Archives For On Writing

Readers AskQUESTION: What’s the problem with opening a novel with dialogue?

Answer: I prefer not to open with dialogue, but there are writers who do it successfully. Most people are familiar with Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White (you know, the White who coauthored The Elements of Style, Fourth Edition with Strunk). The first line of White’s famous book is etched in my memory:

“Where’s Papa going with that axe?” said Fern.

In the case of Charlotte’s Web, the opening draws the reader into the story, right into the middle of some exciting conflict. However, it’s risky to open with dialogue when the reader has no context for what is taking place. Similarly, it’s chancy to open with a character’s thoughts (interior monologue).

If an opening makes a reader feel disoriented, (s)he might not continue reading. Although some authors get away with opening a novel with dialogue, it’s better to introduce the characters and setting first. If a character speaks before a reader knows anything about the character, the reader may form an image that is different than the author’s. Then, as more details about the character come to light, it could be quite jarring to the reader if he is forced to change his mental image of that character. Some readers even create voices in their heads when they read dialogue. Imagine a reader’s frustration if he has to recreate a character’s voice.

There’s nothing like a real-life example. Suppose for a moment that you’re a single woman at a party. Some guy you’ve never met walks up to you and says, “Let’s get out of here.” That line will certainly get your attention but maybe not in a good way. Now consider the same scenario, except that a friend introduces that guy as the Chief of Neurosurgery at a well-known hospital before he tries to whisk you away. Maybe you still wouldn’t want to leave with him, but you might decide to steer him to the punch bowl. Dialogue means nothing without proper context.

Until next time,

Write something you love! — Joanne

WriteSomethingYouLove.com

THATMany writers wonder when the word that should be used and when it should be omitted. Because the word that can function in so many ways, the answer isn’t simple.  When in doubt, opt for clarity. Here are some of the ways the word that may be used:

  • As an adverb. (Sam didn’t understand how she could be that disagreeable.)
  • As a demonstrative pronoun. (That is our sailboat.)
  • As a complementizer. (I heard that he was a philanderer.) A complementizer is a conjunction which marks a complement clause.
  • As a relative pronoun. (The casserole that she brought was delicious.)

Sometimes in the latter two cases, the word that can be omitted. However, clarity always trumps reducing word count.

Use That With Thinking Verbs

When using “thinking” verbs (believe, consider, decide, imagine, know, realize, recognize, wonder, etc.), the word that is often retained for clarity. Consider the following sentence:

She believed her professor, who was older than her father, was trying to seduce her.

The sentence above is confusing as written, because at first glance, the reader assumes the professor is a good guy. When the reader gets to the end of the sentence, he realizes this isn’t the case. Use this version of the sentence for clarity:

She believed that her professor, who was older than her father, was trying to seduce her.

Use That to Retain Parallelism

It’s important to keep the use of that consistent within a sentence. Consider this sentence:

He insists the allegations are false and that he’s planning on calling his attorney.

In order to retain parallelism, it’s better to write the sentence above like this:

He insists that the allegations are false and that he’s planning on calling his attorney.

Clarity and brevity are both necessary qualities of fine writing; however, clarity is king. Never sacrifice clarity for brevity.  Savvy writers won’t remove that if it makes a sentence flow better, either. Writers must use good judgement.

QUIZ

In each example, determine whether that is needed. (Answers follow.)

  1. Susan said (that) she was sleepy.
  2. The teacher announced (that) her new homework policy would be in place soon.
  3. The store manager announced December 1 (that) the store would be closing.
  4.  She believed (that) her husband, who was always late getting home, was having an affair.
  5.  She insists (that) there is a squirrel in her attic and that she’s calling an exterminator.

 

Answers:

  1. It’s fine to omit that for brevity here.
  2. Keep that here. Without it, the reader might think (momentarily) that the new homework policy has already been put forth.
  3. Keep that here.  Without it, the reader wouldn’t know whether the announcement was made on December 1 or if the store would be closing on December 1.
  4. Keep that here. Readers shouldn’t think for a second that she believed her husband.
  5. Keep that here to keep the sentence parallel.

 

Until next time,

Write something you love! — Joanne

WriteSomethingYouLove.com

Readers AskQUESTION: Popular writer, Mr. [Name Removed], insists that fiction writers should never use semicolons. What’s wrong with using semicolons?

ANSWER: Semicolons in fiction aren’t taboo. The idea of banning a punctuation mark in fiction is patently ridiculous. Ask popular fiction writer Jojo Moyes. The first line of her book Still Me contains a semicolon (and lots of other punctuation marks):

It was the mustache that reminded me I was no longer in England: a solid, grey millipede firmly obscuring the man’s upper lip; a Village People mustache, a cowboy mustache, the miniature head of a broom that meant business.

Jojo Moyes isn’t the only great writer to use semicolons, and no competent writer should eliminate them. To tell a writer not to use a semicolon would be  like telling a painter not to use the color blue. Semicolons are an integral part of a writer’s toolbox. While some writing teachers advise beginning writers not to use semicolons, this advice does not apply to seasoned writers. A wise mother would not give a toddler a serrated knife, but that doesn’t mean she would carve a steak with a table knife. Semicolons should never be used randomly; however, there are times when only a semicolon will do.

Just as great musicians realize that people have eyes as well as ears and often choreograph their performances, great writers know that writing is more than printed words on a page. Because I have a musical background, I like to think about the way words sound when I read them aloud. So much meaning can be conveyed with punctuation. In music, a composer has to have a way to tell the musician how quickly a particular passage should be played, from Larghissimo (very, very slow) to Prestissimo (200 bpm and over). There are also ways for a composer to tell musicians to hold a certain note a little longer. Likewise, writers have different ways of punctuating sentences to control the flow.

