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Voice Lessons: Part 2, Finding Your Voice

October 1st, 2014 | The Writing Craft, Uncategorized | 1 Comment

brick green no smile b:wIf you caught last week’s post, you’ll know we’re going to be talking about author voice for the next few weeks in the hopes of demystifying a crucial yet often elusive piece of the writing puzzle. Now that we’ve discussed what elements contribute to the presence of author voice on a page, we’re moving on to some ways to identify what characterizes your voice so that you can direct your writing energy towards refining and strengthening it. To help you in evaluating your voice, I’m going to break down a passage of writing from an author with a terrific voice and then talk you through doing the same for yourself.

In examining the writing of an author with strong voice, I’m forced to revisit an oft-referenced author on this blog, Mr. P. G. Wodehouse. Wodehouse’s brilliant comic novels and short stories very often have similar subjects and settings– the British aristocracy, the English countryside– but the content similarities don’t characterize his voice as much as the way he tells his stories. Don’t confuse topic with voice. To get a better idea of what I’m talking about, let’s look at the opening passage to Wodehouse’s Money for Nothing.

“The picturesque village of Rudge-in-the-Vale dozed in the summer sunshine. Along its narrow high street the only signs of life visible were a cat stropping its backbone against the Jubilee Watering Trough, some flies doing deep-breathing exercises on the hot windowsills, and a little group of serious thinkers who, propped up against the wall of the Carmody Arms, were waiting for that establishment to open. At no time is there ever much doing in Rudge’s main thoroughfare, but the hour at which a stranger, entering it, is least likely to suffer the illusion that he has strayed into Broadway, Piccadilly, or the Rue de Rivoli is at two o’clock on a warm afternoon in July.”

Okay, so, just by dissecting this first paragraph, we can identify several characteristics of Wodehouse’s author voice. First, we can say with a fair amount of confidence that this writer’s tone is humorous. The hyperbolic “flies doing deep-breathing exercises” clues us in almost right away that this author’s treatment of a quiet country village is going to be a bit more colorful than average, and primes the reader to be on the lookout for more jokes.

In addition to identifying his writing as comic, the deep-breathing flies set up the type of humor he will be using in the future. Sown artfully among a nice, quiet descriptive passage, this joke informs the reader that the humor to come is at times subtle, less slapstick or situation-based than it is dependent on the author (by means of the narration), and again sets us up to appreciate the humor to come more readily and to look for more hyperbole.

Further scrutinizing of this passage might lead one to say that the author favors long sentences. (You and me both, Plum.) Two of the three sentences above are 50 or more words in length, with parenthetical clauses and a fairly complex syntax. By acquainting the reader’s “ear” with this sentence structure, he lets them know right away what to expect and sets the pace for the rest of the novel. The reader finds out from the start that this author is going to require them to pay a little closer attention than required by certain other authors.

So, after only three sentences, we have gleaned a lot of information about the voice of the author. His tone, his type of or approach to that tone, his sentence length, and his syntax all contribute to the sum of his voice, and it’s this sum that Wodehouse fans can recognize after reading only a few paragraphs, even if they don’t consciously break it down into all these elements every time they read him.

You can use this same method of examination to figure out what characterizes your own writing. Take a passage of your writing– probably more than one paragraph, so you have plenty to go on– and look for the answers to these questions:

  • What is my tone? Humorous? Irreverent? Chilling? Gritty? Flowery? Melancholy? Dark? Zany?
  • How do I approach my tone, or where on the scale does it fall? I.e., if your writing tone is humorous, what kind of humor are you using? If your tone is dark, is it horror-movie dark or Lifetime-original-movie dark? If it’s chilling, is it rated PG-13 or R? If it’s irreverent, is it only mildly offensive or are people going to burn your book?
  • What is my rhythm/sentence length? Is the majority of your story written in short, punchy sentences, or in long, flowery sentences? Or are they of average length?
  • What is my syntax? Are my sentences simple and straightforward? Are they complex?

If you have trouble answering these questions for your own writing, farm out the chore to a competent reader. Ask a good writer and reader to look at your writing and pass her observations on to you; see how they match up with your own observations. The better you know your tendencies as a writer, the more successfully you will be able to recognize writing of yours that detracts from or weakens your voice, or that stands out by being substantially different.

