Friday, November 27, 2009

More sentences

Now all I'm doing here is presenting sentence sequences and constructions that I think might send the reader off in the wrong direction or make her squint and backtrack, or break your POV logic. This is just to keep conscious in revision of what the reader is going to get, and make sure it's what you want.

Here's one of those dialogue passages that doesn't use "he said," and the lack of that tends to draw readers in more to the dialogue. However, the reader still does need to be sure of who is saying what.

Example, and I am making the characters "he" and "she" so there's no pronoun confusion:

They stopped outside of a massive block of storage containers, and both of them got out of the truck. Oliver glanced over at the office, where a young guard sat bored behind the alarmed windows. It would do.

"I owe you one." Mary handed him the envelope. He stuffed it in his pocket. "I'll use the combination from high school-- you remember that."

"Kurt Cobain's deathday. Yeah. I remember."

"I owe you one" is spoken by Oliver, but as it's immediately followed by "Mary handed him" it sort of sounds like Mary said it. So how about "Oliver took the envelope"? That way his name is the one closest to the dialogue sentence and, also, it's clearly in his POV (you can say "he" if you don't like using the POV character's name)-- he's the one whose actions (taking rather than giving) matter, as we're in his perspective.

Not a big deal. But stay conscious of the reader's experience of your sentences, and know that you can cause the right experience by how you craft the sentences. The last thing you want is to halt your careful pacing by making the reader go back and re-read.



Simon C. Larter said...

I've been poked for this kind of thing before. My solution is to make sure every character's dialogue goes in it's own paragraph, unless there's a really good reason not to (e.g., stream-of-consciousness prose).

Thanks for the reminder, and I hope you both had a relaxing Thanksgiving.

Edittorrent said...

I'm with you on that-- the default should be one speaker-one paragraph.

Jami G. said...


Yes, I'm a big fan of beats instead of tags. And I hate "said". :) I know that too many writers avoid it by going overboard with other tag words. But if you only have tags where you really need to know how someone says their dialogue, there's usually a better word to use then "said". :) However, as you point out, in a beat, if you're using the name of the other character, you have to be very careful of confusing the reader. Usually, I only use the other character's name (the MC) when it's explaining how she's reacting to what is being said, but it doesn't justify it's own paragraph (often because the other character is still speaking). I hope that's OK... :)

Jami G.

Edittorrent said...

Jami, I think also the action should be from the speaker's perspective (John took rather than Mary handed him). I think having the name or pronoun right by the dialogue makes it more clearly a tag.

green_knight said...

What's important: the envelope (and it's contents) or the act of handing it over?

_Are_ either of them important?

Also, 'I owe you one' seems to be a _response_ - so I'd have the handing over first, the thanking after.

(And while we're at it: 'you remember', proof that she remembers, 'I remember' seems redundant.)

Jami G. said...


Yes, I wasn't referring to actions, just internal reactions. Example time... :)

He approached and narrowed his eyes. "You're lying." She struggled to keep her jaw from dropping with his damned inconvenient insight. "The question is - why are you lying?"

I think between the leading beat, establishing this as "his" paragraph, the context of his narrowed eyes, the fact that she's clearly reacting to his words, etc., that referring to the POV character's internal reactions can work. I think... :) But maybe I'm wrong. Of course, if her reaction was important, I'd separate it with its own paragraph, but I don't think it's necessary to do that every time.

Please let me know if I'm wrong. :)
Jami G.

Selah March said...

I used to avoid dialogue tags at all costs.

Then I noticed how fidgety my characters had become -- so many glances and nods and head shakes and pivots and eyes narrowing and general twitchiness just to provide beats that identified the speaker.

So I began adding the occasional "said," and "asked," and even the rare "whispered," "murmured" and "muttered" back into the mix where appropriate. So far, no editor has taken me to task over them, but I'm careful to keep the tag count low.

That said (heh), in this instance I'd probably go with:

"I owe you one." He took the envelope from her and stuffed it in his pocket. "I'll use the combination from high school-- you remember that."

danceluvr said...

This is off topic, but the example reminded me of a question:

"outside of a massive block"

Is the "of" necessary?