Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Controlling Your Dialog Tags

A while ago, we discussed the two prominent schools of thought regarding dialog tags; today we'll go over the kinds of dialog tags you should always 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, 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, sighed, 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.

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.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Subject-Verb Agreement, Part Two: Collective Nouns

Last time, we discussed a few common things that cause writers to make mistakes with their subject-verb agreement. Today we’ll discuss a few more.

Collective Nouns

A collective noun is a word that defines a group as a single unit—words like team, family, staff, crowd, audience, band, and so forth. Technically speaking, such nouns are singular and can be pluralized like any other noun: teams, families, etc.

When it comes to subject-verb agreement, however, collective nouns don’t always act singular. Take these two examples:

     The jury is delivering its verdict.
     The jury are taking their seats.

In the first example, the word jury is singular; in the second, it is plural. Why the difference? Well, in the first example, we’re referring to the jury as a single unit doing one thing—we’re focused on the action of the group, and not the individuals in the group, so jury is treated as a singular noun. In the second example, we’re thinking of the individuals within the group—several people taking several seats, rather than one unit taking a seat. In this sort of usage, it is acceptable to treat the collective noun as a plural. Here are some other examples:

     The audience is losing its energy.
     Remind the audience to look beneath their seats to see if they won a prize.
     The class is behaving well today.
     The class are preparing their presentations for tomorrow.

Now, if the examples of collective nouns used as plurals seem odd, that’s because they are—in the United States, at least. Many of them would sound more natural if an actual plural noun were substituted for the collective noun:

     The jury members are taking their seats.
     The students are preparing their presentations for tomorrow.

Proper collective nouns

A proper noun is a name or title of some sort; a proper collective noun, therefore, is a name or title that refers to a group.

Bands and other musical groups: Generally, musical groups should take the form of verb and pronouns that suits the form of their name.

     The Red Hot Chili Peppers are amazing in concert.
     Queen is still my favorite band.

Companies and other organizations: The names of companies should generally be treated as singular.

     Marvel has announced its next few movies.
     General Motors hasn’t sold as well as expected.

Note, however, that it is not uncommon to use plural construction with companies whose name is a series of names (with or without a word like “associates” at the end).

     Williamsen, Ovard, and Associates have had a great year.

Sports teams: Generally speaking, sports teams are treated as plurals, no matter the form their name takes.

     The Utah Jazz have been performing well since they changed their lineup.

But when we refer to a team by the location where it resides, however, it usually takes the singular:

     Chicago is just destroying anyone that comes against it on the court.

(Note that these guidelines are for US usage. In the UK and many other places, it is more common to use the plural whenever the actions of a group are being described.)

Also note that these guidelines are for existing collective nouns; if you're writing speculative fiction that delves into the notion of collective in a far more literal or complicated manner, then you're on your own when it comes to figuring out how to properly determine where to use the plural or the singular. Good luck.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Subject-Verb Agreement, Part One

On the surface, subject-verb agreement is a simple topic: almost every sentence requires a subject and a verb, and that verb (and everything else in the sentence) should be properly conjugated to match the subject. In other words, if your subject is singular, your verb should be singular; if your subject is plural, your verb should be plural; if your subject is first-person, then your verb should be first person; and so on.

     INCORRECT: My brother are ski instructor.
     CORRECT: My brother is a ski instructor.
     INCORRECT: My sisters is detective.
     CORRECT: My sisters are detectives.
     INCORRECT: I are a writer.
     CORRECT: I am a writer.

Ninety-five percent of the time, subject-verb agreement is just that easy—you have a subject, you properly conjugate its verb without even thinking, and you move on. Every now and then, however, complications creep in. Usually, these difficulties arise because of a long or confusing sentence structure has made the subject of the sentence unclear.

     As I watch, a strange blue substance full of floating, glowing spheres spread across the window.

I’ve italicized the verb in that subject, but where is the subject? It’s not spheres—the glowing spheres are inside the subject, which is the substance. Substance is singular, not plural—so it doesn’t spread, it spreads.

     As I watch, a strange blue substance full of floating, glowing spheres spreads across the window.

