INFORMALLY SPEAKING

Remember my rant about “like” as a dialog tag? 

The following is not an example of a dialog tag and should never be used in writing (And I wish it was never used. Period!):

“She was like, ‘why am I here?’ and I’m like “you’re the bridesmaid. You have to help pick out the dress.’ And she’s like, ‘It’s your wedding. Pick what you want.’ and I’m like, ‘It’s your dress. I want your input.’ And she’s like, “Girl, it’s not as if I’ll ever wear it again. I have, like, a dozen bridesmaids’ dresses hanging in my closet now that I wore one time.’”

Yuck! I definitely don’t like reading this passage of dialog!

My advice works if you’re writing formal fiction or a business document, but what about chick lit? (Or any contemporary fiction aimed at the younger adult population?) Well, my friend, my advice is out the window. 

In fiction writing, you write what works. Stream of consciousness, first person, bad grammar, popular slang, whatever, as long as you do so intentionally.

The Grammar Cop may give you a warning, but she won’t cite you for a grammar infraction if said infraction fits the voice of your character or story.

However, if you want to write formal and proper dialog, please review my post from two years ago about dialog tags.

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Watch That Slang

This post is less about grammar and more about style. 

Remember the 1985 movie Back to the Future? Marty McFly repeatedly says “heavy,” 1980s slang for an intense situation, and Emmett (Doc) doesn’t understand. He questions Marty about problems with weightiness. Great Scott! Heavy as slang in 1955 is anachronistic.

Writers of historical fiction should exercise caution in the use of slang. Readers will catch those anachronisms in a heartbeat, just as Doc did in Back to the Future. Keep in mind you don’t want anything to distract your reader from your story. When it comes to writing dialog, do your research!

Examples I’ve come across:

  • The old west ego. If you’re setting your Western in a time that predates Freud, don’t use the term ego when you mean arrogance. Ego didn’t exist until Freud coined the word in 1920.
  • Eye candy or stud muffin. Those terms are late twentieth century and have no place in earlier settings. I recently read a Word War II era romance that described a soldier as “eye candy.” That’s a no-no.
  • Fashion statement  Too modern to be spoken in most historicals. 
  • Don’t go there!  If your historical character is using the expression “don’t go there” (meaning, that subject is off-limits), he better be living in the 1990s or later. For that matter, off-limits is fairly modern, so be careful. Other expressions that are too modern to appear in historicals include get over it, give me a break, and go figure.
  • Don’t give me any flak (or flack). Flak (also spelled flack) is anti-aircraft artillery. The term now means a critical or hostile reception or reaction, but it evolved from the military term. If your historical story predates military aircraft, don’t give your characters any flak.
  • Life in the fast lane. An expression evolved from motorists using divided, multi-lane highways should not appear in a story predating divided, multi-lane highways. 
  • Stuck in the groove or his needle is stuck. This term originated with the first phonograph record and died with digital recordings and downloads. Use this slang with care.

What other anachronisms have you discovered in historical novels or movies?

Writing Product Reviews–Specifics Help

Have merchants asked you for a review of a recent purchase? I try to leave reviews, on everything from kitchen tools to bedding and books. I often read reviews left by others to help me decide on a purchase. Through the years, I’ve read some reviews that needed an editor’s attention because of ambiguity.

Here’s an example as quoted from TV: “The [service providers] I’ve found on Angie’s List have literally blown me away.”

This is found in a shopping club membership ad: “The money we save with the membership is unreal.”

First, why would businesses advertise these useless testimonies? They offer no helpful information. I may be “blown away” by bad service or good. If the money I save with a membership is unreal, it’s not for me. I want real savings.

When you write a product review, remember the purpose of your feedback is to guide potential buyers. What information would you find useful in a review? I want specifics, not vague “performs beautifully” or “this totally sucks” reviews. 

“My savings in belonging to [Buyer’s Club] exceeds my annual membership fee.” Or “Every service provider I’ve found and used on Angie’s List has been dependable and affordable” are specific and helpful comments. If you have a negative, be specific but don’t trash everything and everybody. “The knife sharpener performed as advertised, although the suction cup didn’t hold it steady. When I complained, the company replaced the sharpener, but the new one had the same issue. If you don’t mind holding the knife sharpener with one hand while running the knife through the blades, this product delivers.”

The same advice holds true for book or movie reviews, with an additional caveat: Don’t give anything away without prefacing it with SPOILER ALERT or SPOILERS. What buyers find helpful are genre information, comparisons to similar books or films, and level of adult material. For instance, here’s a good example of a review of the film The Crew:

If you saw Goodfellas, you’ll get a kick out of The Crew. It spoofs it with an Over The Hill Gang twist.Richard Dreyfus and Burt Reynolds give strong performances as two retired wise guys living in South Beach, Florida, with two other retirees from their “crew” from back in the day in New Jersey. When they scheme to take back their apartment building from greedy landlords, they soon find themselves back in the game, but with surprising–and comedic–consequences. Rated PG for mild profanity and adult situations.

Don’t shy away from writing reviews. They help other buyers. But please give thought to what you write before you submit it.

