It’s More of a Guideline, Really

Writers get a lot of advice. Most of it is well meant, much of it is helpful. Sometimes there’s bad advice too. If someone’s telling you that a great way to market your book is to send out lots of identical tweets and just tag it full of irrelevant hashtags, please note that’s bad advice. But there is also advice that’s good, but needs a bit more depth or discussion than is often supplied.

Show, don’t tell

This is probably the most common. When starting out, people often want to get across the salient points of a scene. There is a dragon. It is big and red. Fred the knight is scared of it. The reader knows what’s going on, but frankly, it’s not very interesting. So, they are told to show the scene. Don’t tell us Fred is scared, show it through the way his heart is pounding, the way the sword is trembling in his hand. Letting readers come to the conclusion Fred is scared is actually more effective, and the shared experience of the effects of fear help cement the feeling in the reader.

So, good advice, right? Something you should always do? Maybe. If you find people are saying your style is dry, or they are not connecting emotionally with the characters, it’s worth checking that you’re not telling the reader too much. But you can go too far the other way. If you show everything, the writing can get convoluted. Sometimes simple and concise is better. Sometimes, showing certain pieces of information can make them stand out and stick in the reader’s mind more.

Never use anything other than said

Dialogue should stand up on its own. It should convey not only the information being said, but the emotion and the speaker without dialogue tags, ideally. If you’re used to using dialogue tags to tell the reader who is speaking, then you risk not developing the character’s voice. If you’ve always relying on them to carry the emotion, then the actual words spoken can end up feeling flat or forced, because you’re not thinking about how people naturally speak. Using said forces the dialogue to be the most important bit. Said is an easy, expected word, and readers will often register it less than other words, so said doesn’t feel as repetitive as some.

However, sometimes the dialogue can be ambiguous. Sometimes you need to use a tag to show who as speaking in scenes with lots of characters. Cutting out every other tag cuts out words that have value and meaning and can add to a scene if used well.

Write what you know

This one is just poorly phrased in my opinion. It gets misinterpreted. It is important to research. Getting the facts right makes a story believable and engaging. Silly mistakes drop them out of the narrative and distract from the story. Characters who have realistic reactions to situations are necessary to hold the suspension of disbelief necessary for fiction. But write what you know gets taken as write from your experience alone. And the truth is, most of us live fairly mundane lives. Draw on your experiences, physical and emotional, but don’t limit your writing to them. Just because you’ve never flown on the back of a dragon, doesn’t mean your characters cannot.

Cut out all adverbs

Another one that gets suggested early on to writers. Adverbs can be a path to lazy writing. There are lots of fantastic verbs, why stick to modifying a few basic ones? They can also lead to redundancy. If you’re characters are screaming loudly or running quickly, you’re wasting words. Cutting out adverbs can be a simple way of streamlining your writing and making sure you’re using the best word for the situation. Never use them? I’m not so sure about that. Can it really be good policy to cut out an entire chunk of the English language? Is it not better to learn how to use all words well, rather than just the verbs and nouns. A well placed adverb can change the context of a sentence, and heighten the atmosphere.

The lesson with all these examples is that the ideas are firm and sensible, and they are good tools, especially for novice writers to improve their craft. But they are not the same as grammar rules. The do not need to be applied rigidly and without exception. Telling, adverbs, dialogue tags and so on are not bad things in their own right. The problem is that using them badly is probably going to make the writing worse than not using them at all. But if you never learn to use them correctly, you’re cutting a large potion of language and structure out of your work.

How to Dialogue

Something that comes up over and over is dialogue formatting. Writing dialogue well is a skill, but getting the formatting correct is simply a matter of knowing the rules.  So, here are some example lines to help explain.

“Good morning, Harry,” she says.

The above line has two parts: the dialogue  and the speech tag afterwards. The important thing to remember is that these two parts form one complete sentence. That’s why you need a comma at the end of the dialogue, not a full stop. “Good morning, Harry.” I say is wrong because it separates them. If I see a book with dialogue like this, I won’t buy it, no matter how good it sounds.

“Morning? It can’t be morning, Lavie.” He pulls himself out from under the bench.

Here, there is no speech tag, so the sentence finishes at the end of the dialogue. So in this case, a period is appropriate, as is the capital letter on he.

“Well it is. Are you still drunk?” she asks suspiciously.

More confusing, this one. When you use a question mark or exclamation mark, you need a lower case letter after the dialogue, when it follows a speech tag. Remember, though, that they’re part of the same sentence.

“No of course not!” He struggles to his feet.

Whereas in this case, there is no speech tag and the sentence ends. So He needs capitalising.

“Oh really? So how many fingers am I holding up?”

He squints at her for a moment. “Which one of you?”

Another common mistake is not to separate the speaker’s lines, if someone else acts. Because it’s Harry who does something next in the story, and not Lavie, who spoke, the line about him squinting needs to go down one. Otherwise it becomes very hard to track who is speaking when there is no speech tag identifying them.

Finally remember, you need a comma before or after an address in dialogue. An address might be a name, a title, an insult etc. Some way for speaker to refer to person they are speaking to. If the address comes in the middle of the sentence, you need a comma either side.