Saturday, 21 December 2013

How do flash forwards work?

Due to popular demand, I’ve been asked to revisit this subject because it seems to be causing a few headaches for quite a number of writers who are trying to grasp how to use them and where to use them in their narrative.
Firstly, flashforwards, or prolepsis, to give its proper name, are quite different from flashbacks, so writers should understand the differences and how each one works with the narrative, specifically in the way they relay information to the reader.

The flashback, or analepsis, that we are all familiar with is a narrative device that allows the character and the reader to step back into a defining moment in the character’s past; one that directly affects the situation in the present. It assists with the main story and can also help move the story forward.  Flashbacks are used for all genres.
Flashfowards, however, cannot be used in most genres. Why? Because the future has not yet happened. Common sense tells us that we cannot write about something that is yet to happen in the same way we use flashbacks, so you can’t ordinarily flash forward. You can, however, foreshadow what may come, as a way of hinting to the reader likely, significant events.

Of course, that does not mean you can’t use them at all, because you can, but unless you are specifically writing a science fiction or fantasy based story, flashforwards play no part in normal narrative.
But why can’t I use one crime love story or my crime thriller? Who says so? What’s the difference?

As with most of fiction writing, it’s not necessarily about writing rules, but rather the use of common sense.
In simple terms, the past is always accessible, because those events have already taken place, so you can flashback at any time. The story logically follows series of chronological events.

The only time you can flashforward, however, and break chronological events, is if the genre and type of story allows it – i.e. sci-fi or fantasy stories, or stories of time travel, where the realms of physics - space, time and dimensions - can be manipulated to suit the story.  They are not bound by normal conventions.
If you were to write a flashforward into your conventional genre crime novel, romance, western or historical novel etc, then you would be breaking the order of chronological events by showing a future that is yet to happen and therefore killing any sense of surprise for the reader, and plot twists would be pointless.

As already pointed out, you can allude to future events by using dream sequences or a character’s personal imaginings etc., but actual moments and events in the future for your characters haven’t taken place, therefore you can’t forward wind to those points.
So how do they work?

They work only if the conventions of the story allow it.

Flashforwards should be handled just as carefully as flashbacks. In other words, the writer needs to understand why a flashforward should take place, and why it is intrinsic to the progression of the story arc. Writers shouldn’t place flashforwards into the narrative in order to make it look good or to simply ‘pad out’ the story. 
Like flashbacks, flashforwards need careful consideration; that means they must be placed at the right moment in the story; they need to reflect what is happening in the main plot in the present, they need to somehow move the story forward and above all, they must make sense to the reader.

If the story needs a flash forward, it needs to directly relate to the main story and themes; it needs to be placed correctly, at the right moment, for the right effect. This is vital to ensure continuity within the story.  
It also needs to directly relate to the main character in the present.

Probably the most famous example of flashforward is Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Scrooge is transported by spirits to visit a future yet to take place. This happens because he has removed normal conventions by using ghosts and time travel to achieve this effect. This falls within the realms of the fantasy fiction genre.
So in other words, they can be used to express future events, as long as the story type or genre allows it.


·        The flashfoward needs to relate to the plot and the main character
·        It needs to move the story forward
·        It needs to be placed at the right moment within the narrative
·        It must relate to the main character in the present

Writing flashbacks can me troublesome, but flashfowards are harder to achieve, so it’s wise to give them careful consideration before you attempt any.

I’d like to take the opportunity to thank everyone for stopping by, and to wish you all a Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays and a prosperous New Year.

AllWrite will return 4th January 2014.