Another frequent cause of subject-verb disagreement is compound subjects—when more than one subject is performing a single action in unison. Compound subjects are treated as a plural subject, even if the individual subjects are singular:

     INCORRECT: My father and mother tells me to behave myself.
     CORRECT: My father and mother tell me to behave myself.

Note: A compound subject will always be two or more subjects joined by the word and. If the subjects are joined by a phrase such as together with, as well as, or along with, then the first subject determines the conjugation of the verb:

     My wife, together with her sisters, is going on vacation.
     My wife and her sisters are going on vacation.

The conjunction or also doesn’t create compound subjects; if two potential subjects are paired using the word or (or nor), the verb should agree with whichever subject is closest to it:

     Either my cousin or my friends are going to pick me up after work.
     Neither my friends nor my cousin is going to be able to pick me up.

So remember to keep an eye on any particularly long and complicated sentences and any sentences with compound subjects to be sure that the subject-verb agreement is intact. Next week, we’ll cover other situations in which problems with subject verb agreement commonly arise.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Avoiding Over-Capitalization

A few weeks ago we discussed proper capitalization, and I mentioned that I would discuss the capitalization of words you make up for your story. These could be devices or technologies that you thought up, magical spells or items, or fictional illnesses and conditions. They could be unusual offices in a fictional government, brand names from a science-fiction universe, aspects of an alien culture, or places in another world.

The majority of words that require capitalization are proper nouns—names, titles, and the like; and, in most stories, the majority of made-up words will also be proper nouns. This means that a particularly complex science fiction or fantasy story can often end up with a high density of capitalized words.

Now, many experienced writers and editors advise that you avoid having too many made-up words in your story (I gave you that advice in this post). Unfortunately, one of the easiest and most common methods of avoiding made-up words is to take a common English word and capitalize it to show that it is significant. So instead of calling the council that rules your fictional society the Shoraki, you might call it the Council. Thus, while this method does avoid creating extra made-up words, it doesn’t cut down on the number of capital letters. This can sometimes lead to paragraphs that look like this:

     Thuum reached into the Golden Cask and removed the Sword of Ramunothet, grinning from ear to ear. When he presented this to the Council, everyone would see that he was the greatest of all the Hunters. And best of all, Norrikis would be forced to serve him as his Du’Shan.
     Cradling the sword in the crook of his arm, Thuum turned to leave and paused. Standing in the door to the Temple was a black-shrouded figure—an Ayelet Assassin. The man raised a gloved hand, revealing a Zurasha Gem in his palm. The gem began to glow as the Assassin focused his Mentalis within it.

Yeesh, am I right? That might seem like a deliberately exaggerated example, but it’s not—I have in fact encountered similar paragraphs in the wild.

There are many ways to avoid excessive amounts of capitalization: you can re-word a title or sentence to remove the need for a capitalized word; you can insert more action in order to further space out any capitalized words; or you can just decide that this is your world and these are your made-up words, so you can just not capitalize them if you don’t want to. It’s up to you, after all, to decide whether your made-up words are proper nouns that require capitalization, common nouns that don’t, or once-proper nouns that have reached such a level of ubiquity in the culture that they no longer require capitalization.

Here’s what that example might look like after some toning down:

     Thuum reached into the golden cask and removed the Ramunothet’s sword, grinning from ear to ear. When he presented this to the council, everyone would see that he was the greatest of all the Hunters; and best of all, Norrikis would be forced to serve him as his du’shan.
     Cradling the sword in the crook of his arm, Thuum turned to leave and paused. Standing in the door to the temple was a black-shrouded figure—an Ayelet assassin. The man raised a gloved hand to reveal a Zurasha gem in his palm, which began to glow with focused mentalis.

We’ve gone from twenty-four capital letters to ten. Hopefully, we can all agree that the second example is much more pleasant to look at and feels a little less like an over-done cliché. So keep an eye out for over-capitalization—remember, neither everything of significance in your story nor every word that you make up needs to be capitalized.

This is more or less pertinent to the article, right? Eh, close enough.

Monday, April 20, 2015

"Looking With Eyes"—Avoiding Redundant Description

(A busy day cut down on my available writing time, so I'm afraid I have to post my first-ever rerun today. There'll be a new post up Wednesday.)