I’m going to use this same method again next week to expand the discussion to some additional characteristics of voice, such as word choice and descriptive style, so if you have any favorite authors whose voices are especially distinctive because of their word choice or descriptive style, let me know in the comments and I might use them for examples next week. Thanks for reading!

 

How to End Up on a Facebook List

September 16th, 2014 | The Writing Craft, Uncategorized | 1 Comment

brick green no smile b:wIf you use Facebook with any regularity, you’ve seen a number of trends take over your news feed in the past few years. We’ve had “change your profile picture to a picture of your celebrity lookalike” week, “change your status to the fruit that corresponds to your relationship status in a bizarre and completely non-effective attempt to raise awareness for breast cancer” month, and the recent ALS ice bucket challenge during which we all enjoyed the sight of our employers, friends, and celebrity crushes being doused in ice water to raise money for ALS research.

Trending now on Facebook is a status which challenges users to post a list of the 10 most influential books they’ve ever read. Not their favorite books, necessarily, just the first 10 books that come to mind when thinking about the books that shaped their thinking, their attitude toward reading, or their taste in literature. When 130,000 people’s lists were compared and studied, a list of the 20 most frequently listed titles was revealed.

Now, obviously, this isn’t a scientifically perfect list– everyone’s definition of “books that stayed with you” is different– but it’s obvious that the authors who ended up on this list managed to connect with readers in a way that left an impression. As any good writing resource will tell you, there isn’t one way to write a great book (or a memorable one, or a significant one, or… etc.), but as we see from this list, there are factors that several of these influential authors have in common that are worth thinking about if you aspire to join them on this list when this trend resurfaces in 50 years or so.

  • Write more than one book. Almost none of the works in the top 20 titles were the author’s first novel. Jane Austen wrote drafts of Lady Susan, Sense and Sensibility, and Northanger Abbey before Pride and Prejudice was completed, Margaret Mitchell wrote at least three (unpublished) novels before beginning Gone with the Wind, and Suzanne Collins wrote and published an entire separate series before finding insane fame as the author of The Hunger Games. The takeaway here is, if you’ve worked and slaved over your first manuscript for years and still haven’t found huge publishing or sales success, don’t give up on that first work entirely, but for heaven’s sake, start writing something else! Novel-writing is like any other art; the more you do it, the better at it you get.
  • Write the story you want to write. If C. S. Lewis were writing today, he’d probably be told that his Christian themes were too strong for a general market children’s series. Tolkien might have been discouraged from writing fantasy because it’s not currently “trending.” Harper Lee might have been advised to use an adult protagonist if she wanted adults to read her book. If you have a story you want to write, write THAT story without worrying about which box it might or might not fit into. You can let an agent/editor worry about that down the road, but you’ll write a better book if you let the story and not the market drive your writing.
  • Write for children. Of the top 20, seven of the titles that were most often cited as staying with the reader are books which are classified as children’s or young adult. The books a person reads when he is young shape his view of reading, his taste, his worldview, his beliefs, and the likelihood that he will continue to read as an adult. As evidenced by this not-so-scientific list, a book that connects to a young readership will be remembered long after the flavor-of-the-week erotica-disguised-as-romance or suspense thriller on the “adult” bestseller list.
  • Write books that are just fun to read, period. Two words: Harry Potter.

As always, these elements should be taken as more descriptive of influential writing than prescriptive– obviously, if your story is a depression-era family saga, you shouldn’t re-work it to make it “fun to read” (see: “write the story you want to write”), but it’s interesting to look at these titles and see what elements they have in common that you may be able to harness in your own writing.

Have you posted your list of “10 books that have stayed with you?” What titles were on yours that were missed from the “top 100?” Were any of your titles books for children/young adults?

Copying the Masters: Learning from great writers past and present

September 9th, 2014 | Uncategorized | 4 Comments

brick green no smile b:wI’ve always been fascinated with the way artists have learned their various crafts throughout history. In the 1400s, if you wanted to be a sculptor, your family apprenticed you to an artist’s workshop in which you’d learn the skills of that medium as you assisted your master in producing his work– the master’s name was on the end product, but as many as a dozen apprentices and assistants may have helped with/worked on a piece. In the 1600s, artists’ guilds were the training ground of choice for future artists, highly regulated and exclusive organizations which existed to protect the interests and promote the work of their members. In the 1800s, if you wanted to be a painter, the way to get started was to move to Paris, stop eating, and spend your days in the Louvre, copying the works of the old masters as meticulously as possible.

