Of Older Styles

Editors, writers, and other word people sometimes get into battling about style as if their lives, or at least the fate of the English language, depended on it.

“The Chicago Manual of Style says . . .”

“But according to the Associated Press . . .”

“That’s not true of British English . . .”

And so on and on and on.

Lately, for a writing project, I’ve been reading works published in the U.S. in the 1840s and 1850s. For the record, so far they include Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, (1845); Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852); and Solomon Northup’s Twelve Years a Slave (1853), as well Escape to Freedom, a young adult adaptation of Douglass’s Narrative, and Douglass’s very famous Fourth of July speech from 1852, which I’ve had the honor of reading parts of aloud at an annual performance.

The contemporary editions of all the full-length works retain the style, spelling, and punctuation of the original. While my writer-reader self takes in the content, my copyeditorial self is noting especially the style choices that contemporary U.S. editors might take issue with.

Perhaps my most important takeaway is that I’ve found all of these works, published between 164 and 172 years ago, readily comprehensible. The words I didn’t recognize are still found in English-language dictionaries. With the works of Shakespeare and others of his time — the late 16th century and early 17th — my eyes often drop to the footnotes. Footnotes were neither provided for nor required by this 21st-century reader of these mid-19th-century works.

To be sure, my 21st-century sensibility sometimes got impatient with the flowery style and digressions of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, not to mention some plot implausibilities toward the end, but Stowe’s interwoven stories, her attention to detail, and her acute insight into human nature more than made up for it. Twelve Years a Slave is a page-turner from beginning to end, and the main reason Douglass takes me longer to get through is that I often pause to read passages aloud — a practice I highly recommend, and not just with the Fourth of July speech.

If you’ve read my recent and not-so-recent posts on the subject, you won’t be surprised that my copyeditorial eye paid particular attention to hyphenation. All these works use considerably more hyphens than either Chicago or AP allows, or even the more hyphen-friendly online Oxford (UK version).

Opening Twelve Years a Slave at random, I find work-bench, blood-hound, and half-way on facing pages. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate (MW) and the UK Oxford have them all solid, one word, no hyphen.

A single page of Uncle Tom’s Cabin offers store-room, linen-presses, and china-closet all in the same sentence. Current English style would make storeroom one word and both linen presses and china closet two.

Aside: For storeroomMerriam-Webster’s notes the first usage as 1685. It does not note whether that first usage was one word, two, or hyphenated, leaving one to believe that it’s been one word all along. I tend to doubt it. This is one of my pet peeves with MW and one reason I prefer the American Heritage Dictionary. AHD is more likely to offer the hyphenated alternative for words that are indeed styled both ways in good English-language writing.

In Twelve Years a Slave some two-word proper nouns are hyphenated, notably New-York and New-Orleans. The styles I’m familiar with all dispense with the hyphen, probably on the theory that it’s obvious the two words constitute one name. The older style survives in the official name of the New-York Historical Society.

As noted in my earlier “Dash Away, All” post, Chicago style advises an en dash when such an “open compound” is joined to another word, as in New York–Boston train. It’s unlikely that, if only a hyphen were used, anyone familiar with U.S. geography and/or capitalization style would ever read that as a “new York-Boston train,” but I’ve been en-dashing such constructions for almost 40 years so the hyphen just doesn’t look like enough.

Reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin I noticed almost immediately the unusual — to me — styling of contractions.  In most cases Stowe and/or the typographer inserted a space between the two words being fused together: I ‘ve, I ‘ll, it ‘s, is n’t, did n’t, there ‘s, and so on. However, in a few cases the contractions are set solid, the way we’d style them today: can’t and an’t. An’t, which we would write ain’t (but never, ever use except in the most colloquial dialogue), contracts either am not or are not; thus it might have been rendered a’ n’t. Quite possibly that failed Stowe’s “it looks funny” test, as it fails mine. And since cannot appears as one word, it makes sense that the contraction can’t would do likewise.

