Derek Haines at Just Publishing Advice says you CAN use dialogue tags besides “said.” I’d personally be really careful, and for goodness sakes, be sparing. But this is a great list to have in your toolkit. Let me know what you think!
One of my favorite posts—hope it helps with one of writing’s toughest little questions: When should you use a comma?
Commas are among my favorite tools for building meaning. Used intelligently, commas are wonderful signposts that tell readers which part of a sentence they’ve stumbled into—and then help them make their way out again. I like commas so much I’ve written multiple posts about them.
If comma rules confuse you, take heart! If improving reader comprehension is your goal, there are really only a few “rules” to remember:
Rule 1: After introductory elements.
This is the one most people seem to know about. But I argue that commas are really only necessary when the introductory element gets long enough that readers may miss the lane change back into the main part of the sentence.
After a moment he left the room. (No comma needed unless you want to emphasize a pause.)
After he spent an extended vacation in a remote village in the Alps, where did he go next? (The comma lets readers know that “where” begins a new clause.)
Rule 2: Around or after “interrupters,” including non-essential modifiers (this is a rule, not an option).
I think this one is the most confusing for many writers.
Short interrupters can be easy to spot:
Jane, however, did not go with him to the Alps.
However, Jane did not go.
Non-essential modifiers are elements that can be lifted out of the sentence without compromising its meaning or purpose.
The old car, which was a lot like the one my grandfather used to drive, had been repainted bright blue.
The information about grandad’s car is incidental to the meaning of the sentence, which is that the car is now bright blue. Lift it out and only this incidental information is lost. The rule here, and it IS a rule, is TWO COMMAS, not just the first one. You need that second comma to signal the return to the main clause.
Contrast the example above with this example of an essential modifier, one that can’t be lifted out without eliminating the point of the sentence:
The car that gives you the most mileage is the one you should buy.
Without the modifier, we have:
The car is the one you should buy.
Since the point of the sentence is to say which car, the modifier is essential to the meaning.
NO COMMAS around essential modifiers! They are integral to the sentence, not “interrupters.”
Sometimes confusion about what constitutes an essential or non-essential modifier can turn a sentence into nonsense. I often see commas inserted into constructions like this.
Author Stephen King wrote a lot of books.
Note: no commas. Now try it without the essential modifier, in this case an appositive:
Author wrote a lot of books.
The trick: try taking out the modifying clause and see what remains.
Rule 3: Direct address (this is also a rule, not an option):
Hi, Mr. Smith.
Did you buy bread at the store, Louise?
Louise, did you buy the bread?
Well, Mr. Smith, I guess we won’t be having any bread today.
Rule 4: Before “and,” “but,” etc., if you have more than two items. (This is the infamous Oxford or serial comma.) The elements of the “serial” or list can be words, phrases, or whole sentences.
Louise forgot the bread, cheese, and fruit; she did remember the wine, beer, and vodka.
My worries about her diet involved her lack of protein, her lack of vegetables, and her preference for liquid components.
If you have only two items linked by “and” or “but,” you have a compound and don’t need a comma, as in this sentence, which contains a compound predicate for the pronoun “you.” I’ve underlined the two components (and note the comma after the introductory clause).
Rule 5: Before the “and” or “but” if you’re joining two complete sentences.
I’d argue this is a judgment call, but this sentence illustrates how judicious use of a comma in a compound sentence like this one can tell readers which part of the sentence they’ve ventured into.
That’s five “rules” to absorb—not really so many. Rule Number Six: if one of those five rules doesn’t apply, DON’T INSERT A COMMA. No commas between subjects and their verbs, no commas after “and” or “but,” and so forth. List the five rules and check your questionable comma to see whether one of these applies*:
*There are some “conventional” rules for commas that don’t really affect readers’ comprehension, such as the comma that should follow the name of a state (“Austin, Texas, was his home.”) or the ones before and after the year in dates. Any handbook will answer your questions about those minor comma uses.
**There are actually several coordinating conjunctions in addition to “and” and “but,” and the rule applies to them as well, but I didn’t want to muddy the waters too much. The other coordinating conjunctions you’re likely to use include “for,” “nor,” “or,” “yet,” and “so.”
I do get so tired of “absolute” rules. Don’t do this, never do that, Stephen King said blah blah blah and therefore it’s sacrosanct. Chuck Wendig nails it with this rant—okay, gentle disquisition—on the “sacred cows” of writing advice.
I was scrolling around today and found some good cautions for us all about creating realistic story lines in our fiction. I especially like the first warning: Stop having characters read each other’s minds by looking into their eyes!