 

Fast-forward to today, where the Internet age has made it much easier for artists of all kinds to access training. Graphic designers can take online classes, musicians can learn to play instruments from YouTube videos, and writers can complete entire MFA programs without ever setting foot in a classroom. While none of this instruction is necessarily less valuable for being accessed remotely, there is something lost when artists learn in a vacuum instead of in community and in close collaboration with (or via exposure to the work of) a “master” of their craft.

 

That’s why writer’s groups, critique partners, and conferences are so important to a developing writer, specifically those in which you have the opportunity to learn from/work alongside with highly skilled and experienced writers in your genre. Just as the Renaissance painters flourished working alongside and under more experienced artists who offered immediate feedback and instruction and correction, so modern writers who seek out partnership or “apprenticeship” with stronger writers tend to become aware of their weaknesses sooner and hone their craft more quickly than a writer whose only feedback comes from a rejection letter when he finally send out the manuscript he worked on in isolation for two years.

 

A question I’m often asked in response to the advice to get involved in a writer’s group/find a writing mentor/etc. is, “What if I can’t find a mentor/group/critique partner,” or “What if I’m the strongest writer in my critique group? Who do I learn from then?” The good news is, there IS a way to learn from the “masters” even if you’re not able to join a writer’s group full of them, and that is to read their work.

 

Seriously. I maintain that the majority of what I learned about writing and storytelling came not from a classroom or a textbook (though I had some great teachers in those areas), but from reading as many books as I could get my hands on from the time I learned how to read. Pacing, climax, subplots, humor, suspense– these are nearly all better learned intuitively from constant exposure to the kinds of authors you aspire to write like than via some formula posted by some agent in her Tuesday blog.

 

Read the works of some of the best writers in your genre as if you were their apprentice; pay attention to their trademarks, to what they do exceptionally well and how they do it, and even try re-writing pages of your manuscript while copying their style/voice as closely as you can, just as an exercise. You might be surprised at what you notice about your own manuscript after spending some time with the “masters” in your genre.

 

What relationships with other writers have been the most helpful to you in honing your craft? Comments are always welcome, and thanks for reading!

Quotations in Writing, or: Unashamedly Exploiting Readers’ Emotional Reactions to Other Books

September 2nd, 2014 | Uncategorized | 3 Comments

brick green no smile b:wI went to the movies over the long weekend (twice, actually) and found myself tearing up over a TRAILER, for goodness sake. Now, it’s fairly easy to make me cry in a movie– I’m a sucker for a good montage underscored by emotive music– but I never cry over a trailer. Well, almost never. One out of four, at the most. Anyway, the guilty trailer this time was for “Interstellar,” and for the first 3/4 of it, I wasn’t really even sure what the movie was about other than a bleak future and Matthew McConaughey as an astronaut, and I definitely didn’t think I was emotionally involved, but THEN Michael Caine started reading Dylan Thomas’ poem “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” in a rich British voice over dramatic shots of peril and an emotive soundtrack and all bets were off. The manipulative folks who put that trailer together were able to tap into the existing emotional ties I have to that piece of poetry and suddenly, I saw their story as ten times more compelling and profound. Well played, trailer-makers.

In the same way, authors who effectively quote or reference other works of literature in their stories are able to draw on my existing set of emotions towards that work and manipulate me (in a good way) into a heightened feeling of connection with a story or camaraderie with the author. Obviously, quoting or referencing a superior piece of work is not going to trick a reader into thinking that a crappy story is actually brilliant or profound (I probably wouldn’t have cried had the Michael Caine voiceover accompanied a compilation of funny cat videos), but when used naturally in an already-strong story, it can be an effective device for creating a deeper bond between your reader and a story/character, or even between your reader and you as the author.

As a reader, I’ve encountered this many times– a rom-com protagonist constantly references Jane Austen, a novelist prefaces his book with a line from Shakespeare, a heroine is inspired to rebel against her ultra-controlling society after being inspired by a line of poetry from a forgotten age, etc. In cases where the writing/story is otherwise bland or forgettable, these literary references or quoted lines merely illuminate the inferiority of the original material by comparison, and though I greet these references fondly in the moment, they don’t draw me into the story any further or make me care any more about the characters. When, however, a reference or quote is paired with excellent writing, or factors largely in the plot or framing of the book, the author reaps the benefit of having all my existing feelings on the referenced work carry over (to some extent) to his writing. The following examples are just off the top of my head, and some aren’t too well known, but the fact that I can remember these and many more from my personal reading speaks volumes on the way a well-placed reference or quote can create a stronger connection with your story or characters on the part of the reader.