For a semicolon-lover like me, these 19th-century works are a feast. Douglass, Stowe, and Northup were not afraid of long sentences, and for writers of long sentences semicolons are indispensable. Stowe sometimes strings as many as four independent clauses together with semicolons, a practice that would send most U.S. copyeditors screaming for their red pencils (or, more likely, their Track Changes). And Northup writes, of Mistress Epps:

She had been well educated at some institution this side the Mississippi; was beautiful, accomplished, and usually good-humored.

(Are you itching to insert an of after “side”?)

Stowe is very fond of dashes, though not as fond as Emily Dickinson, and often, though by no means always, her dashes are preceded by a comma: “Topsy only thought Eva’s speech something funny and inexplicable,—she did not believe it.” Northup’s aren’t, and neither are Dickinson’s. In the later The Minister’s Wooing (1859) and Oldtown Folks (1869), Stowe was still preceding dashes with commas and even semicolons. Clearly no editor was telling her that this just wasn’t done,—or if they did, she was having none of it.


Dash Away, All

Dashes and hyphens are so often considered together that when I got to the end of “Sturgis’s Law #10,” I knew something was missing. After all, the Chicago Manual of Style (CMS) devotes several pages to dashes, and so do many other style guides. Surely I should devote at least a few words to the subject?

But I’d already gone on too long (blog posts that top 1,000 words make me nervous), and besides, nowhere in Sturgis’s Laws are dashes even mentioned. (That may change in the future.)

Meanwhile — let’s talk about dashes.

In U.S. usage, dashes come in two sizes. The em dash ( — ) is so called because it’s generally the length of one m. The shorter en dash (which, surprise surprise, is the length of an n) is the one that gets mixed up with hyphens.

As my typographer friends point out, a dash is a dash. How it’s styled — em or en, with or without space before and after — is a typographical decision. In British English (BrE) the kind of dash that indicates a break or sets off parenthetical remarks (as in the previous sentence) is generally rendered by an en dash with a space on either side, like this: How it’s styled – em or en, with or without space before and after – is a typographical decision.

  • To create an em dash on a PC: Alt+0151 (use the number pad) or ALT+CTRL+minus key (the latter works in Word but not in WordPress). Using AutoCorrect, you can also tell Word to automatically convert two hyphens (which is how we indicated em dashes back in typewriter days) to an em dash. I don’t allow Word to AutoCorrect anything, but you may be more tolerant than I.
  • To create an en dash on a PC: ALT+0150 or CTRL+minus key (see above)
  • To create an em dash on a Mac: Option+Shift+minus
  • To create an en dash on a Mac: Option+minus

In this blog and in my own writing, I insert a space on either side of my em dashes. This is to avoid bad end-of-line breaks. Word processors may treat “styled—em” in the sample sentence as one word and keep it all on one line, which may lead to an unsightly gap in the line preceding. The shorter dash seems to be coming into its own in ebooks, and with good reason: ebooks can be read on devices with relatively narrow lines, and in a narrow line a full em dash can look huge.

Em dashes generally herald a break of some kind. In dialogue, they are commonly used to indicate in interruption: “But I was about to say—” Frankie began before Sal cut her off. (Dialogue that trails off is generally indicated by an ellipsis. For more about this see “Of Dots and Dashes.”)

In non-dialogue, they can signal a change of subject or an aside. When the aside occurs in the middle of a sentence, it becomes more or less a parenthetical and is set off by em dashes. Why not use parentheses in such cases? You can use parens in such cases. For me an aside set off by parens is more peripheral — expendable, even — than one set off by dashes.

Em dashes are big. They call attention to themselves. Flip through a book — on paper or on screen — and chances are your eye will be drawn to the em dashes. If a writer is overusing em dashes, it’s often the first thing I notice when skimming through a manuscript. So use them sparingly. Like just about everything else in writing, they lose their power when overused.

Emily Dickinson is noted for her extravagant use of dashes, but she could get away with it because (1) she was a poet, (2) her poetry was brilliant, and (3) she was writing in the 19th century, before the Chicago Manual of Style was invented. Long after she died, one of her editors got into big trouble for taming her dashes into commas. If you’re adding Dickinson’s collected poems to your library, make sure the edition you choose has the dashes.

