Bookism: The Silent Threat to Good Writing

When creating fiction, writers will inevitable have to learn how to write dialogue. I have never read a novel without it though I suppose one exists somewhere out there. One vital key to good dialogue is attributing the spoken words to the proper character, so readers instantly know who is saying them.

We do this by using dialogue tags: “The last time I heard this song by Charlie Rich,” Liam said, “you were young, adventurous and in love with me.”

The words Liam said is a direct dialogue tag. It tells the reader without fuss or doubt that Liam said those words inside those quotation marks.

Another method of informing readers of who said what is through an action by the character. This is technically not called a dialogue tag, but it does the same job.

For example: “This was my favourite show when I was a kid.” Judy grabbed the clicker and turned up the volume. “My brothers and I watched it every Saturday morning.”

Both these methods of indicating who said what are clean and non-distracting. Readers often won’t notice them, which means they won’t be nudged or jerked from the story, but will continue to read without interruption.

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Looking Closer at the Semi-colon Used in Lists

During the writers’ meeting on Tuesday, we discussed the use of semi-colons in a list following a colon. The published historian in the group, an academic professor who knows a great deal about grammar, punctuation and writing in general, brought it up.

In professional academic papers, the rule is that a semi-colon, not the comma, must separate a list of items when preceded by a colon.

For example: The settlers of the area came from many countries: Germany; Switzerland; Poland and Spain.

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However, I have not encountered semi-colons used in this manner, so when I came home, I started to dig. It was difficult finding rules online, so I referred to my trusty handbook The Bare Essentials by Sarah Norton and Brian Green.

It recommended the use of semi-colons in complicated lists. The sentence they used as an example was: A few items are necessary: matches to start a fire; an axe or hatchet to cut wood; cooking utensils and eating implements; and, of course, the food itself.

Although this list followed a colon, there was no statement to say the colon was the reason the semi-colons were used.

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In What Other Direction Might You Go?

Sometimes we add words after verbs to help further clarify the meaning we want to convey. For years, I wrote without giving these extra words a thought. And then I was asked a blunt question that made me stop and think: In what other direction might you go?

Rising Up; Rising Down

Let’s look closer at these sentences.

Isla allowed the anger to rise up until it added strength to her muscles.

Before she could rise up, the door was slammed shut and locked.

The question in these instances would be: In what other direction would they rise? A character would never rise down, rise left or rise right. The verb rise indicates up. Adding the word up is redundant and states the direction twice.

The sentences can easily be writing without up.

Isla allowed the anger to rise until it added strength to her muscles.

Before she could rise, the door was slammed shut and locked.

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Let the Dialogue Do the Talking

Dialogue. It’s one way our characters use to communicate to one another. Sometimes it’s short and sweet, while other times it’s a lengthy rant. When written correctly, it reads smoothly, drawing readers into the moment, encouraging them to imagine the expression on the characters’ faces as they proclaim such things as, “I’m going to save the castle!” or “Pass me the dragon wand.”

When characters speak, we can—or should in most instances be able to—imagine how the dialogue was spoken. For example, “Run! The house is on fire.” I can see a character shouting this and encouraging others to get out of the burning building. In the context of the story, more would be revealed.

Sally took the milk from the fridge and set it on the counter. “What’s that smell?”

Peter shrugged. “Maybe it’s the new furnace.”

“Can you check?” She watched him leave the kitchen as she poured a glass of milk for Little Stevie. When she heard quick footsteps approach, she looked to where Peter had gone and watched him race into the room.

“Run! The house is on fire!”

In this instance, there is no need to add a dialogue tag but if one was added, it could be something like…

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5 Words that Weaken Your Sentences

Used when needed, these words can be powerful, but when they are used unnecessarily, they can weaken a sentence and undermine the impact the writer wants to deliver.

Identifying these words and testing to see if they are truly necessary is one of the keys to writing powerful sentences.

Some

In general, this determiner means an unspecified amount of something: an object, of people or anything that can be measured or not measured. It’s also used as a pronoun: Some of us left early. The unspecific nature of this word makes it detrimental to sentences when used unnecessarily.

Compare these sentences…

  1. “I want some candy,” said Becky.
  2. “I want candy,” said Becky.
  3. “I want one candy,” said Becky.
  4. “I want your bag of candy,” said Becky.
  5. “I want all the candy in the world,” said Becky.

In this instance, sentences two through five indicate how Becky is feeling and may hint at her personality. Is she indecisive, watching her sugar intake, greedy or unrealistic? By choosing another word or leaving out some altogether, the sentence becomes stronger and reveals more about Becky.

A few more examples of when you can eliminate some

  • Without some additional funding, the idea would never fly.
  • Without additional funding, the idea would never fly.
  • I enjoy my day when some family come to visit.
  • I enjoy my day when family comes to visit.

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Constructing Paragraphs in Fiction

Last week, I discussed writing nonfiction paragraphs. Many of the rules that apply to this type of paragraph also apply to fiction paragraphs. Descriptive paragraphs within fiction can often be written in the same style as nonfiction paragraphs.

Usually, writing factual or descriptive paragraphs is not a problem for most writers. However, the same cannot be said for writing fiction paragraphs involving characters. Although the same rules apply, they are slightly different.

A Few Rules for Writing Fiction Paragraphs

  1. They should contain only one idea.
  2. Each time a different character speaks, acts or thinks, a new paragraph must be started.
  3. They should be no longer than 1/3 of the page and preferably shorter.

Regarding Rule #2, if a new paragraph is not started when a different character speaks, acts or thinks, readers will be confused and not know who is doing or saying what. Here’s an example of what could happen if this rule was not followed.

Wilma was one day away from retirement and walked with a spring in her step towards the bus stop. When she spotted her friend Rose, she waved. “How are you this morning,” said Rose. “Happy. Excited.” She hugged her friend. “I bet you can’t wait to leave on your around-the-world trip.” “I stayed up half the night packing.” She looked to see the bus approach. “We better hurry. I don’t want to be late for my last day at work.” Rose looped her arm with hers and tugged her forward. “It would be a bad omen for your retirement.”

Writing like this confuses readers, and it wouldn’t take long before they dropped the book and went onto something else, like cleaning out the chicken coop.

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Constructing Nonfiction Paragraphs

Constructing the ideal paragraph can be difficult. That’s why teachers start discussing the mechanics of it in elementary and continue right on through to grade 12. Solving the mystery behind paragraphs is a vital step in writing books.

A paragraph contains one subject only. This one subject is introduced in the first sentence, supported in the body and concluded in the final sentence.

  • The introduction sentence introduces the topic in a general manner.
  • The supporting sentences are where the meat of information is located. It contains specific facts.
  • The conclusion sentence wraps up the idea and summarizes the topic of the paragraph in a few words.

An Exercise for Creating a Nonfiction Paragraph

First Sentence: Introduce subject by answering: What is a chicken?

Points to Cover in the body of the paragraph:

  • Chickens are domesticated birds that lay eggs.
  • Female chickens are hens.
  • Male chickens are roosters.
  • Hens lay eggs.
  • What do they look like?

Last Sentence: Conclusion: And that’s what a chicken is.

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