The Toolbox -- The Important Bits

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Jo Zebedee

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#41
dialogue punctuation

I'm sure it's in here a lot, but I thought I've been working on it a bit recently, and it is the only technical thing I'm confident at, so I'd stick up a post. (how brave am I? in the toolbox - garghh.)

If you are using a dialogue tag like he said, commented, asked, added, confirmed, then its a comma either before the dialogue:

He said, "You're getting ideas above your station, Springs."

or a comma at the end:

"You're getting ideas about your station, Springs," he said.

If the he said is in the middle of a sentence like this it's a run on, so a comma at each side

"I've noticed," he said, "that you're getting ideas above your station."

If its a disrupted speech that isn't a run on sentence ie is two seperate sentence then it's a comma before the dialogue tag and then a full stop and a capital to start the next sentence.

"I've noticed you're getting ideas above your station," he said. "I have to say, it's making me nervous."


action tags

If, instead of a dialogue tag you're using action at the start or end, the comma is replaced by a full stop. So:

"I'm getting ideas above my station." Springs stood up and made for the exit.

Or

Springs stopped at the door. "And now they're probably getting quite boring."

If you have an interrupted sentence with an action tag it's full stops.

"I'm getting near the end." She chewed her pen. "Which can't be a bad thing."

And if you have an exclamation mark or a question mark they take the place of either or the full stop.

So

"Above my station!" She flounched out.
or
"How dare you!" she exclaimed and flounched out.

And lastly, Harebrain's advice, which I use all the time for checking:
if it doesn't read right when you take out the actions or dialogue tags, the punctuation isn't right.

Right, need to lie down now. The toolbox... I'll need a year to recover. J.
 

The Judge

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#42
There's sometimes a little confusion about the verb "to be" so here is a tidied version of a post in a thread where the issue arose earlier in the year.


Firstly, the verb "to be" can appear weak, so something like "She was at the door, waiting" might be better as "She stood at the door, waiting". Or it might not. It depends on what's happening around it in the rest of the sentence or paragraph. I'd always look for a stronger, more descriptive verb instead of "was", but it isn't the end of civilisation as we know it if it appears. Having said that, too many of anything in a paragraph can be ungainly and "was" is a particular offender in this respect.

Some sites will tell you that the use of eg "was" in a sentence is the passive voice. It isn't. Passive voice usually includes the verb "to be" in some form, but that's a wholly separate issue. The use of "by" is another tell-tale of passive voice eg "I was stunned by the revelations." There are good posts about this above, including Peter Graham's post at #93. The active voice is generally accepted as being more direct and forceful and... um... active, so it's a good idea to use it more than passive voice. If you're worried that your prose is riddled with passivity, search for "by" and see if that helps you locate clauses which could be changed to active eg "The revelations stunned me" (though in that particular case I'd go with the passive as it put the emphasis on me and my having been stunned).

And separate from both those is the use of "was" in something like "I was waiting at the door" which is merely the verb "to wait" in its past continuous tense as opposed to its simple past of "I waited at the door". Using the continuous form of a verb in present or past tense is perfectly acceptable, and can be a matter of preference eg "He was whistling as he ran upstairs" or "He whistled as he ran upstairs" both mean the same thing, and there's no right or wrong, though the latter is tauter. But continuous past can often be the best choice or necessary for the sentence eg "He was listening at the door when she burst into the room" shows he's been there some while, and means something very different from "He listened at the door when she burst into the room" -- apart from reading oddly, the latter implies that his listening is a habit whenever she dashes inside.
 

Ihe

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#43
I've always liked reading up on grammar and other technicalities of writing. I went over this thread at the start of my "fooliganing" (new word of mine, patent pending) here at the Chrons, and now skimmed it a second time, which confirms my initial perception: this is a gold mine. Thanks to everyone who contributes. Being the petty, envious wretch I am, I want to be part of this magnificent club, so I'll tackle a small thing I read somewhere, long time ago, that caught my eye because it's so simple you don't see it when it happens:

>Concurrency of participle phrases:

Participle phrases (they have -ing verbs) with multiple actions taking place in the span of a sentence make these actions simultaneous (concurrent). This can quicken pace and add a sense of liveliness to the sentence. But beware of the wrong use of concurrency, which usually happens by pairing 2 actions that are not truly simultaneous, ie: Kicking him in the shins, Clara ran away.--These two actions cannot be happening simultaneously. You can't kick someone and at the same time put distance between you and them. It would be more correct to make the action sequential: you kick, then you run.

And now, the correct way to use concurrency: Kicking him in the shins, Clara cursed him.--Both of these actions can be happening at the same time.

This might be a finicky rule, and God knows I do it, and I've seen pros do it as well, but nevertheless, it's something to at least consider.