  • Criss Cross, by Lynne Rae Perkins. This middle-grade novel opens with the “What thou seest when thou dost wake, do it for thy true love take” line from Midsummer Night’s Dream, and this sets the scene for the achingly lovely and funny coming-of-age stories connecting the various characters in the book.
  • Matched, by Ally Condie. This dystopian YA title takes place in a future in which society has whittled all the creative content in the world down to 100 carefully chosen songs, poems, and stories preserved for people to experience, the idea being that when people have too much content around them, they fail to appreciate any of it– all other stories, poems, and songs have been destroyed and are illegal. When the protagonist’s dying grandfather gives her two illegal poems, the strange new words excite in her both passion and a curiosity about what other beauty has been lost to civilization as a result of the sameness imposed upon it. The two poems, “Crossing the Bar,” by Alfred Lord Tennyson, and the above-mentioned “Do Not Go Gentle,” fuel her growing dissatisfaction with the status quo and give her the courage to stand against her society, and their repeated use serves to link the reader with the unfamiliar environment of the story.
  • Inkheart, by Cornelia Funke. The whole Inkheart series is a valentine to book lovers, taking place in a universe where books quite literally come to life and people actually enter into the world found between the pages of a book. As such, each chapter is prefaced by a themed-to-the-chapter quote from popular books and poetry. Each chapter heading that comes from a familiar book not only serves to set the tone for the chapter to come, but incites in the reader the excitement we feel when we discover that we have a favorite book in common with an acquaintance; a feeling of camaraderie and connection and of being understood which causes the reader to connect even more deeply to the story and the author going forward.

Though by no means a device which fits all books or should be forced in a story in an attempt to forge a connection with a reader, quotations and references to other works can help a reader “make friends” with a story and its author in a lasting way. If you have a poem or book or author you’re particularly passionate about, or which you found yourself drawing on for inspiration while writing a story, consider whether there might be a natural place to let your reader in on that connection through a preface quote or an allusion on the part of a character.

Is Writing Lonely? Nah… (a guest blog)

August 29th, 2014 | Uncategorized | 4 Comments

Writing has the potential to be a lonely endeavor.

Writing well is never, not one time, about going it alone. Writers need people. We have friends who help us brainstorm, listen to our rants about characters with lives of their own, or shake their heads when a plot twist is the most cockamamie idea ever considered. We have family members who endure weird facial expressions and odd body gestures as we attempt to describe the actions of our characters. Many of us have agents, who have assistants, who seek out opportunities, all the while challenging us to dig deeper in our storytelling. If we’re published, we have editors and cover designers and marketers and publishers and… well, you get the point.

Writing is not a solo profession. If you are trying to fly the story-conjuring plane alone, you’re gonna crash and burn. As a Christian writer, I liken this journey to Paul’s analogy of the church as a body. Some are hands, eyes, mouths, feet. He gives every one of his children a talent or job. Ephesians tells us some are apostles or prophets or evangelists. In Romans, we find some have the gift of service or teaching or exhorting. Every book you read, or write, has a body of people who have fashioned its design.

Without my friends to help me brainstorm, my readers might miss out on a terrific idea to improve the plot. Without my family, I might lose hope when the middle muddles together. Without my agent, I might miss a terrific opportunity. Without my editor, my scene might not be clearly written.

You get the point.

If your heart is tugged with the desire to tap fingers to a keyboard but you’re trying to go it alone, stop right now. This very minute. Join a writing group. Go to a conference. Talk to family and friends. Seek out people who will encourage your journey. We’re told in Hebrews to spur one another on toward love and good deeds. You need others.

Writing has the potential to encourage bonds of friendship you’d never dreamt possible.