In Keys to Great Writing: Mastering the Elements of Composition and Revision, Stephen Wilbers writes:

It [the semicolon] creates a pause shorter than the period, slightly shorter than the colon, and longer than the comma. To eliminate it entirely from your repertoire is to limit your range as a writer.

A semicolon is used to join to phrases in a way that suggests a connection. For example, consider the following:

Owning a violin is one thing; playing it is another.

“You teach yourselves the law, but I train your minds. You come in here with a skull full of mush; you leave thinking like a lawyer.” — Charles W. Kingsfield Jr., The Paper Chase

“Every person in this house almost flunked out of law school in their first year. It’s not hard to see why; they had broads on the brain.” — William Moss, Tutor, The Paper Chase

In each of the examples above, the independent clause immediately following each semicolon is related to the independent clause preceding the semicolon. The semicolon separates, but it still implies a link.

Look again at the first example:

Owning a violin is one thing; playing it is another.

Now look at some other ways to punctuate the same example:

Owning a violin is one thing, but playing it is another.

Owning a violin is one thing. Playing it is another.

Owning a violin is one thing—playing it is another.

Punctuation allows experienced writers to control the cadence and flow of their writing. Eliminating semicolons would prevent writers from having a full artistic range of expression. Remember the snippet of dialogue from the movie Amadeus:

Emperor Joseph II: My dear young man, don’t take it too hard. Your work is ingenious. It’s quality work. And there are simply too many notes, that’s all. Just cut a few and it will be perfect.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Which few did you have in mind, Majesty?

The thought of removing notes from Mozart’s compositions would make any musician cringe—just as I’d cringe if Jojo Moyes removed the semicolon from the opening line of her book Still Me.

There are no absolutes in writing. As Annie Proulx, who once won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, said:

You should write because you love the shape of stories and sentences and the creation of different words on a page. Writing comes from reading, and reading is the finest teacher of how to write.

Until next time,

Write something you love! — Joanne

WriteSomethingYouLove.com

Chekov quoteMany new writers don’t understand the difference between “showing” and “telling” in fiction writing. “Telling” is done using narration, and “showing” is accomplished through action and dialogue. The best way to teach this concept is through the use of a few simple examples.

Telling:

Mary was melodramatic.

Showing:

After the fight with her boyfriend, Mary stood in front of her bedroom mirror and watched herself cry.

Telling:

David was angry at Mary.

Showing:

David tore Mary’s picture in half and threw it in the trashcan.

Telling:

David had no idea Mary was so freethinking.

Showing:

David looked up on stage at The Pussycat nightclub and saw Mary swinging from a pole. Topless.

Telling:

David was a slob, but he cleaned up nicely.

Showing:

David stepped out of the shower.

Mary sniffed his wet neck. “Behold the power of a bath!”

It’s clear from the examples above that “showing” provides a more intimate experience for the reader. Instead of the author making a judgmental statement through narration, the reader is invited to observe and draw his own conclusions.

There are times when it may be more appropriate to “tell” rather than “show.” Experienced writers use “telling” when a character needs to recount story events already known by the reader. There is never a reason to bore the reader by rehashing old information. Summarize instead.

Example:

David told his friends what happened at the nightclub.

“Telling” is more expedient. It’s not practical to “show” everything unless you want to write a book with a word count that rivals Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. Skillful writers use a combination of “showing” and “telling” in their writing.

Until next time,

Write something you love! — Joanne

WriteSomethingYouLove.com

readers-ask

QUESTION: What is “on the nose” dialogue?

ANSWER: When a character says exactly what he thinks or feels, writers refer to this as “on the nose” dialogue. Inexperienced writers tend to use this kind of dialogue exclusively. Skillful writers aim to use dialogue with subtext. Dialogue with subtext reveals a character’s thoughts in more subtle ways.

Most writers are familiar with Vito Corleone’s famous line from The Godfather: “I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse.” Corleone says this line when Johnny Fontane (his godson) laments that a movie director, Mr. Woltz,  won’t give him the lead role in a Hollywood movie. Suppose that instead of the famous “make him an offer he can’t refuse” line, Vito Corleone had said:

Perhaps if Woltz wakes up with the bloody head of his expensive horse next to him, he’ll change his mind!

The example above demonstrates “on the nose” dialogue. The line doesn’t leave anything to the imagination. Few people wouldn’t agree that the original line is better, because it doesn’t specify how the powerful Vito Corleone will deal with Woltz.  The viewer can surmise that Mr. Woltz is in big trouble.

Is it ever reasonable to use “on the nose” dialogue?  In truth, not every line needs to be filled with subtext. Recall this dialogue from the movie Taken that Bryan Mills says  to Marko while preparing him for torture:

You know, we used to outsource this kind of thing. But what we found was the countries we outsourced to had unreliable power grids. Very Third World. You’d turn on a switch – power wouldn’t come on, and then tempers would get short. People would resort to pulling fingernails. Acid drips on bare skin. The whole exercise would become counterproductive. But here, the power’s stable. Here, there’s a nice even flow. Here, you can flip a switch and the power stays on all day.

In the dialogue above, Bryan doesn’t leave anything to the imagination about his experience in using torture to get information, but in this case, the dialogue works beautifully. Imagine if Bryan had said this instead:

I have ways of getting people to tell me what I want to know.

Doesn’t the original dialogue seem more effective at awakening a sense of dread? Writers must develop judgement about when and how to engage viewers/readers by weaving subtext into the dialogue to subtly reveal a character’s emotions (i.e. anger, jealousy, desire). Good writers avoid “on the nose” dialogue to state the obvious.

Until next time,

Write something you love! — Joanne

WriteSomethingYouLove.com