It has often occurred to me that it’s not “the eyes” that carry emotion anyway. It’s the facial muscles around and below the eyes that make them cruel or sad or joyous. So note to self: be careful about using this trope.
Today, though, I especially want to pick up on the point that it’s okay if characters can’t always tell exactly what the other person is thinking.
I’ve scoured the remains of my film-writing library (used only for one intense period in my writing life) looking for the book that introduced me to this terminology. You won’t find this phrase with search terms, which return sites about films without dialogue. In contrast, in “‘No’ Dialogue” one character refuses to give the other what he or she wants without ever quite saying so.
The technique delivers “subtext,” what’s really going on below the surface, without the characters having to stop the story to explain. At the same time, it builds tension, as the main character cannot get what he or she wants. Here are a few lines from that wonderful scene between Bud White and Lynn Bracken in L. A. Confidential (warning: I’ve ** the bad words, but you’ll still know what they are):
Miss Bracken, don’t ever try to f**king bribe me or threaten me or I’ll have you and Patchett in s**t up to your ears.
I remember you from Christmas Eve. You have a thing for helping women, don’t you, Officer White?
Maybe I’m just f**king curious.
You say “f**k” a lot.
You f**k for money.
There’s blood on your shirt. Is that an integral part of your job?
Do you enjoy it?
When they deserve it.
Did they deserve it today?
Last night. And I’m not sure.
But you did it anyway.
Yeah, just like the half dozen guys you screwed today.
Actually, it was two.
Dialogue like this is a verbal contest—instant conflict—in which each character refuses to acknowledge what is actually being asked, which is “What kind of person are you?” because answering that question would set in motion a terrifying commitment. Yet we know from their refusals to state the obvious what it is that bothers them about themselves, what they’re struggling with behind the repartee, what they’re trying to deny.
In only one place in this exchange does Bud answer the question Lynn actually asks: “Did they deserve it today?” And when Bud finally answers, his tough-guy façade slips. “I’m not sure.” That uncertainty has been there all along, as she throws him off balance and disrupts his self-image. When his doubt emerges, it’s a surrender he didn’t plan and a giveaway to what lies ahead.
And note that we get this many-layered interaction between two people searching for the possibility of something more than what lies before them without a single reference to the look in their eyes.
Although many writing coaches don’t use the term”‘No’ Dialogue,” several suggest ways of incorporating this technique into your stories.
In my own case, when I’ve felt that a scene has really delivered at least some of the impact I hoped for, I’ve looked back to see that “‘No’ Dialogue” has played a role in that success.
Writers in the Storm often supply good lessons. This is a particularly cogent first-page critique that takes aim at some my worst foibles: too many metaphors, authorial intrusions, details readers don’t need, details they do need–what about you? How would you rate this first page?
Via Jane Friedman and Dave Chesson at Kindlepreneur, I came across this delightful exercise from The New Yorker. Dave had reviewed four top “editing” programs, Grammarly, Ginger, Hemingway, and ProWritingAid. He linked to an article in which writer Ian Crouch takes Hemingway the App on a spin in Hemingway’s actual prose.
You probably know somebody who claims to write like Hemingway (I do). Or who claims to want to write like Hemingway (I sometimes do). So it’s interesting to see that Ernest’s scores vary from a bad, bad 15 to an excellent 4—which means a fourth-grader could understand it— depending on which text you choose. Crouch’s analysis of a passage from The Sun Also Rises also shows how sometimes it’s the broken rules that make a passage work.
Hemingway the App has a free online editor you can play with. I thought that would be fun as well. In general, I find these editing apps annoying, not least because they miss some really basic stuff. For example, in the first page of my novel Blood Lies, published by Bantam/Doubleday way back when and republished by me online, the sentence that is tagged as VERY HARD TO READ (bad, bad, really bad) is actually two sentences connected with a semicolon. Yes, I know some people think there’s a rule: no semicolons. I’m not there yet.
On the other hand, I do find that much of my line editing involves simplifying those sentences that rolled so sonorously through my head when I wrote them. I find that I’ve become more skilled at hearing the ones that need a weed trimmer taken to them. The trick is to give yourself some distance from your prose and come back to it with a stranger’s ear, as much as possible.
In any case, here’s my annotated page with the Hemingway comments. They gave me a Readability grade of 3, only “good.” Crouch says, “The app suggests that anything under Grade 10 is a sign of ‘bold, clear writing.'” Maybe my writing is too simple! See what you think.
red—adverbs (I am supposed to cut one);
yellowish—my 4/51 “hard to read” sentences;
green—passive voice (they say I’m okay with only 3, but I take exception to “was scorched’; “scorched” is a predicate adjective in this construction;
purple—my VERY BAD HARD TO READ sentence. But I had only 1.