En dashes are somewhat specialized, and different styles have different takes on when to use them. In the social sciences, for instance, an en dash is often used to indicate that a compound comprises two words of equal weight, e.g., “I’m a writer–editor.” Chicago does not recommend this, and neither do I. Here’s my reasoning: The difference in length between a – and a – is not huge. When you’re reading along, you may not notice it at all — unless of course you’re a copyeditor like me. If it is important to know that the two halves of a compound are of equal weight, I would not depend on an en dash alone to get that across. However, if you’re in a field that follows this style, you should too.

Here are the most common uses of en dashes, per Chicago:

  • To signify through in number ranges: pages 3–17; the years 1941–1945. The range can be open-ended: my dog Travvy (2008–).  Figures and tables in nonfiction books are often given numbers like 2-5 and 3-17. The hyphen denotes that this is NOT a range; the first number is generally that of the chapter and the second that of the particular figure or table. The distinction comes in handy in footnotes and endnotes, where page ranges run rampant and table and figure numbers are sometimes concealed among them. By the way, It’s a faux-pas to use the dash when the range is preceded by from: She lived in France from 1978 to 1982, not “from 1978–1982.”
  • To signify to in destinations, votes, or scores: the Boston–Washington train; my team won, 99–92; the vote was 5–4.
  • To form compounds when one element is itself an open compound: the post–World War II baby boom; the New York–Boston rivalry. This is to avoid reading the former as post-world and the latter as York-Boston. Editors sometimes differ on which open compounds have to stay open and which can be hyphenated when attached to prefix, suffix, or another word. Proper nouns generally stay open, but when the New-York Historical Society was founded in 1804 another style prevailed, and its official name is so styled to this very day. Chicago 16, section 6.80, recommends country music–influenced lyrics, but I see nothing wrong with country-music-influenced lyrics.

All clear now? Dash away, dash away, dash away, all. And I really should come up with a dashing Sturgis’s Law . . .

Sturgis’s Law #10

Some while back I started an occasional series devoted to Sturgis’s Laws. “Sturgis” is me. The “Laws” aren’t Rules That Must Be Obeyed. Gods forbid, we writers and editors have enough of those circling in our heads and ready to pounce at any moment. These laws are more like hypotheses based on my observations over the years. They’re mostly about writing and editing. None of them can be proven, but they do come in handy from time to time. As I blog about them, I add them to Sturgis’s Laws on the drop-down from the menu bar. Here’s Sturgis’s Law #10:

“Consistent hyphenation” is an oxymoron.

According to Sturgis’s Law #5,  “Hyphens are responsible for at least 90 percent of all trips to the dictionary. Commas are responsible for at least 90 percent of all trips to the style guide.”

Arbiters of style.

No, that 90 percent figure isn’t based on any survey, much less a scientific study or even systematic observation of my own practice. Good editors and writers are always looking things up. But commas and hyphens seem to provoke an anxiety that needs frequent reassurance even when we really do know our stuff.

Funny thing, I was blogging about commas only last week — and quoting Sturgis’s Law #5. So hyphens seem to be a logical next step.

And yes, it is OK to use “hyphens” and “logical” in the same sentence. If you understand the logic behind hyphenation, you won’t spin yourself into a tizzy whenever dictionaries and style guides disagree.

Which they do. A lot.

Hyphens can do many things, but the two biggies are joining and separating. Hyphens are so clever that they occasionally do both at the same time.

A hyphen can fuse two words capable of standing alone into a compound that incorporates both: I’m a writer-editor. The pond looks blue-green.

It can join a prefix or suffix to a root word: an anti-intellectual movement, a business-like attitude. In the former example, the hyphen is also separating the two vowels. Except in skiing and taxiing and maybe a few other words that I can’t think of at the moment, i‘s rarely occur side by side in English, so it looks pretty weird when they do.

Several common prefixes end in e — re- and pre- come immediately to mind — and when they run up against another vowel, misreadings can happen. I can’t look at reignite without initially seeing reign. Plenty of writers have no problem with reignite, but if an author prefers re-ignite, I have no problem with it.

In some cases the separation is crucial. Consider the difference between coop and co-op.