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 perfectly acceptable 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.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Punctuating Dialog: Here's How It's Done

I’ve read quite a few manuscripts of late that had trouble punctuating their dialog correctly, so let’s go over that very quickly.

1. You should always have some sort of punctuation immediately before your closing quotation mark.

It can be a comma, a period, a semi-colon, question mark, exclamation point, em-dash, or ellipses; it can be almost any form of punctuation, but there must be punctuation of some sort. What you don’t want to do is this:

     “I haven’t seen Aziz since class yesterday” Nora said.

There should be some sort of punctuation between yesterday and the closing quotation mark (a comma, in this case), and in all similar scenarios. There is almost no situation in which you’d be justified leaving out that closing punctuation.

2. If the dialog is followed by a dialog tag, then you cannot close the dialog with a period.

The dialog tag is that short little bit that identifies who is speaking: some variation of she said, he asked, I shouted, etc. If there is a dialog tag after your dialog, you cannot end the dialog with a period:

     INCORRECT: “I haven’t seen Aziz since class yesterday.” Nora said.
     CORRECT: “I haven’t seen Aziz since class yesterday,” Nora said.

Note that this rule only applies to periods. Other ending punctuation such as question marks and exclamation points should not be affected by the dialog tag:

     “I think Aziz has been kidnapped!” she shouted.

     “What makes you think that?” he replied.

Note also that exclamation points and question marks in dialog do not end the sentence, so the dialog tag is not capitalized—as discussed in this post.

3. If dialog is interrupted, end it with an em dash. If it trails off, use ellipses.

     “We don’t have any reason to think—” he began.
     “I just know something is wrong!” she interrupted. “He could be hurt, or . . .”

Ellipses in dialog is a subject more thoroughly covered in this post.

4. If the dialog tag interrupts a sentence, then it should end with a comma. If it comes at the end of a sentence of dialog, it should end with a period, even if it is followed by more dialog.

     “Nora,” Aziz whispered, “please come after me.”

     “I’m calling the police,” Nora said. “I don’t care what you say.”

You’ll find more on this topic in this post.

If you're wondering, Aziz was totally kidnapped, but Nora saved him in time.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Some Thoughts On Thoughts

One of the greatest advantages that print mediums like novels or comics have over many other story-telling methods is an unparalleled ability to get into the heads of characters, to hear their thoughts and understand their reasoning and their view of the world. In more visually oriented mediums such as film or video games, the most common method of sharing the thoughts of a character is by means of narration or voiceover, both of which can slow the pace of the story and detract from the action. In comics, on the other hand, thought bubbles can be given equal prominence with dialog bubbles; used sparingly, they can convey thoughts without slowing the story.

Moonstone from Thunderbolts gives us a an example of good use of the thought bubble.
But it is in prose that thoughts can really shine. In prose, the audience can spend the entire story in the mind of the perspective characters. Characters’ thoughts and emotions are readily available, often acting as a filter through which the entire story and its world are related.

We’ve already discussed how a perspective character’s personality, education, and background should influence how the story is told. But we haven’t really discussed thoughts—how should you format a phrase that the character thinks, but never voices?

Option 1: No Formatting

Your first option is not to format a thought any differently than anything else—simply set it apart with some variation of the phrase, “she thought.”

     “I’ve sketched out the runes properly, but I still can’t get the spell to work,” Santtu said. “Your spellbook must not have the spell right.”
     No, you’re just an inept and arrogant idiot, Pinja thought. Out loud, she said, “Well, let’s try it together, then.”

In this example, the thoughts are simply conveyed in the same manner as dialog, but without any quotation marks.

Option 2: Italics

Italics are my preferred method of formatting thoughts, as they help the lines stand out a bit more from the surrounding prose and dialog. I particularly recommend italics if you’re writing a very thought-heavy story. When you have long passages of internal monologs, it can be easy to lose track of where the thoughts begin and end if they’re not set apart by italics. Italics also make it easier to have lines of thought without tags:

     “I’ve sketched out the runes properly, but I still can’t get the spell to work,” Santtu said. “Your spellbook must not have the spell right.”
     No, you’re just an inept and arrogant idiot, Pinja thought. Out loud, she said, “Well, let’s try it together, then.”
     “I already told you, it doesn’t work.”
     Neither do you. Pinja knelt and began sketching out the runes.

