Sunday, January 25, 2015

Soaping up

Providing readers with information they need to know is necessary, of course, and a great way to do that is by using dialogue. You have to make sure, however, to avoid what I call “soap-opera dialogue.” You shouldn’t have characters discussing things they already know just for the benefit of the reader. Chitchat like this is called soap-opera dialogue because it’s used in soaps frequently to help viewers who may have missed a few shows. Example:

Rick: “Jeff got here about ten minutes ago.”
Todd: “Jeff? That sleazy attorney who broke up with Natalie last week after Dr. Lebowitz told him she had a brain tumor?”
Rick: “Yep. He flew in this morning. I guess he figures that big murder trial of his in New Orleans can go on without him.”

In conversations like this you can almost see the characters winking at each other. Never use soap-opera dialogue in your novel.

Paul Thayer

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Which hunting

            The problems many writers have with the words that and which make copy editors inveterate which-hunters. Remember that a nonrestrictive clause is not essential for the reader to understand the full meaning of the word or words that it modifies. It simply adds more information, describing but not limiting (“restricting”) what it modifies. On the other hand, a restrictive clause contains information that is essential for the reader to understand the full meaning of the word or words that it modifies. It limits (“restricts”) what it modifies. To keep things simple, use the relative pronoun that to begin restrictive clauses and which to begin a nonrestrictive clause. Examples:

He showed me the book that arrived in the mail today. [The meaning is restricted to just one book—the one that arrived in the mail today.]

He showed me the new Stephen King novel, which is the one I told you about yesterday. [The clause just adds more information to the sentence.]

            Also note that you can often delete the word that in many constructions: The books [that] I ordered arrived today.

Paul Thayer

Sunday, January 11, 2015

The Possessed

One rule of grammar that is easily overlooked says that writers should not ascribe possession to inanimate things like buildings. Example: the hospital’s wide double doors. This example isn’t nearly as clumsy as one I caught in an unpublished short story once, where the writer used the phrase the chimney’s smoke, but it still breaks the rule that says inanimate objects cannot possess. Some phrases that form all or part of the subject or predicate are acceptable, however:

He spent a week’s salary on computer games.
Day’s end found the expedition at the river.
They discovered her body at the water’s edge.

Also, certain inanimate objects that have been personified may show possession:

The ship’s rudder was damaged when it ran aground.
The students made a model of the airplane’s fuselage.

Editors are generally more tolerant today about applying this rule, so few would cavil at innocuous expressions like the hospital’s wide double doors. Nevertheless, I would not push my luck by writing expressions like the chimney’s smoke and the house’s roof, for instance.

Paul Thayer

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Using commas to avoid misreading

Sometimes you need to insert a comma for no other reason than to avoid the misreading of a sentence.

Consider these two sentences:

In the place where the willow grew the river was broad and slow.

Once he had been allowed to attend the exorcism of a boy in rural Nigeria.

These sentences could be easily misread. In the first sentence the reader may think you’re saying that the willow tree grew the river (that would be something to see) unless you place a comma after the word grew.

In the second sentence, if you don’t put a comma after the first word, Once, the reader will take that word as a conjunction that means “at the moment when” or “as soon as.” If you use this word as an adverb, it means “at some indefinite time in the past.” To communicate that meaning you have to place a comma after Once.

More examples:

As we would expect Freud’s self-evaluation would hardly be agreed upon by everyone.

To clarify the meaning of this sentence, you should place a comma after the word expect.

When I woke up Annette was looking down at me.

The first-person narrator did not wake up Annette. He woke up and saw her looking down at him. To make that clear, put a comma after the word up.

When we had finished eating Robert and I left the room.

Unless you’re writing about cannibals (“Pass the salt, please”), nobody ate Robert. Lucky for him. Put a comma after the word eating.

Two cannibals are eating a clown. One of the cannibals asks the other one, "Does this taste funny to you?"

Paul Thayer