The Chicago Manual of Style (CMS), the style guide I use most often, has a long section on hyphenation. In the 16th edition, which has just been superseded by the 17th, it’s section 7.85. It is very, very useful. Plenty of hyphenation decisions can be, in effect, automated: Always use them in some cases (e.g., second-floor apartment, forty-one); never use them in others (e.g., grandmother, northeast).

In other cases, though, there’s plenty of gray area. CMS’s recommendations rely almost entirely on patterns: adjective + participle, gerund + noun, and so on. It suggests hyphenating most compounds when they occur before a noun — a well-rounded education — but leaving them open after a noun: Her education was well rounded.

What CMS and many copyeditors don’t acknowledge often enough is that the words themselves make a difference, and so does the intended audience. CMS does advise taking “readability” into consideration, but what’s readable and what isn’t depends a lot on context. Some noun + noun compounds are so familiar that inserting a hyphen when they appear before a noun looks like overkill. Yeah, “high school student” could be read to mean a school student on drugs, but when was the last time you saw it used that way?

On the other hand, “running shoe store” could conjure unintentionally hilarious images in enough readers’ minds that “running-shoe store” seems the better option.

CMS recommends that adjectives formed with half- be hyphenated before or after a noun but that nouns so formed be open. OK up to a point, but half sister strikes me as odd because all those half- relationships are words in their own right. Besides, if stepsister is one word, why should half sister be two? This is why “consistent hyphenation” is an oxymoron.

It’s also why I think writers and editors are well within their rights to impose some consistency and logic on hyphenation in a particular work, even if this involves deviating from the recommendations of dictionary or style guide. The American Heritage Dictionary (AHD) lists policymaker as one word. In Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate (MW) it isn’t listed, which means it’s two words. AHD has both policymaking and policy-makingCMS would probably suggest policymaker for the noun (by analogy with shipbuilder) and policy-making when it precedes a noun. But what if you’ve got people who make policy and people who make decisions in the same paragraph?

With certain prefixes, like pro- and anti-, separating the prefix from the root with a hyphen calls a little more attention to the root. Consider pro-choice and prochoiceanti-choice and antichoice. In this case I’m all for the hyphen, but when an author hyphenates something that I probably wouldn’t, there’s a distinct possibility that s/he’s seeing or hearing a distinction that I don’t.

Most non- words can be safely closed up, but with new or unfamiliar coinages, a hyphen can be helpful. A recent author used non-state actors several times. Fine with me. British English tends to hyphenate more non- words than its American counterpart: NGO is spelled out non-governmental organization, not nongovernmental organization. If a U.S. author wants to do likewise, fine with me.

I’m proud to call myself a HARPy — HARP stands for Hyphens Are a Reader’s Pal. When I come across a hyphen that doesn’t follow the “rules” of the guiding dictionary or style guide, I ask, Is it useful? Does it get in the way? Is it consistent with the author’s other preferences? Sometimes I’ll consult CMS, MW, AHD, and the UK English section of the online Oxford Dictionaries. If it passes muster, I’ll enter the spelling in my style sheet so I’ll remember it if it comes up again, and so the proofreader will realize that this was a conscious choice, not a mistake.

Wield hyphens with confidence. They’re helpful little buggers, and nothing to be afraid of.


On Not Writing

Can anyone out there not relate to this? Here’s a bracing dose of “how to keep going.”

BREVITY's Nonfiction Blog

Happy children! Loud happy children!

This is the blog post I didn’t write because it was a terrible idea. So why even start?

This is the blog post I didn’t write because the ceiling was leaking.

This is the post I didn’t write because I couldn’t figure out the coffeemaker and then I knocked it over.

This is the post I didn’t write because jet lag.

This is the post I didn’t write because the goddamn neighbor’s goddamn TV is so goddamn loud I can make out words through the wall.

This is the post I didn’t write because Facebook made me mad. And sad.

This is the post I didn’t write because I sat down and then the doorbell rang.

This is the post I didn’t write because I’d rather take a walk and self-care is important.

This is the post I didn’t write because don’t force it.


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Editing Workshop, 7: Commas

Extra commas.