Not An Option: Quotation Marks

I’ve seen quite a few people format lines of thought with quotation marks, just as they would dialog:

     “I’ve sketched out the runes properly, but I still can’t get the spell to work,” Santtu said. “Your spellbook must not have the spell right.”
     “No, you’re just an inept and arrogant idiot,” Pinja thought. Out loud, she said, “Well, let’s try it together, then.”

I strongly recommend against this practice, as it is needlessly confusing. You don’t want your character’s thoughts to get confused with what they’re actually saying to other characters.

Many people use both quotation marks and italics for thoughts:

     “I’ve sketched out the runes properly, but I still can’t get the spell to work,” Santtu said. “Your spellbook must not have the spell right.”
     “No, you’re just an inept and arrogant idiot,” Pinja thought. Out loud, she said, “Well, let’s try it together, then.”

This is less confusing, but it is also redundant. The italics already serve to set the line of thought apart from the rest of the prose, and they do a better job of it than the quotation marks, so don’t worry about using both.

The one exception to this that I’ve seen is if you have two or more characters who are capable of communicating telepathically. In this case, quotation marks can be useful to help set apart telepathic thoughts from normal ones.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Repetitive Sentence Structures

Many writers tend to prefer certain types of sentences over others. It’s not usually a conscious preference. It’s simply a particular format or type of sentence that comes naturally to a writer, one that they tend to use frequently because it is comfortable and instinctive. But it is possible for repeated use of similar sentence formats to make prose dull and repetitive. 

This is similar to the problem covered in this post, only now we're talking sentence structure instead of length. Here’s an example:

     Smiling, Raul opened the door to the house. With a gasp, Yasmin stepped inside, staring at the transformed entryway. Rose petals covered the floor and brilliant glass lanterns hung in rows from the ceiling. Taking her hand, Raul led the way along the rose-petal path.

There are four sentences in this example, and three of them follow a similar format: short opening phrase, comma, and the rest of the sentence. Try reading that out loud; it gets tiring, doesn’t it?

Which four-course meal looks more appetizing?
Sentence structure is like food; variety is usually preferable to repetition.
There is no hard and fast rule as to how much is too much when it comes to repeating sentence formats. Sometimes a paragraph can function just fine with several sentences of a similar style; other times, even just two similar sentences in a row will be too much. But it is safe to say that the more complicated the format of a particular sentence, the longer you should wait before using a similar format again.

The tricky thing about this problem is that it will be different for every writer. The sentence formats that come most naturally to me won’t be the same as the ones that come naturally to you. This makes it a bit harder to spot, since I cannot give you specific structures to look out for.

As is often the case with hard-to-spot problems, your best bet for this one is to gather together some discerning readers and ask them to keep an eye out for this problem. Reading your prose out loud will also make this problem easier to catch.

Once you’ve identified a repetitive passage, it will usually be pretty easy to fix. Here’s an edited version of our example above:

     Smiling, Raul opened the door to the house. Yasmin stepped inside with a gasp, staring at the transformed entryway. Rose petals covered the floor and brilliant glass lanterns hung in rows from the ceiling. Taking her hand, Raul led the way along the rose-petal path.

Simple, right? In this case, we only needed to alter one sentence to make the passage read more smoothly. Remember: repeated sentence structures grow bland and tiresome—try to get in the habit of varying things up regularly.


Okay, I was wrong—I remembered one specific type of sentence structure that tends to get repeated frequently which you should look for. 

Be careful to avoid beginning a series of sentences with the same pronoun (or its possessive form). For example:

     Raul dropped to his knees, clutching his stomach. He didn’t know what was causing it, but he suddenly felt like he was going to vomit out entire organs. He crawled slowly into the bathroom. His muscles spasmed with the pain, slowing him. He groaned with the effort of moving. Finally, he reached the toilet. He lifted the lid with shaking hands and positioned his head over the bowl, but nothing came out.