Jen

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Jennifer Collins Johnson has written nineteen Heartsong Presents novels, plus another novel, a novella, and multiple short stories for various publishers. Her most recent novel, Arizona Cowboy, releases September 1. She’s married to her high school sweetheart, and together they’ve raised three of the coolest daughters on the planet. Even added a pretty nifty son-in-law to the crew. She’s a member of American Christian Fiction Writers and has the best group of brainstorming buddies ever. Check out her website at www.jennifercollinsjohnson.com. You can reach her at jenwrites4god@bellsouth.net.

Writing Effective Dialogue: Part 6, Accents and Dialect

August 20th, 2014 | The Writing Craft, Uncategorized | 5 Comments

brick green no smile b:wToday’s post is dedicated to Lois Gladys Leppard, author of the Mandie books. If you weren’t a preteen girl in the 90s, you may not be familiar with the Mandie books, but they were a middle-grade series set at the turn of the century about a teenage girl living in North Carolina, and their chief charm, if I remember correctly, was that Mandie was rich and there were a lot of descriptions of her dresses. Yeah, they weren’t the deepest literature, but I DEVOURED them as an 8-or-9-year-old. Twenty years later, I couldn’t tell you much about what happened in the series (other than what her dress looked like for President McKinley’s inaugural ball), but one thing about the writing has stuck with me all this time.

 

The series is set in North Carolina, and various characters (the servants, in particular) were written as speaking with a strong southern accent. The way you knew they spoke with a strong southern accent was that practically EVERY line of dialogue spoken by those characters had the accent written into it phonetically, to the point that you sometimes had to sound it out to figure out what Liza was saying. “Yous sho’ did, Missy Manda! Now don’t yous go gittin’ that dirty, you heah?” This is a made-up line, but it’s representative of the way the “strong southern accent” was written into the dialogue. Did it clearly communicate the speech patterns/pronunciation of those characters? Mmmmyes, but was it also distracting and clunky? Also yes. I’m probably remembering the extreme examples, but the point is, if that method of conveying an accent/regional speech style was conspicuous enough that I picked up on it as a 9-year-old and remember it 20 years later, it was probably a bit overdone.

 

Now, Ms. Leppard is off the hook, both because in writing for children she probably felt she needed to be a bit more obvious than if she were writing for adults who had a better idea what a southern accent sounded like, and because Mandie’s clothes were pretty, but I’ve read too many manuscripts were the author didn’t have Ms. Leppard’s excuses and in which an overdone dialect or written-in accent completely overpowered what was actually being said in the dialogue. An author can convey a character’s style of speaking or an accent without using every cliche specific to that regional dialect or writing out every word phonetically by keeping the following guidelines in mind:

 

  • Use phonetic spellings sparingly. Ending just the occasional “-ing” word with an apostrophe will suffice to put that “darlin'” southern drawl in a reader’s ear, and will ensure that the reader does most of the work of “translating” that character’s speech into the right voice and accent.
  • Use regional vocabulary sparingly. There’s a big difference between how a British person actually talks and the American idea of how we THINK he talks– I once read a manuscript in which the dreamy main character from England spoke like the Monty Python caricature version of a British aristocrat– “What ho,” “right-o,” “spiffing,” and “cheerio” were sprinkled liberally through his dialogue, and made it impossible to take him seriously as a romantic lead. Don’t write in cliches; do your research, listen to or watch as much dialogue spoken by actual Irish or South African or Bostonian or New Jersey speakers as you can, and then let a few well-placed terms or words set the tone for the majority of the dialogue.
  • Describe a speaker’s style of speaking. Though it’s certainly possible to overdo this one, it’s perfectly legitimate to describe a speaker’s voice or style of speaking a little when he or she is first introduced. If you tell the reader that a character spoke “with a curious lilt to some of her words, and he remembered that she had lived the first half of her life in Ireland,” it lets the reader fill in this blank for himself without your messing with the spelling of any dialogue or throwing in conspicuous Irish slang just to make sure they know that this character’s speech sounds a little different.

 

If you’ve written a character who speaks with an accent or in a regional dialect, make a point of asking your beta readers how well you conveyed that style of speaking, and whether they were ever distracted by phonetic spelling or obviously regional slang. And if you write for children, I hope your work will be enjoyed half as much as I enjoyed reading those Mandie books from 1992-1994, overdone accents notwithstanding. Thanks, Lois Gladys, for inspiring today’s post, and for being my first “favorite author.”