I just copyedited a very good memoir that was seriously overburdened with commas. According to Sturgis’s Law #5,  “Hyphens are responsible for at least 90 percent of all trips to the dictionary. Commas are responsible for at least 90 percent of all trips to the style guide.” I have written about commas (and hyphens!) before, but thanks to this job I’ve got plenty of examples of unnecessary and even misleading commas in my head, so this seems a good time to write about them again.

Rest assured that it will not be the last time, and if you’ve got any comma questions or comments, please do use the contact form at the end to send them in.

The examples follow the structure of the original, but I’ve changed the words because quoting without permission from an as-yet-unpublished book is ethically dubious. Not to mention — I don’t want anyone to think less of an excellent book because the uncopyedited manuscript had too many commas in it.

When she arrived at the concert hall early, she discovered that the rest of us were early, too.

There’s a zombie “rule” (a rule that no matter how often it’s refuted keeps coming back from the dead) floating around that you must have a comma before “too” at the end of a sentence. Not only is it not required, sometimes it actually gets in the way: your eye pauses briefly before it gets to the end of the sentence. If you want that pause, by all means stet the comma. If you don’t, take it out.

“Too” doesn’t often show up at the beginning of a sentence, but when it does, you will almost certainly want a comma after it. Same goes for “also.” They generally link the sentence to the one preceding. This is often OK in informal writing, but it can come across as rushed or sloppy when you’re trying to make a good impression.

The comma after “early” in the example is a good idea. When an introductory phrase or subordinate clause is short, you can often get away without the comma — “When she arrived I was on my second beer” — but if there’s any chance that the phrase or clause might slide into the main clause, consider using a comma.

Once he’d read the street signs, and consulted the map, he pulled away from the curb.

We’re looking at the comma after “signs.” I could make a case for it if the author wanted a bit of a break between the reading and the consulting. But I’m pretty sure he didn’t. When I’m editing, I note what the writer does habitually. This writer inserted a comma before the conjunction “and” so often that I wondered if maybe he thought it was a rule, like that comma before “too” at the end of a sentence.

A very strong convention — “rule,” if you will — is to use a comma before any conjunction that joins two independent clauses. This convention makes enough sense that the burden is on me or the writer to show that it’s not necessary, for instance when the two clauses are very short: “I got home from work and we sat down to dinner.”

I deleted the comma after “signs” but kept the one after “map,” which ends a rather long introductory subordinate clause.

After she entered the hall, so many people swarmed around her, as she moved toward the podium, that we couldn’t see her at all.

Notice the clause set off with commas in the middle of the main clause? Those commas make the clause almost parenthetical, meaning that you could omit it without losing anything. “. . . so many people swarmed around her that we couldn’t see her at all” does make perfect sense, but we no longer see the subject moving toward a podium. In other words, we’ve lost something. I deleted both commas.

When I’m copyediting, I want to improve the sentence as unobtrusively as possible. If this were my own sentence, I might revise with a heavier hand, perhaps “After she entered the hall and moved toward the podium . . .” Or maybe “. . . so many people swarmed around her that we couldn’t see her at all as she moved toward the podium”? Or maybe not. As is so often the case, there are several options, equally correct but somewhat different in nuance, emphasis, and/or cadence. Unless there’s a compelling reaason to do otherwise, I stick as close to the author’s version as I can.

As much planning as we did, to my way of thinking, we should have done more.

Here’s another thing to watch for when you come across a phrase or clause set off by commas in the middle of a sentence. The question here is about what half of the sentence “to my way of thinking” belongs with: “As much planning as we did to my way of thinking . . .” or “. . . to my way of thinking we should have done more.” Reading along, I skidded to a halt to sort this out. Based on both context and the sentence itself, I was pretty sure that the latter was intended, so I deleted the comma after “thinking” to avoid separating phrase from clause.

Mind you, if the whole sentence were “To my way of thinking, we should have done more,” that comma would have been unexceptional — not required, but not a problem either. In the middle of a complex sentence, however, it creates enough ambiguity to make a reader pause. In some cases, such commas or the lack thereof can even create serious confusion about the meaning of the sentence.

* * * * *

There’s plenty more to be said about commas, but I think this is enough for one post. Have you got a comma question, or a sentence that needs a second look, or one you successfully sorted out? Use this contact form to send it in, and I’ll work it into a future blog post — or reply privately if you prefer.