See the problem? That paragraph had seven sentences; four began with the word “he” and one began with an introductory phrase followed by “he” as the subject. Plus, the second sentence was a compound sentence with “he” as the subject of the second portion and the subject of the embedded clause at the end. That’s seven phrases beginning with “he” across seven sentences. Keep an eye out for any series of sentences that all begin with the same pronoun.

Friday, April 10, 2015

The Unclear Character

Last time we discussed “the un-set scene”—when a scene is unclear because the author has failed to establish a minimum level of basic details about the setting. Today, we’ll cover a similar problem that can arise with characters: “the unclear character.”

Not all characters will require the same amount of description—sometimes a very basic, even vague, description will suffice, while other times a more thorough amount of detail will be necessary. Tolkien described most of his characters, such as Gandalf and the hobbits, with great precision. Dan Wells, on the other hand, has pointed out that he wrote several books starring his character John Wayne Cleaver without ever telling us what color John’s hair was.

An excellent example of these opposing situations can be found in Twilight by Stephanie Meyer. Her descriptions of her male lead and love interest, Edward, are extremely detailed, which is appropriate in a romance novel aimed at teenage girls. Her descriptions of her protagonist Bella, on the other hand, are generally vague; this allows readers to picture the details of Bella’s appearance however they like, which in turn allows Bella to serve as an audience self-insertion avatar, increasing readers’ involvement in the story and romance.

No matter how much or how little you choose to describe your characters, there are a few basic details that your audience will need to clearly picture your narrative:

Pictured: characters without these basic,
distinguishing characteristics.
Gender: Gender is one of the most basic elements that people use to categorize one another. Whether the gender of your characters is male, female, or something else, it will be helpful to your audience if they know where your characters fit along that spectrum. You don’t want your audience to be picturing a character of one gender only to discover later that they were completely wrong.

Age: Not everyone acts their age. Some children are unusually mature, while a disturbing amount of adults never quite seem to grow out teenage behavior. This is part of the reason that it is important to make clear what the ages of your characters are early on. I’ve read many stories where the protagonist’s behavior led me to believe that they were a child, only for me to discover later that they were supposed to be an adult.

Unusual aspects of appearance: I once read a story written in third-person limited perspective from the point of view of an old man. It was four pages before the author mentioned, out of nowhere, that the old man had a peg leg. That’s the sort of thing that would be a large part of a person’s life, don’t you think? It’s the sort of thing that should be apparent from very early on in the story. Don’t drop major details about a character’s appearance late in the story.

Species: This is basically the same as "unusual aspects of appearance," but it's worthy of extra note. If a character is not a human being, you should generally make that clear up front.

That’s pretty much it. You can give more detail, of course (and usually you should), but you shouldn’t generally give less than this.

Note: These rules apply particularly to perspective characters. If we’re in a character’s head, we should know what they know, including details about themselves. If you want to hide details about a non-perspective character for later on, however, you can usually do so. 

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

The Un-Set Scene

Awhile back I wrote a post on how to decide when you’ve over-described something. Today, I’d like to discuss the opposite problem, specifically as it relates to scenes.

As they read, most people will picture the events of the story in their minds, almost like scenes from a movie. An author’s task is to find a balance between too much description and too little description. They must describe a scene vividly enough for the majority of readers to picture it clearly, but not with such long-winded detail that a large number of readers might get bored. But often, authors fail to set a scene almost entirely.

I’m not talking about neglecting to mention the color of the carpet or the type of trees in the forest; I’m talking about forgetting to mention that the action is taking place inside a room of some sort or that your characters are in the forest. It’s surprising how many new writers don’t think to mention where a conversation is taking place. They might, for instance, mention that three characters are sitting at a table eating nachos while they argue, but they won’t tell us where the table is. It could be in a kitchen, a dining room, a bar, a restaurant, a cafeteria, or a break room, but the audience doesn’t know for sure until halfway through the conversation when a waiter comes in to ask them if they want dessert.

This is often called “White Room Syndrome,” because for all the audience can tell, the action is taking place in a blank white room. Great for the Matrix, but not so much for most other stories.