 

I think this will be the last post in my series on dialogue; if you have any lingering questions or issues you wish I’d address, please leave a comment and let me know– I’m happy to extend my farewell tour if it turns out there’s more to say on the subject. Thanks for reading!

Writing Effective Dialogue: Part 5, Character Voice

August 12th, 2014 | The Writing Craft, Uncategorized | 2 Comments

brick green no smile b:wI did a lot of theater in high school and college, and still act in local productions from time to time– I know some people would rather lick a battery than perform onstage, but I think it’s some of the most fun there is to put on a costume and pretend to be someone and somewhere else for a couple hours, and theater is one of the few socially acceptable ways to do this as an adult. Having spent so much time performing and teaching theater, I’ve played (or been forced to play) some pretty dumb games in the name of “character development,” many of which, I’m convinced, existed for no other purpose than to entertain the teacher who, bitter that his own acting career didn’t pan out, derived all his joy in life from watching teenagers pretend to be earthworms and vending machines. A couple of those theater exercises, however, bore a remarkable similarity to the kind of brainstorming that authors can do to fully flesh out their characters, and a fully fleshed-out character is going to have a more distinct voice on the page, and, by extension, will “speak” more compelling dialogue.

One of the theater exercises we’d do during high school was to interview each other in character using a list of biographical questions designed to make the interviewee put some thought into her character’s history and life. Answering these questions for your characters forces you to think about your character as a 3-dimensional person with a past instead of just a puppet in the scene you’re currently writing, and a 3-dimensional character is always going to have something more interesting to say than a puppet.

Consider answering the following questions for each of your main characters. You might be surprised how giving some thought to seemingly trivial information about a character’s past, even information that may never come to light in the novel, informs the way their dialogue develops.

Character Interview Reference Sheet

Name?
Age? This will inform the kind of slang the character uses, the references he makes, how he interacts with other characters of various ages, etc.
Where was he born? Where did he grow up? This information can help determine if a character speaks with any kind of an accent, what regional vocabulary he uses, what weather/landscape he grew up with and how he reacts to his current location, etc.
Where is he living now? Does he fit in with his current location, or is he a fish out of water? How does the way he speaks differ from the people around him? Does his vocabulary differ? (e.g., he says “soda,” everyone else says “pop.”)
Family? Did he grow up with educated parents? Brothers who taught him to cuss? Grandparents who spoke with an accent? Who taught him to talk and what kinds of habits might he have picked up from them?
Education? High school? College? Law school? A character’s education influences his vocabulary, his syntax, the references he makes, the references which go over his head, etc.
Economic status?
Religion? Might affect how a character speaks when he’s angry, how much he curses, how he responds to certain situations or topics of conversation.
What’s he passionate about/bored by? What topics will he turn to when making dinner conversation on a first date? Which subject will make him roll his eyes when his father-in-law broaches it? What is he excited to talk about? What conversation topics bore him to tears?

There is no minimum and no limit to the questions you can ask yourself about your characters. The point of this exercise isn’t to give you busywork or yet another way to procrastinate, and SHOULDN’T be used as a quick-reference sheet for creating cliche dialogue (e.g., “Let’s see, this character is from Georgia? I’ll make him talk like Foghorn Leghorn!”), but the better you know your characters, the more convincingly you can put their voices on the page (or stage).

Writing Effective Dialogue: Part 4, Punctuating Dialogue

August 6th, 2014 | The Writing Craft, Uncategorized | 4 Comments

brick green no smile b:wIf you’re new to the blog, you may have missed my previous scintillating posts on writing effective dialogue. Today’s topic is slightly less scintillating but just as important to creating readable dialogue which draws the reader into the story rather than pushing him away.

I’ve gotten a lot of feedback from authors who say their biggest struggle in writing dialogue is punctuating it correctly, and I’ve read too many manuscripts where the author’s incorrect punctuation and/or indentation distracted me from the actual content of the dialogue.  The good news is that the majority of dialogue punctuation rules are very straightforward and easy to apply, so punctuating your dialogue doesn’t have to feel like some mystical roll of the dice if you take some time to familiarize yourself with the rules and practice using them. Here are some basic rules to remember when punctuating dialogue:

