even though the perspective is third-person limited from Rand’s viewpoint, Rand’s father is referred to by name (Tam) in the prose. Most people don’t even notice anything unusual about it—and those who do notice the perspective error will quickly get used to it.

The problem with this approach is that it can create a subtle, unconscious distance between the perspective character and their parent. In the case of Rand and Tam, for instance (minor spoilers ahead), I was completely unsurprised when it was revealed that Tam was not Rand’s biological father. Rand was completely shocked by the revelation, but for years I could not figure out why it didn’t surprise me. Eventually, I pinpointed this as the reason—it is not uncommon for children or grown adults to refer to their adopted parents or step-parents by name, for a variety of reasons. The fact that the prose referred to Rand’s father by his first name even though we were in Rand’s head caused me to unconsciously label their relationship as an adoptive one rather than a biological one.

(This is in no way meant to disparage the relationships between children and their adoptive parents, of course. It is simply an observation of common patterns of speech and the situations in which they tend to appear.)

Now, is that a minor problem? Yes, probably. However, it is a problem that you ought to consider when approaching the problem of how to refer to your perspective character’s parents in the prose. 

Next time, we’ll discuss a few tips and possible alternate solutions to this problem.