So, how little is too little when it comes to description? Here’s a few basic bits of information about setting that you should generally try to get across to your readers within the first few paragraphs of a scene:

Where is the immediate action taking place? Are your characters indoors or outdoors? If they’re indoors, what sort of room are they in—a kitchen, a bedroom, an office, a parking garage, a space station control center? If they are outdoors, what sort of terrain is around them—forest, plains, a lake, a river, red-rock desert, the void of space? What is the weather like? Give your readers a few words to set the backdrop to the action.

Where are your characters at in that space? Are they clustered around a table in the corner? Is one of them sitting on the ground against a rock while the other two climb a tree at the edge of a clearing? Are they strapped into seats at their stations on the bridge of the space ship? Give some basic information about where your characters are in relation to the setting and to one another.

Whose setting is this? Does the room, house, car, spaceship, or even the field or the planet, belong to one of the characters? Are they trespassing? Are they simply out in the unclaimed wild? This can be cleared up with a simple adjective—they sat in Calvin’s kitchen or he ran through the king’s forest. Are your characters masters, owners, regulars, visitors, strangers, or interlopers in this place?

What time of day is it? I don’t mean the exact hour and minute, but rather a general sense of time as it relates to the scene. Is it day, night, dawn, or dusk? Is it dark out or light out? A daytime conversation in the park will have a completely different feel than the same conversation in the same park in the middle of the night. If it is pertinent, you might want to give readers a sense of the season as well.

If this is the first scene of the story, then what time period is it in? Ever read a story that you thought was taking place in a medieval setting, only to have someone drive up in a car? Or a story that seemed modern until someone mentioned the warpgate to Jupiter? It’s pretty disconcerting. Try to give your readers a clear sense of the era (and by extension, the genre) right from the get-go.

If this is not the first scene of the story, then where is this setting in relation to previous settings? The importance of this information varies from story to story. You could write an entire story that takes place in an unnamed city without it ever being a problem—the character could move from their apartment to work to a bar to a seedy nightclub without you needing to explicitly state where are those places are in relation to one another. However, if you jump locations and characters from scene to scene this may become important—if the last scene was the King of Rohan at Helm’s Deep, and then you jump to the hobbits sneaking into Mordor, it could be helpful to let your readers know that they’ve moved several hundred leagues away.

And that’s really it. You can add more detail to the setting than what I’ve listed above, but you probably shouldn’t have less. Imagine that you’re sketching the scene out with a pencil—these are the most basic lines that you’ll need for it to be clear that you’re drawing a scene and not just a person, a place, or a thing. For more tips on writing description, check out some of the posts listed here and here.

Monday, April 6, 2015

On Capitalization

A hallmark of amateur writing that will quickly cause most editors to lose interest in a manuscript is improper capitalization. This includes both capitalizing letters that shouldn’t be capitalized and not capitalizing letters that should have been capitalized.

On the surface, this is a simple issue—we all know to capitalize proper nouns (names) and the first word of a sentence. But there are all sorts of unusual or complicated situations that can arise when you’re composing something as substantial as a novel. For instance, I have often seen sentences like this:

     “I’m an English Major, but my girlfriend is a Chemistry Major.”

There are two things wrong with that sentence. First, the word major should not be capitalized—many people simply feel like it’s supposed to be capitalized since it’s paired with the capitalized subject of the major (English and Chemistry in this case), but it should be lowercase. But wait! That’s not all. Chemistry shouldn’t be capitalized in that example, either.  The only school subjects that should be capitalized are languages—English, Spanish, Russian, etcetera—because they are adjectives derived from proper nouns (England, Spain, Russia, etcetera). So the above example should be written like this:

     “I’m an English major, but my girlfriend is a chemistry major.”

Thank you to xkcd for almost always having a relevant comic for my needs.

Now, I could fill pages and pages with all the little rules of which words should be capitalized and which words shouldn’t. I’m not going to, however, because Jane Straus has already done a fantastic job of that over at If I were to write a full post on capitalization, it would basically be a near-word-for-word copy of hers, so I’m not going to waste the energy. I’ll just recommend that you go check out her post on capitalization—read the article, bookmark the page, and reference it often.