  • Always put periods and commas INSIDE quotation marks. It doesn’t matter if the quotation marks are single or double, whether the quotation marks are setting off dialogue, quoted material, or the title of a work; periods and commas go inside the quotation marks.
    “I love chimpanzees,” she said. “I’m also afraid of them.”
    Caesar looked around at the trees, and then back at Will. “Caesar is home.”
    “Take your stinking paws off me, you damned dirty ape,” he said angrily. (I watched “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” this weekend, in case you were wondering.)
  • Put colons and semicolons OUTSIDE quotation marks. These aren’t used as frequently in dialogue as other punctuation, but if you have occasion to use them, always put them outside quotation marks.
    Shakespeare said, “All the world’s a stage”; if that’s the case, we’re in desperate need of a stage manager.
  • Put exclamation points and question marks INSIDE quotation marks when they apply to a line of dialogue and OUTSIDE quotation marks when they apply to a sentence as a whole.
    “Why didn’t you write to me?” she asked.
    “Because I hate you!” he responded.
    How does it make you feel when you hear him say “I hate you”? –As it’s written now, the writer ends the sentence by quoting a non-question, but is asking a question with the whole sentence, so the question mark is placed outside the quotation marks so we know the speaker is asking a question. If the question mark appeared inside the quotation marks, it would change the meaning of the “I hate you” comment– “I hate you?” is not a declaration of hate, but a request for confirmation of information/an expression of incredulity.
  • Use single quotation marks to set off a quotation within a quotation or line of dialogue. A quote within a line of dialogue needs to be set off at beginning and end (don’t forget to close it!) with single quotation marks, and the rules for end punctuation are the same for these internal quotes.
    “You said, and I quote, ‘Be ready at seven-thirty.’ It’s seven-thirty. I’m ready,” she said, glaring at her mother.
    “How does it make you feel when you hear him say “I hate you’?” asked Dr. Harper. –the sentence from the above example was turned into a line of dialogue by enclosing it in quotation marks and adding attribution, so now the speaker is quoting someone else within his speech and that quote needs to be set off by single quotation marks. The line of dialogue as a whole, however, is still a question that Dr. Harper is asking, so the question mark appears outside the single marks around the quoted material, but inside the double marks around Dr. Harper’s words, per the rule above.

And always remember to begin (and indent) a new paragraph to indicate a change in speaker.

Of course, you’ll always come across sentences which are more difficult to know how to punctuate correctly, whether because the syntax is a bit more complex or because the setting affects the delivery of the dialogue (e.g., a scene where a character is reading from a letter or a newspaper), but in general, knowing these rules will let you write and punctuate your dialogue with confidence.

If you’re feeling confident and want to try out your quotation-mark skills, try this quiz hosted by Capital Community College’s grammar help page for some practice in using these basic rules. Feel free to brag about your awesome score in the comments, or to publicly admit your shortcomings– we’ll try not to judge you. If you’ve run into one of those tricky punctuation situations not covered by these rules in your own writing, post it and I’ll see if I can offer any clarity– if I can’t, I’ll just sit here quietly until another reader more knowledgeable than I pipes in with the answer, and then I’ll nod wisely and agree. As always, thanks for reading!

Writing Effective Dialogue: Part 3, Realistic vs. Natural Dialogue

July 29th, 2014 | The Writing Craft, Uncategorized | 1 Comment

brick green no smile b:wToday, I’m continuing my ongoing conversation on dialogue and discussing the difference between realistic and natural dialogue and the way each can strengthen or sabotage a story.

Realistic dialogue is conversation that occurs exactly the way people talk in real life, complete with hems and haws, boring filler/minutiae, mundane back-and-forth, sound effects,  etc. The small talk and discussions over where to go for dinner that really do populate our everyday conversations usually serve next-to-no purpose in fiction, unless your purpose is to put your reader in “skim” mode for the rest of the book. I read all too many manuscripts where the author seems to have painstakingly transcribed real-life conversations directly onto the page in places where I have no need (or desire) to hear them. The pleasant small-talk at the beginning and end of a phone conversation, the back-and-forth between a husband and wife over breakfast, the dialogue with a waitress at a restaurant– these are all exchanges of dialogue that happen on a daily basis, but who wants to open a rom-com novel, get to the big date, and have to sit through the waitress listing the specials? Those exchanges don’t drive the story, and they usually slow it down. Unless an exchange like this reveals something important about a character– the main character’s date is incredibly rude to the waitress, or he orders four rare steaks and that’s when she first suspects he’s a werewolf, etc.– this sort of dialogue can be culled from a story and will never be missed.