Let’s Not Put Story Before Character 

This article may be aimed primarily at screenwriters, but it’s great advice for fiction writers as well. “As human beings we are created with unique and differentiating perspectives; characters should be created with that same concept in mind.” Etc. (NB for the copyeditors among you: If you’re anything like me, you’ll wish you got your hands on this before it was posted, but read it anyway. Please.)

As human beings we are created with unique and differentiating perspectives, characters should be created with that same concept in mind.

Source: Let’s Not Put Story Before Character – ART + marketing

Skip It, Move On, Come Back Later

I’m forever saying, chanting, and otherwise reminding myself that “the way out is through.” This is true, but often it’s distilled down to “Just do it!,” which can be useful but sometimes isn’t.

Sometimes the way through is circuitous. Sometimes it’s so circuitous that it looks like procrastination, like when you give up in frustration, go for a walk, and come back with an insight that eluded you while you were staring at the screen, or when you take an entire week’s break from the work in progress to do something else, maybe writing-related or maybe not.

So one of my characters — Felicia, the mother of one of my viewpoint characters, Glory — just made a momentous and unexpected discovery. With each draft, Felicia is becoming more crucial to the plot, but she started off as a bit player and I still didn’t know her very well. My hunch was that she’d call Shannon, the other viewpoint character, but I didn’t know what she’d say. So I left a note to myself at that point in the file and went on.

Plenty of writers do this regularly: When a scene isn’t jelling or they need to do more research, they skip over that part and come back to it later. This is far better than getting stalled at the troublesome spot, but I’m not all that good at it. When I leave gaps behind, I feel like I’m balancing on a rickety ladder. Nevertheless, I kept climbing, looking uneasily down at the ground from time to time.

A little while later Shannon was about to fill her friend Jay in on a totally different story and what came out of her mouth was a sketch of a post-midnight call from Felicia. It turns out Felicia was furious, she and Shannon reached a détente, but at the end of the conversation her trust in Shannon was still shaken.

The actual phone conversation remains to be written, but now I know Felicia better than I did before. One reason that the first two drafts of this novel didn’t reach a climax is that much depends on what Felicia does when a major secret is revealed and I didn’t know Felicia well enough to hazard a guess. But now that I know what went on in that phone conversation, the end is getting closer.

Sometimes you can move characters around like pieces on a chessboard. Other times they want a say in the matter. In those cases the way through may be to let them have it, even if you have to wait a bit before you hear what they’re saying.

How Reading Rewires Your Brain

Mired in the thickets of writing and editing, we sometimes lose sight of why we do what we do. We’re creating stuff — fiction and nonfiction, stories, poems, essays, and whole books — that will get people to read. Here’s a reminder. Thanks to Charles French for his blog post calling this to my attention.

M.C. Tuggle, Writer


There is no doubt in my mind that modern society traps its subjects in an unhealthy and unsuitable environment. That stark realization motivates many of my stories (see here and here, for example). The most disturbing symptom of how toxic our culture has become is the increasingly acerbic mutual distrust evident in current politics. Little wonder so many feel depressed, powerless, and alienated.

Rather than utilizing technology to better our lives, we let it rule us. Distracted by smart phones, buffeted by inescapable sensory overload, and hobbling our discourse in 140-character outbursts at each other, we’re incapable of understanding our own inner selves, much less that of others.

Fortunately, the tonic for the condition we find ourselves in is close at hand — if only we would use it, as this eye-opening piece in big think proclaims:

Research shows that reading not only helps with fluid intelligence, but with…

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But That’s How It Happened!

“You’d think that basing a novel on real-life people and real-life events would be easier than making it all up from scratch — but it isn’t. Strange but true, the fact that you knew at least some of these people makes it harder, not easier. You’ve got to bring them to life for the reader. To do this you might have to rearrange, fudge, or add details. You might have to make up some new characters. And that’s OK: this is fiction, after all. If you want to turn it into a novel, you’ve got to make effective use of the novelist’s tools: plot, characterization, point of view, narrative, dialogue, and all the rest of it.”