Now that I've added my little grain of "knowledge" to the grammatical mountain, I hope to do a longer post on pace next, which I've been researching on-and-off for some time.
 

The Judge

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#44
Info-dumps

There's at least one post here about info-dumping, but I thought another wouldn't go amiss in the circumstances.

Usually this relates to the dumping of detail about the backstory or -- particularly in SF -- the technology. It also, though, encompasses excessive world-building detail. We are all guilty of it. We all think "This is really cool stuff about the world, I've got to get this in" or "This is really important for the reader to know, I've got to put this in". Sometimes we may even be right. But...

Think of information for your story -- whether world-bulding, backstory or technology -- as an iceberg. What you should have is a great mountain of detail, but only a very small part of it should be on view to the reader, with the vast bulk of it lying unseen below the surface. A story which has only that small amount above surface and nothing beneath is liable to be unstable, and drift all over the place with no depth or characterisation. Conversely, a story which has the whole iceberg above water is liable to overwhelm the reader and frighten her off.

So the first thing to do is decide what is truly important for the reader and must be on the surface, and what should be kept out of sight. Almost certainly, what is vitally important, without which the story cannot make sense, will be much less than you might think.

Having said that, a story which only has the bare plot and no adornment is going to be flat, so some world-building and extra detail is helpful even if not strictly necessary. So that's the second thing to decide -- what adds to the story's texture without overloading it and making it unreadable.

Having set out what should be included, you must then work out how to include it.

If it's stuff that's important, so the fact the ion-cannons can't perform when at warp -- which means they cannot kill the baddie when they need to -- then get it out there in as few words as possible and never in a "As you know, Dave" conversation. Don't give the reasons why it isn't possible unless that's also a plot point (or you are writing hard/military SF when every single piece of technology must, apparently, be described in loving detail...), at least not at first. Drop the reasons why in a later scene, so you're not stopping the flow of the story all at one go.

If it's stuff that is just world building then "The birds' feathers were red and gold" gets the information out there, but is, frankly, boring. Something like "Sunlight glinted off the red and gold of the birds' feathers" is still pretty basic, but there is immediately more life in it. Even better would be something to reflect the POV character's emotions -- so if she is happy, the red and gold feathers fill her with joy; if she's sad, the gold is dulled; if she's fearful, the red is like drops of blood. Or make the birds reflect what is happening within the story, or prefigure what might happen -- if there is a romantic subplot then "As the male bird performed his courtship dance, the red and gold of his feathers gleamed"; if there is war coming "The two male birds tore at each other in a frenzy, red and gold feathers shredded and stained with blood".

Build your iceberg. Make it solid and thick and very big. Then submerge it, and allow only the tip of it to show in the novel, drawing the interested reader towards it, but making it clear there are depths, huge interesting depths, which at a later stage you might allow them to see if they dare to take to the water and dive in.
 

The Judge

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#45
In the "how to write" books, one of the seven elements is, description. How do we not info-dump when writing descriptive prose?
Five or six posts above this one is one from me headed "Info-dumps" which gives some advice on this point.

People have different levels of tolerance for description, but for most purposes having more than a couple of paragraphs at any one time is likely to lose your reader -- we simply can't emulate Thomas Hardy in The Return of the Native with the entire first thousand pages devoted to Egdon sodding Heath.**

I'd always suggest you intersperse description with something happening. If someone is catapulted into the middle of a rain forest, don't spend pages describing the trees and lianas and what not while he's just standing around doing nothing. Instead, have him hiking through, chopping lianas down, nearly treading on giant spiders, blundering into huge butterflies or whatever. Action nearly always trumps description.


** OK, a thousand might be a slight exaggeration, but it certainly felt like it when I was having to plough through the damn thing at school.
 

Jo Zebedee

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#46
I'll pick up on the one aspect of the Judge's post I understand and talk about filter words.

These are the likes of 'she heard', 'she saw', 'he felt'.

Now, in some point of views these are fine. If you want any kind of distance, they can be useful for adding it. Also, if you're writing horror, that classic, "a breeze touched her cheek; it felt like the air from a crypt" is totally acceptable for foreshadowing.

But! If you're writing any kind of close point of view, be it first or third, then it is the enemy of closeness.

Instead of

Jo heard the traffic swishing past

The traffic swished past

is much closer, and stronger.

There are devices which we use that lead us to filter words, like walking into a room and glancing around in order to describe the room. That's really distancing. Instead filter that room through the scene. Have your character nearly knock the vase over, rather than looking and seeing the vase they're about to chuck at someone in the next scene.

Words that often are filters:

saw, see, looked, glanced, took in,
felt, sensed, noticed
heard

Where you notice them:
Does the filter have a purpose? Then keep it.
Is it there just to be a filler from one action to the next? Rewrite and make that transition smoother.
Does it lead into a description of what was saw, heard, felt - remove the filter. It's not needed.
 
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