Also falling into the realistic-dialogue category is dialogue punctuated with sound effects/hems and haws. The only thing more awkward than a character running into an ex while on a date with someone new is having to read their conversation in which every line starts with “uh” or “er.” You can communicate that a character is uncomfortable much more effectively (and cleanly) by telling the reader that he is fidgeting or won’t make eye contact, or that he keeps clearing his throat, or even by using one of those “said” alternatives like “stammered.” (Note: I said ONE! See my post on attribution. One is enough to set the tone for the whole exchange, especially when coupled with some description of the character’s physical demeanor. Don’t go crazy.) Don’t spend a lot of time trying to describe noises, either– while you may feel that it’s vitally important that your reader know that your main character said “Yeeeeek!” when she saw a spider, or that he hollered “RRRRGGGH” when he got shot in the leg, these “sound effects” generally come across as obnoxious and ineffective in actually conveying the fear or pain felt by these characters in those moments. Your story is better served by telling the reader that “a scream from the living room brought Ted running. Chrissy was standing on the coffee table pointing at the floor with a shaking finger,” or that “a growl of pain escaped from between his clenched teeth as she pried the bullet out of his leg”  than by including the scream or the growl as an actual line of dialogue. Let the reader’s imagination do the work of creating the sound effects rather than attempting “realistic” exclamations.

Once you’ve weeded the “realistic” dialogue from your manuscript, turn your efforts to writing natural dialogue instead. Natural dialogue has to do with a line of dialogue’s believability– are characters speaking in a way that’s believable for the time period, their age, their education, and their personalities? I’ve read a lot of dialogue supposedly spoken by modern teenagers which contained really archaic phrases or slang, and seen quite a few modern characters whose syntax was extremely formal; in both cases, the dialogue strikes me as unnatural because it isn’t believable that these characters would speak this way. If there’s a reason a character speaks a certain way– the teenage character is obsessed with 80s movies and that’s why he uses 80s slang, the main character has an IQ of 270 and his formal syntax is an illustration of how his extreme intelligence alienates him from his peers, etc.– make sure it’s clear to the reader, and keep in mind that even if you have a good reason for it, unnatural dialogue can still distance the reader from a story or character simply because the reader finds it distracting or difficult to connect with, so you may want to use it sparingly.

Natural dialogue also has to do with whether you’re allowing dialogue to occur in places and on topics where it makes sense or whether you’re forcing a conversation/monologue in order to divulge information to the reader. There’s a great scene in The Great Muppet Caper where Diana Rigg as Lady Holiday tells the receptionist (Miss Piggy) that she’ll be lunching with her brother Nicky. What could have been a single, naturally-occurring line about where she’ll be during the lunch hour segues into a monologue about how her brother is an “irresponsible parasite who squandered his half of the inheritance and has categorically no prospects– not that he’s grateful, he still gambles, incurs bad debts, uses my charge accounts, eats my food, and borrows my cars without asking permission. And certainly he’s not to be trusted– I wouldn’t even put it past him to try to steal my most valuable and largest jewel, the fabulous baseball diamond… Still and all, he is my brother.” Miss Piggy, the total stranger to whom Lady Holiday just poured all this out, understandably asks, “Why are you telling me all this?” To which Lady Holiday shrugs and replies, “It’s plot exposition. It has to go somewhere.” Don’t make your characters be Lady Holiday. If it doesn’t make sense for characters to be conversing about a certain topic, find another place for your plot exposition.

I’m getting to the end of my series on dialogue– if there are any problem areas or questions about writing effective dialogue you’d like to see discussed before I end the series, let me know in the comments. Thanks for reading!

Writing Effective Dialogue: Unnecessary Quotation Marks

July 22nd, 2014 | Uncategorized | 1 Comment

brick green no smile b:wI’m traveling today, so I’m postponing part three in my dialogue series for next week. I’ll probably talk more about correct use of quotation marks at some point in the future, but today I wanted to quickly warn you once and for all against using quotation marks for “emphasis.” You’ve all seen it on signage, a use of quotation marks that makes you “strongly” question the author’s “meaning.” If you don’t know what I mean, take a look at this fine collection of examples, courtesy of Distractify.

 

What’s the worst example of misused quotation marks you’ve seen?