This past summer a client asked me to critique the current draft of his novel in progress. It was based on the life of a lifelong friend who died some time ago. The first-person narrator was clearly based on the author himself.

I opened my critique with the paragraph above. “But that’s how it happened!” is a common cry among novice writers. It’s not a bad place to start, but it’s never enough.

An early clue that this manuscript hadn’t jelled yet was the dialogue. It sprawled. My first question for dialogue, my own or any other writer’s, is “Would you sit still for this if it were played out onstage or onscreen?” Most of this dialogue would have had audience members nodding off or walking out. How long will you watch minor characters chat on and on about their daily routines without ever making an observation that’s important to the story?

Sometimes, however, these endless conversations yielded valuable nuggets, an insight into character or a memory of a past event. You know the writer’s mantra “Show, don’t tell”? Some telling is fine and necessary in any work of fiction or nonfiction, but some of what these characters were telling could be more effectively shown in a scene.

This is what early drafts do: give you clues about what needs to be developed further in the next draft. I do a lot of freewriting in early drafts, often letting characters talk on and on or ponder what they’re going to do next. Often it takes a while to get to the revelation or epiphany that reveals character and/or moves the plot. It’s your job as the writer to wait for it, recognize it, then prune all the verbiage away from it so your readers will see it too.

When characters don’t drive a story’s plot, the writer has to do it, often by conjuring a new character or an unexpected event out of the blue. New characters show up, of course, and unexpected events happen, but in this case the story was completely dependent on them: unbelievable successes, terrible accidents, a treacherous colleague, and a series of women too good to be true. Quite possibly all these things happened and all these people existed in real life, but unless they’re integrated into the story they come across as plot devices introduced to make up for the lack of momentum in the story.

Sitting in the center of this particular story is the main character’s mother. She’s horrible. We see her being horrible, everyone agrees she’s horrible; she’s so horrible that I couldn’t stop wondering how she got to be so horrible. We see her being cruel to her son, but we rarely see him or his best friend trying to come to terms with her cruelty. The horrible mother’s husband is suspiciously saintly, and so is her older sister . . .

Then, near the end of the ms., one character drops the bombshell that saintly husband and saintly older sister were having a long-term affair while the boys were growing up. Whoa! Saintly husband, it seems, had wanted to marry saintly older sister in the first place, but for implausible reasons had married the horrible mother instead. Now there’s a development that could help sustain a plot and deepen our understanding of all the main characters.

And here is the big challenge for writers who want to turn events they participated in or witnessed and people they knew into convincing fiction or memoir: You’ve got to achieve enough distance from the characters to see things from their various perspectives. That goes double for the character with your own name or the fictionalized version of you.  This can be scary: What if heroes aren’t as heroic and the villains not as villainous as they seemed when you were living the story the first time round?

If you’re driven to put all that work into writing draft after draft of a story, it may be because the story just won’t let you rest till you come to the heart of it. Writing the story will change you. You’ll probably see things and consider possibilities that you didn’t before. We write to understand the story, and ourselves, better. “But that’s how it happened” is just the beginning.

Direct and Indirect Speech

Jonathon Owen’s Arrant Pedantry blog is always great reading for writers, editors, and other word people, but this one might be especially interesting to writers of dialogue. It discusses the difference between direct speech, when you come right out and say something (“What time is it?”), and indirect speech, when you do it indirectly (“Do you know what time it is?”). The expected answer to “Do you know what time it is?” is not “Yes” or “No” — though you can be sure that one of your wiseass friends will occasionally respond with one or the other!

Notes Owen:

Indirect speech acts are often used to be polite or to save face. In the case of asking a child or subordinate to do something when they really don’t have a choice, it’s a way of downplaying the power imbalance in the relationship. By pretending to give someone a choice, we acknowledge that we’re imposing our will on them, which can make them feel better about having to do it. So while it’s easy to get annoyed at someone for implying that you have a choice when you really don’t, this reaction deliberately misses the point of indirectness, which is to lubricate social interaction.

How one character phrases something is often as important as what he or she is saying. How other characters hear and respond to it can show a lot about those characters.

Source: “Politeness and Pragmatics,” illocution | Arrant Pedantry