As I finished writing a short story, an overwhelming mire filled the landscape of my pages. Every paragraph I reviewed appeared as boggy ground, fraught with error. My anxiety grew and the mire deepened before I extricated myself from my own morass of words by practicing one of writing’s golden rules – back away – or in the case of this swamp, lie flat to distribute your weight and inch toward security. The lying flat aspect convinced me to “sleep on it” and deal with story review another day. Before I did, though, I jotted notes about my muddied fears.
It’s often dialog writing that makes me quake and question. In my story, a husband and wife use “honey” and “dear” when speaking to one another. Should I capitalize those? had been one of my panicky questions. That, and doubt on my accuracy in writing interior monologue, had caused my panic.
I closed my file that night and left my writing to steep a few days. In the meantime I checked on dialog writing rules for nicknames and terms of endearment. I had not capitalized “honey” and “dear” in my couple’s dialog, and I had properly written the dialog. Good. My research showed, however, that if you have a character known by a nickname, then you should capitalize that name. I had not named my characters Honey or Dear. If I ever use a character called Cupcake, Sweetie, Handsome, or some other endearment, I hope I’m on top of my dialog writing game.
Dialog writing slaps me with a myriad of doubts. One relates to interior monologue, such as in my earlier sentence: Should I capitalize those? had been one of my panicky questions. I still ride the rocky road of how to indicate a character’s direct mental thoughts. The use of italics can lead to odd sentence punctuation, like in the underlined sentence. How would you write this? Chime in about the correct way! As I re-read this, I know I’d change the sentence to: “Whether I should capitalize the endearments was one of my panicky questions.” Some sources direct the use of quotation marks for the specific wording in a character’s mind and instruct writers to use dialog tags such as “he thought,” “she said in her mind,” etc. I still am learning.
Another of my dialog writing challenges has to do with fidelity to my character’s voice. My eight-year old character may say, “He’s taller than me,” but I want to change it to, “He’s taller than I am.” The grammar stickler in me (and a spellcheck program or two) wants to “fix” my character’s usage, although such usage is character-appropriate. I catch myself disrespecting my character’s voice when I obsess about grammar. I lose the purpose of the dialog, with all its clues of word choice and delivery that can remind the reader of the character’s age, background, education, and past history.
The grammar stickler in me also cringes when I see a sentence like this: “Sally likes Betty more than Sue.” Does Sally like Betty more than she likes Sue, or does Sally like Betty more than Sue likes Betty? What is that sentence object rule? If I’ve written this in a draft, I delete the sentence and instead to write it plainly so that the meaning is clear.
Such are the insecurities in the mind of a writer! Now, turning the post towards READERS, you tell me – what odd punctuation or grammar jumps out at you while you are reading? When you see a misused word or grammar error, does it put you off the story? Do you stop to consider if it’s the character’s error, or his/her genuine voice, if you see it in dialog? Also, do you follow written dialog easily? We writers are taught to be stingy with dialog tags, i.e. the “he said, she said” attributions, especially when the conversation is between only two characters. Yet, even I lose track of who’s talking when either the conversation goes on and on, or when the dialog is many rapid back-and-forth comments. In the end, clarity rules, and the touch of a good writer ensures smooth dialog. Share your peeves and preferences here to help us writers hone our game.