Saturday, 14 December 2013

Creating Character Dynamics – Part 2

Continuing our look at character dynamics (and not dynamic characters), we’ll explore the many ways of creating such dynamics so that the narrative gains greater dimension and depth.
As explained in Part 1, remember that real life supports much of what writers learn from and incorporate within their writing. And clever writers will exploit it for all its worth. That means conversations, movements, interactions, reactions, behaviours and many varied perspectives all come into play.
Character dynamics revolves around how characters interact with each other, and there are many factors that help create it:-
·        Dialogue – what characters say to each other and how they say it.
·        Conflicts between characters also creates dynamics - the reader gets to see how characters act with and around each other
·        Show a psychological perspective – what characters think and how their thoughts might affect others or impact the story arc and what emotions he or she might have.
·        Show a physical perspective – a character’s movements made in reaction to others, or acting against other influences.
·        Show actions and reactions – whether this is through dialogue, thoughts or physical actions, every action must have a reaction.
·        Show the surrounding environment – what’s happening around the characters that influence all of the above?
Let’s look at these in more detail.
What characters say to each other says a lot about who they are, but even more so by the way they say it, to whoever they say it to. Intonation and pitch are great aspects of conversation, especially so with characters. It’s one of the simplest ways to create character dynamics.
Writers can use the tone and resonance of dialogue, and what is said, to get the characters to spark off each other. They could be arguing passionately, they could be screaming in hatred at each other, they could be whispering sweet things…whatever it is, dialogue is a great way to get character dynamics into the narrative.
Conflict creates emotions, mostly negative ones. We all know it is bread and butter to any storyteller because the potential for character dynamics is endless. And it’s all down to emotions. 
Conflict creates emotion, such as dislike, hatred, loathing, unhappiness; fear etc., and is usually between protagonist and antagonist, so the potential for getting your characters to create ‘sparks’ is high.
Like dialogue, conflict is a great way for characters to interact, and a great way to produce lots of emotion.
A Psychological Perspective
As narrator, you need to let your readers know what your characters are really thinking, the emotions they feel when interacting with other characters, because insight is a wonderful thing for readers. It gets them closer to the characters, because they’re sharing the character’s intimate thoughts; their inner behaviour.
How character thoughts might affect their behaviour, and therefore those around them, is yet another way of creating character dynamics.  A character may say one thing, but they could be thinking another thing entirely.  This is great for creating subtle undercurrents between characters.
A Physical Perspective
Similar to a psychological perspective, the physicality of a character’s movements made in reaction to others, or acting against other influences, also conveys character dynamics.
The physicality doesn’t have to be overt. You can make it as subtle as you like. Either way, the reader will pick up on it.  It could be as simple as where your characters are standing in proximity to each other.  Are they close enough for eye contact, or are they standing apart?  Perhaps one character’s height means he or she is able to establish dominance over the other?  Are they gesturing, like real people do, or just standing there like statues?
Gestures and movements play an important part of creating character dynamics, so try not to overlook them.
Actions and Reactions
Remember that actions reveal character, therefore so do reactions. Every action must have a reaction; this is the whole point to character interaction. Without either, there is no character dynamics.
It’s the same in real life, when people react to others – whether it’s a reaction to something said or implied, or a reaction to something physical, like aggression or a physical attack, it’s about how that person responds.
It’s therefore important to show character reactions, responses and reflexes etc., because it enables momentum with the characters you’re working with, it reveals character and it also helps move the story forward.
The Environment
You might ask what the surrounding environment has to do with creating character dynamics, and it’s a relevant question, but it has more to do with dynamics than writers realise. 
Our environments form a background to life.  Whatever we do, wherever we go, the surrounding environment is always there. So, in our character’s case, the environs form a backdrop to the story.  It provides the reader with location, atmosphere and background.  
Of course, the environment can be part of the story, for instance it could be about a giant storm, or a major flood, or an apocalyptic, searing heat, turning everything to desert.
In a nutshell, the right environment should support the dynamics of the story and the characters.  It helps them interact. And when they interact, you get all of the above – dialogue, conflict, psychological and physical perspectives, actions and reactions.
There is more to character dynamics than meets the eye, but when you think about how and why your characters interact with each other, then you begin to understand the dynamic forces that help create great characters.  
Next week: How does a flash forward work?

Saturday, 7 December 2013

Creating Character Dynamics – Part 1

This isn’t about creating dynamic characters, but rather how writers create character dynamics.
In other words, it’s the way characters work with and against each other within the story. It’s the dynamics of characters and their relationships with each other that interest the reader and keep them engaged.

It’s about setting up the conflicts with and between characters; it’s about ways that characters actually interact with each other, their actions and reactions, their thoughts and emotions. It’s about ways of bringing the characters to life for your reader through in-depth characterisation.
But how do you get your characters to spark off one another in the first place?  How do you get them to simmer together, for instance, or to antagonise each other or fight one another? 

Writers should first understand the mechanics of character dynamics if they want to create it within their stories. A writer has to enable the subtle undercurrents of complex character relationships to affect their personalities in such a way that it impacts on their actions and emotions and what they say to each other.
But how does a writer achieve that?

The answer to that lies in real life. Some people easily ‘click or gel’ with other people, even those they have only just met. There is affinity. Their personalities complement each other; they may share the same traits or interests, they may form an instant bond etc.  It directly affects our personalities when we’re with such people; we generally have a positive and happy outlook, we’re at ease with them. 
Conversely, there are also people we simply cannot get along with. Personalities ‘clash’, because there is zero affinity or interest. This has a negative effect on our personality, and generally we’re unhappy with these people and feel uncomfortable in their presence.