That post will also be a handy guide for helping you decide whether or not to capitalize words that you make up—if you’re writing science fiction or fantasy, for instance. Check back here in the next week or two for additional guidelines on that particular subject.

And don't forget to check out my post on capitalization in dialog tags.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Narrative Gaps: Vehicles and Movement

Remember narrative gaps? These are points in the story where something is left out—perhaps a character does something a second time that they never did a first time or a character remembers learning information that the author forgot to have them learn before. Narrative gaps are one of the primary reasons most authors have alpha and beta readers—because after you’ve gone through your own book a dozen times, it can be difficult to spot errors on your own.

There is one type of common narrative gap that you can look for on your own, however: gaps regarding vehicles.

For some reason, vehicles in stories attract narrative gaps like a shiny clean car attracts bird droppings. They usually go something like this:

     “I think this is the place,” Afonso said, pointing out the window to a ramshackle nightclub.
     Graciana slowed the car enough to make out the small sign over the door. “Gaspar’s Place? Are you sure?”
     Afonso shrugged. “It’s the only club we’ve seen in the area. We might as well check it out.”
     “I guess,” Graciana said. “Just don’t wander off and leave me alone in there, okay?”
     “Deal,” Afonso said as they headed inside.

See the problem? Graciana and Afonso are in a car; he points out the window, she slows the car down, and then suddenly they’re headed into the club. Unless they’re driving the car through the door, that means they had to have stopped the car and gotten out at some point—but that point was never shown.

This might not seem like a problem; your readers are certainly intelligent enough to figure out that the characters are no longer in the car if they’re going into the club, after all. But most people picture the scene they’re reading in their mind, and there are few things as jarring for readers as having their image of the scene they’re reading suddenly violated. It will knock most readers solidly out of the story.

This rule applies even to someone who can literally teleport to place to place; you still need to inform your readers when your scene changes.
Another vehicle-related error occurs when characters move in ways that they should not be able to, usually because the author added something in at some point and forgot the scene was taking place in a vehicle:

     Graciana slowed the car as they passed the store. “Can we stop and buy those shoes I wanted?”
     “We’re kind of in a hurry, dear,” Afonso said.
     “I’ll be quick, I promise. Please?”
     Afonso sighed. “Fine. Hurry.”
     “Thank you!” Graciana said with a laugh. She clapped, jumping up and down like a little girl.

Most people are much too large to jump up and down in a car, wouldn’t you say? Particularly when they’re driving.

The good thing about these errors is that they can be easier than most narrative gaps to track down. Simply look for any section of your story where your characters are in or on any sort of vehicle—from cars to bicycles to horses—and double-check for these errors. 

Note: These errors can occur with any sort of movement from one place to another or any sort of enclosed space. Don’t have your characters walking down the street and then suddenly have them talking to a shopkeeper in a store without having them first enter the store, and don't have your characters crouched in a three-foot high tunnel and then have someone start jumping.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

The Inactive Beginning

If you’ve read my post on the purpose of the Story Polisher, then you know that I like to divide writing into three categories: Prose, Plotting, and Creativity. My posts here generally focus on Prose; this is in part because your prose will be the first thing an editor notices about your work (poor prose is the number one reason most stories get rejected, in my experience) and in part because it is difficult to teach people to write clear prose in any setting other than a classroom or one-on-one instruction. There are an abundance of resources out there to help new writers improve their Plotting and Creativity, but not many focused on Prose.

However, today I’m going to set Prose aside for a moment to focus on an element of Plotting. I do this in the interest of highlighting a common error that gets stories rejected by editors on a frequent basis. And that error is the inactive story beginning.

This error is easy to describe: a story begins, and nothing happens. More specifically, the protagonist and other characters aren’t doing anything, or the amount of activity on their part is miniscule compared to the number of pages it takes to describe it all.

This is almost always the consequence of heavy worldbuilding, backstory-telling, and other forms of info-dumping. Most stories have a fair amount of background information that the audience will need to know in order for the story to make sense, and it is tempting to try to get all of that pesky background information out of the way right at the start.

But here’s the thing: background information tends to be boring if your audience isn’t already emotionally or intellectually invested in your world and your characters. The most effective way to engage readers at the beginning of the story is to have something interesting happening at an efficient pace.