 

BEGGING THE QUESTION?

A British-ism has been distorted by popular usage ~ Begs the Question. Begs the question means an assumption is made without proof. It is not synonymous with “poses the question” or “asks the question.” It is an expression in itself and shouldn’t be followed by … a question! 

Writers should avoid the usage because it’s antiquated. “Beg” in old English meant the same as “to take for granted.” If what you intend to write is “poses the question” or “raises the question,” say so. Don’t “beg” the question. 

 

Dialog Punctuation and Style

Last month I posted about the wrong way to punctuate and format dialog. This post is about the right way. (FYI I’m addressing the American rules for dialog; the British have different rules for formatting dialogue.)

With tongue firmly in cheek, let’s start with these examples:

“I can’t believe I ate that whole pineapple!” Bob said, dolefully.
“I haven’t caught a fish all day,” Mike said, without debate.
“I won’t let a stupid flat tire let me down,” Steve said, with despair.
“I keep banging my head on things,” Marty said, bashfully.
“That is the second time my teacher changed my grade,” Donna remarked.
“The fur is falling out of that mink coat,” Steven inferred.
“That’s the second electric shock that I’ve gotten today,” Stew said, revolted.
“I’ll just have to send that telegram again,” Samuel said, remorsefully.
“I’ve been sick and lost a lot of weight,” Rachel expounded.

These are examples of dialog tags formatted correctly (I do hope you’ll resist the adverbs ☺). What the character says is within quotation marks, including punctuation. But what about dialog within dialog? Or interrupted speech? Relax. There are rules for formatting complex dialog issues, too. Here are a few basics:

  • If you’re switching speakers, you need a new paragraph. However, a line of dialogue within a paragraph of narrative is not technically wrong. Use your judgment. You don’t want an important speech lost in a lengthy passage of description. When in doubt, err on the side of what printers call “white space.” It makes your text more readable.
  • Interrupted speech is formatted with the em dash or double hyphen; Trailing speech is formatted with three periods.
  • A tag follows a comma (or question mark or exclamation point) with he said or she said. You’ll see hundreds of variations of this tag, everything from “he responded” to “she answered” to “she replied.” What you shouldn’t see is anything that’s physically impossible or implausible, such as “she laughed” or “he snorted.” You can’t laugh or snort words. If you want your speaker laughing or snorting, fine. Make it a sentence of its own.
  • A statement of action (complete sentence) is not a tag and should not be preceded by a comma.
  • Double quotation marks surround the entire speech, including punctuation. Single quotation marks are for speech-within-a-speech. For instance, “How dare he call me ‘Queen Victoria!'”

Remember, dialog is a good way to move the story, as long as you don’t fall into the “As you know, Bob” trap. That’s a rookie mistake that goes something like this:

“I can’t believe I ate all the pineapple!”
“As you know, Bob, your father, your grandfather, and your great-grandfather owned pineapple plantations. It’s natural you’d overindulge.”
Bob huffed an impatient breath. “You’d think I’d know how to control myself.”
“You’ve had a rough year, remember? You’re going through a particularly nasty divorce, which has been tabloid fodder all year.”
“Tell me something I don’t know.”

Exactly! Tell Bob something he doesn’t know, not a bunch of backstory for the reader’s benefit. Use dialog to reveal character values and traits, not backstory the character already knows.

Any other dialog issues challenging your writing? Leave me a comment.

DIALOG TAGS

Dialog tags are used often in writing, particularly fiction writing. What is a dialog tag? Here are examples:

  • she said.
  • said George.
  • he replied.
  • George asked.

They either precede or follow dialog in quotation marks:

“Why did you order pizza, ” George asked.

Dialog tags can be complete sentences that show action while identifying the speaker. For example:

“Why did you order pizza?” George stared pointedly at the casserole in the oven. “It’s my night to cook.”

The following is not an example of a dialog tag and should never be used in writing (And I wish it was never used. Period!):

“She was like, ‘why am I here?’ and I’m like “you’re the bridesmaid. You have to help pick out the dress.’ And she’s like, ‘It’s your wedding. Pick what you want.’ and I’m like, ‘It’s your dress. I want your input.’ And she’s like, “Girl, it’s not as if I’ll ever wear it again. I have, like, a dozen bridesmaids’ dresses hanging in my closet now that I wore one time.'”

Yuck! I definitely don’t like reading this passage of dialog!

Next post will cover proper punctuation for dialog.

Happy National Grammar Day!

Today is National Grammar Day. Why do we celebrate grammar? As a writer, I celebrate grammar as a discipline because correct syntax, spelling, and usage help me communicate clearly. In a world of acronyms and abbreviations, I need correct grammar to anchor me.

Why is it important to use its instead of it’s for the possessive pronoun form of it? Clarity, my friends. It’s reads it is, which confuses the educated reader if the writer’s intent is its. That’s one example, and there are many.

So while you text and instant message with your abbreviations and shorthand language, keep alive the art of correct grammar. Not everyone understands your lingo. Also, can you imagine reading a fine book like Water For Elephants written as a text message? Horrors!