The same is true for fiction, and that’s what creates the working dynamics between characters. Think about how you act, react and behave with people, whether friends, family or people you don’t like, think about what you say to them.
Not all people will agree. Not all people will get along – this is where conflict plays an important role within character dynamics, whether in real life of fiction.

The high and low points that you create in your stories will directly affect how characters behave with each other.
Here’s a simple example: you have a group of characters caught up in a disaster. (It could be a fire, a storm, an earthquake…anything). The thread of the story already dictates they must act together to help each other survive because of the environment they’re in. It also creates the perfect cauldron of conflict because not every character will agree, not every character will like each other. One will think he’s better than another. One will be more frightened than the others and so on.

Already there is tension and conflict, which will create arguments and clashes. The environment is adding to that tension. Emotions will be high. The characters will each act and react differently.
In simple terms, a character’s responses to various conflicts – their thoughts, emotions, actions and reactions, their behaviours – have a direct impact on those around them.  This is what character dynamics is about.

It’s these underlying forces which create interest, tone and atmosphere for readers, because they are sharing everything that goes on with each character.
In fact, they are sharing the character dynamics that you, as a writer, have created for them.

Next week: Creating Character Dynamics Part 2.

Sunday, 1 December 2013

Self Confidence and Writing

I’ve covered this subject in previous articles, but lots of you have been in touch asking about it, so it’s time for another visit to a common subject that clearly affects a lot of writers.
Self-confidence is a bit of an enigma. Outside of writing, most people are confident about many things in their daily lives, but the psychology behind what goes on when that confidence does an about-turn goes much deeper for writers, because often they go from confident and assured about their work, to doubtful and uncertain in the space of days.

But why?  Well, it usually happens the moment they have to submit their work for scrutiny by their peers, i.e. sending a MSS to an agent or publisher. The ‘jitters’ set in and they turn on their heels and run for the hills (metaphorically speaking).
This isn’t uncommon, however. Plenty of writers lose confidence in themselves (and their ability) when the moment comes to send off their masterpiece to the big bad agents and publishers. Suddenly they are confronted with the prospect of criticism and possible rejection (the two things writers dread most). The natural reaction to this is that they delay sending their novel out – sometimes for a long while, in order to avoid the inevitable.

All writers have, at some point, stuttered at the thought of letting go of their work and subjecting it critique (whether that criticism is positive or negative). Even long-established and experienced writers have had a confidence wobble or two in their careers.  And many more writers will approach that point. 
But what really makes otherwise ordinarily, confident writers refrain from sending out their work? What other reasons are there for a confidence meltdown?

Here’s a few you might recognise.
Just a few more changes…

The writer thinks that a few more tweaks to the story can make it absolutely 100% perfect. Because a submission needs to be the best it can possibly be, after all, right? 
Well, to a degree, yes.  It should be the best you can make it. It can’t be perfect, because perfection doesn’t exist, but the only drawback to this is that it creates a self-perpetuating circle of hopelessness. The writer will keep tweaking and changing and editing tinkering. The result? Nothing will ever get sent out.

Underneath this desire for perfection is a writer who actually lacks the confidence in what they’ve created, because fear of anything other than perfection will, in their minds, lead to failure.
Of course, this really isn’t true.  Success or failure cannot be measured by fear. Writers cannot let lack of confidence and fear of failure hold them hostage. 

The novel/story just isn’t good enough
Whether the story is good enough or not, in the writer’s mind, all confidence up to that point flies out the window. The shutters come down and the writer becomes blinkered, totally convinced that the story just isn’t good enough.  And if it isn’t any good, no publisher or agent will think it’s any good either.

This irrational thought process comes from the writer’s confidence in the mechanics of the story. Whether the story is really good or bad is irrelevant. It’s about the ability to have faith in the story and the characters, the themes and the plot etc, to have enough of that confidence to send it out to prospective agents and to learn from whatever might come back.
This sudden fall in confidence might come about for a number of reasons – the writer compares him or herself to famous, successful writers and realises the story just isn’t anywhere as good.  Another reason might be that the writer has read a similar great story by another author.  Again, the comparison is automatically made – in the writer’s mind his or her story isn’t good enough.

I’m not a good enough writer
Similar to not having enough confidence in the story they’ve created, this one centres wholly on the lack of confidence with their ability and skill.