Here’s an example of how I’ve seen this done poorly (or rather, a summation of an example, since an actual example lifted from an actual manuscript would be far too long):

     The book begins with the protagonist in the back seat of an SUV, sandwiched between a pair of burly guards. He is being escorted into the dangerous jungles of Juduun, home of the dangerous and violent ape-snakes that guard the ancient ruins of a lost civilization. The various horrors that the ape-snakes have perpetrated upon humans are described. The ruins are described, along with the few little facts that are known about the ancient civilization and what happened to cause its downfall.

     Our protagonist is nervous and tries not to tremble, not wanting to show weakness in front of his captors. He reflects upon the unfortunate series of events that brought him here, how he was orphaned at a young age and stole to help feed his sister. He managed to find her good work and a place to live, but then everything went wrong when she caught the eye of a lecherous nobleman. Various things happened, our protagonist was charged with a crime that he either didn’t commit or was forced to commit even though he’s really a good guy.

     The jungles come into sight up ahead, covered in early-morning mist. The protagonist is being sent into the jungles to retrieve an artifact of the lost civilization as punishment for his crime. He will have no supplies or help; even worse, no one is even sure whether or not the artifact that he’s supposed to find is even real. He believes it’s just a myth and that he’s simply being sent to his death.

     They arrive at the jungles, and the guards throw him to the ground beside the trees. He pleads with them to give him some equipment, anything that might help him. The dangers of the jungle are described. He’s afraid of them.

Now, my summation of this example was four paragraphs long. The actual examples that the summation is based on, however, tend to be anywhere from ten to fifteen or even twenty pages long. That’s ten to twenty pages where our protagonist:

     1. Sits in a car
     2. Sits in a car and tries not to tremble
     3. Sits in a car and sees the jungle up ahead
     4. Is tossed from the car and pleads for help

See the problem? That’s nothing. Nothing happened in over a dozen pages of story. It was all just backstory and worldbuilding—one long infodump. It doesn’t matter how you frame all the backstory; if your protagonist is reminiscing about it, describing it to someone, or having it described to him or her, it’s all the same. Which is to say, it’s boring. It doesn’t matter how action-packed or interesting the backstory is—it will still be boring if it’s a flashback given while your protagonist does nothing. If all of that backstory is so interesting and eventful, then just go back and start the story there!

The pure-backstory prologue gets criticized often (with good reason), but even that would be better than watering down the action of the beginning of your story with infodumps.
Picture what the introduction to a movie would be like if it were done in this manner. Try the original Star Wars movie: after the opening crawl (which is itself a backstory infodump, but it’s traditional and deliberately evoking old pulp action films and comics—not to mention short—and is therefore somewhat justified), we see a star destroyer capturing Leia’s ship. C-3PO and R2 discuss how serious this is and the things the empire is likely to do to all of them. The imperials board the ship, and C-3PO reflects on how brutal the empire has gotten over the years and how hopeless the situation of the rebels seems. Vader comes on board, all menacing, and we’re shown a long introductory flashback depicting some of his history of brutality and his position relative to the Emperor. Jump back to the present, where Princess Leia records a long message explaining her position in the rebellion, what her goals were for her present mission, how she obtained the stolen plans for the Death Star, and then paused to reflect upon what type of droid R2 was and what his normal functions were.

"Ah, we've captured you, senator. Now I will explain the lengthy process by which we uncovered the fact that you are part of the Rebel Alliance and a traitor!"
Slow, ponderous, and boring, right? And that’s with actual action going on in the background—the imperials capturing and boarding Leia’s ship, fighting in the corridors, ominous villains arriving, and our heroine hurrying to get the plans off the ship. If that’s not enough to counter the effect of excessive infodumping, then nothing will be.

Don’t let this problem happen to your story! The inactive story beginning is the most common reason—after poor prose—that I’ve seen stories rejected. So remember: reflecting, reminiscing, explaining, and flashbacking are not action. There’s nothing wrong with introspection in reasonable doses, but introspection does not an interesting story introduction make. Get your characters out there and get them doing things right from the start.