Miscellaneous Writing Issues

Professor Jen F.

I didn't have one major topic to expound upon, so I thought I'd just hit on several smaller things I've come across recently.

1) Paragraphs are sacred...they belong to one character and one character only. What am I getting at? Basically, you can't have more than one character talking, thinking, and/or performing some sort of action all in the same paragraph.

Incorrect: "I heard you were leaving town," Mary said. James nodded. Mary hugged him goodbye. "You have my cell number, right?"

Correct: "I heard you were leaving town," Mary said.

James nodded.

Mary hugged him goodbye. "You have my cell number, right?"

2) Attributives...these are the "he said"/"she said" things (also called dialogue tags) that help readers know who's speaking. First of all, you don't always have to use a dialogue tag. Use action tags instead. This helps animate your characters.

Example: Sam ran a hand through his hair. "I don't know, Josh. Do you really think we should?"

Using an action tag not only lets the reader knows who's speaking, and animates your character, but can also convey a mood. Is Sam apprehensive? Or maybe he's frustrated. We can't tell from this little bit here, but if this were in the context of a complete scene, we'd probably know.

If you want to use something other than said, do so sparingly and with purpose. Don't just use something else in order to not use said. The truth of the matter is that said is practically invisible to the reader. They're looking to see who's talking, and that's it. Once they see the character's name, they don't really need the said and generally will visually skip over it.

Here's an example of using something other than said for a specific purpose: (This is Sam and Ainsley from "The West Wing," Sam's POV.)

A navy blue scarf with a paisley print held back her long blonde hair. Only two buttons held the white men's dress shirt closed, revealing a pale décolletage and a fraction of a tattoo over the waistband of the dark blue sweatpants that hung low on her hips. Some sinfully sexy cherry red polish covered her finger and toenails.

She grinned at him. "Hi there."

He swallowed. "I brought the wine," he croaked, holding up the bottle. Who needed wine? He was drunk just looking at her.

So using croaked instead of said conveys that Sam's in awe of Ainsley's beauty at the moment, his mouth's suddenly gone dry, and his voice isn't working properly.

3) Parenthesis and asterisks...are no-nos in fiction. These punctuation marks have specific uses in non-fiction writing, but they should rarely, if ever, be used in fiction.

Parentheses set off an extra explanation, information, or thought. Generally, I see fan fiction writers using parens to add an extra thought of the POV character, explaining something the character has just thought or said. Using commas or em dashes (two hyphens) is the preferable way to do this in fiction. Use commas if the thought doesn't need too much emphasis. Use em dashes if the thought needs extra emphasis.

Asterisks tell readers there is some sort of explanation or additional information about the subject the asterisk has been put after. This is its intended purpose--in non-fiction (essays, articles, etc.). And since readers know what it means, they may stop reading the story to go read the information, and in fiction, anything that pulls the reader from the story is not cool. If you have something you'd like to explain or provide more information or a reference on, mention it up front prior to the story or chapter, or at the end of the story or chapter. If mentioned at the beginning or end of the whole story, you may want to reference the chapter or page number that the subject is on.

4) Redundancy & showing versus telling...in fiction, it's much more interesting for the reader if the author shows the story versus tells the story. In other words, don't tell us the hero is mad, show us his anger in action: clenched fists, grinding teeth, whatever. My main focus here is not showing versus telling as I've just mentioned; this is about using punctuation, dialogue, and narrative to achieve certain effects. One of my pet peeves I've recently discovered is the use of "he paused." Along that same line is "he cut her off," (dialogue wise that is), or "she trailed off." Now, I'm not saying you can't ever use the phrase "he paused," just be careful when you do and make sure it's the best way.

Now here's an example of what I'm talking about: (This is an excerpt from a "Star Trek" fic I've been beta-reading. As you can see, we have two-fer. The characters here are Spock and Uhura.)

She paused and began slowly, "Well, in human presentations it is usually considered good form to cut the tension, to engage the audience, and to make sure that they are not asleep..." another long pause, "...by starting off with a joke."

So...how do we show pauses, rather than telling the reader that's what the character did. Just FYI, the 'she' in the example is not the POV character. This makes a difference in how to present something, because we can have no internal narrative in our fix. We can only present what the POV character would see and hear this character doing.

From Spock's POV:

Uhura shifted from one foot to the other. "Well...in human presentations, it is usually considered good form to cut the tension, to engage the audience, and to make sure they aren't asleep..." She looked at him as if to gauge his reaction to what was coming next. "...by starting off with a joke."

Do you see it? Uhura's foot shifting provides natural silent (the pause) lead-in to her dialogue; her looking at Spock provides the other built in silence. I'm not saying this is the best example of how to rework this, but I hope it works enough to show you the difference.

Let's try it as if Uhura was actually the POV character:

She shifted from one foot to the other. "Well...in human presentations, it is usually considered good form to cut the tension, to engage the audience, and to make sure they aren't asleep..." She wasn't quite sure how he'd take her suggestion, or if she even wanted to offer it. Well, he'd asked. "...by starting off with a joke."

Well, that's the showing versus telling. The redundancy part comes in when there are two characters engaging in dialogue, and one talks over the other effectively cutting their dialogue off, and then the author tells us what he or she just showed us happened.

So let's see the bad example:

"But John, I just want--"

"No, Mary," John cut her off.

Obviously, the em dash shows the reader Mary has been interrupted. There's no need for the author to then tell them as well.

Try something like:

"But John, I just want--"

"No, Mary." John pointed a finger at her. "I told you, no more manicures. We can't afford them."

Not only have we eliminated redundancy, we have animated our POV character a little bit.

This also goes for characters who are speaking, but stop in a slow, trailing off manner. There's no reason to use an ellipsis to show that the character's words have trailed off and then tell the readers that that's what the character just did. The reader just saw/read it.

Well, I hope these tidbits have been helpful. If there's anything anyone has a question about, please contact me, and I can research it and cover it the next time.

Back to Course Offerings.