Again, it doesn’t actually matter how good or experienced the writer is, it is really about the level of confidence that can let them down. This type of insecurity usually stems from writers directly comparing themselves to other authors and making the assumption that they will never be as good as they are.
What they don’t realise, however, is that many famous authors had to fight hard to be published in the first place. Not only that, but every writer is different; the way they write is different, their tones and styles might be different. The way some approach writing is quite different. No writer is the same.

Sometimes we lack the confidence to just jump into the deep end and swim for it.  But that’s how to get on with writing and the publishing world. Yes, rejections will happen, but more often than not, writers learn from them and become better. And yes, stories may not be that good, but again, writers will learn to make them better and stronger. And just because you are not Stephen King, Shakespeare or Salman Rushdie, you should not compare yourself with them.  Every writer is individual; therefore every piece of work is, too.
Of course, where there are those who turn into a quivering wreck at the thought of sending of their work, there are also those with an abundance of confidence. So much, in fact, that it becomes detrimental.

Having a quiet, balanced confidence is one thing, but having too much confidence that it borders arrogance will get a writer noticed for all the wrong reasons.  Over the last 25 years I’ve learned to spot these easily while critiquing. When someone tells me how great their story is; how fantastic the characters are, how it was written so easily and with little effort and how everyone who has ever read the story says how good the story is, I know that it will be a car crash. And sadly, I’ve always been proved right. 
Why? Because over-confidence is nature’s way of hiding the reality of truth.  And no one wants to admit their own shortcomings and inadequacies. We would rather lie to ourselves and bolster such failings instead. Overconfidence becomes a by-product of that process.

And sadly, these kinds of writers will never find true success.
Think of confidence as a fluid entity – it can move and change in depth and breadth. It can grow and become stronger.  It can also shrink and become weak and vanish.

Lack of confidence is all about fear.  Confidence can be bolstered or broken in an instant by circumstances, ourselves or our peers.  But it’s how a writer deals with it that makes the difference.
Jump in at the deep end, take a chance. Be quietly confident.

Next week: Creating character dynamics

Saturday, 23 November 2013

Dealing with Editors

As writers, we all aspire to be published, so when it finally happens, whether it’s a short story, a poem or a novel, you will find yourself working with an editor.
We’ve all heard stories about dealing with editors, but whatever you think about them, they are there to assist the writer, not make their life unbearable. The role they play forms an important part in the writing business.  Without them, there would be certain chaos, because then every amateurish, badly written story would make it into print. 
Of course, getting on the published ladder is not always a smooth process.  You may be lucky enough to receive an acceptance; however that doesn’t mean to say that your masterpiece is perfect, because it won’t be. The editor may want to change some aspects of the piece. This is quite common, so that doesn’t mean the writer should act like a stroppy teenager and stamp their feet.
To coin a well-used cliché, working with editors really is a two way street. Writers must understand that editors are there for a reason, to help the writer as part of the remit to being published.
Problems always arise when editors make suggestions to the writer to change certain things within or about the story. Very often they are only minor details that need changing.  That could be anything from a character name change or a change of story title. They may suggest cutting some narrative or dialogue, or perhaps they want more narrative included.  They might ask the writer to change a scene or two.  Whatever they suggest, it is done for the benefit of the writer and the story.
You may not agree with their input, or the changes they might make to your story, but you need to act professionally and with diplomacy if you want to get ahead and be published (and stay published). Writers should work with the editor, not against them. 
The natural reaction of most writers is to become instantly defensive about their work when editors suggest changes.  How dare an editor change my masterpiece! What do they know?  I know what’s best for my story; I know my story inside out, it doesn’t need changing!
Hands up if you’ve reacted like that. But they are editors; professionals who provide an objective, outside view of your work, people who know what kind of things work and what don’t, people who read stories for a living.
Editors want to work with and nurture writers, especially new ones. They will spot potential. They will notice talent.  They will know if a writer is worth investing in.  But they will also spot amateurs and they will pick up on your errors, even if you don’t.  They will guide and encourage where it’s needed, so it is worth showing the editor a willingness to learn and the commitment to and perseverance for hard work.
There is no doubt about it - some writers get very awkward and stroppy about being told to change their stories, because often they think they know it all. In their minds, their work is perfect and they simply can’t be told any different.  Unfortunately, this attitude won’t score any favours with potential editors.  Rather than being professional and open to suggestions and changes, these kinds of writers will come across as difficult, arrogant and awkward to work with, and editors will not give them a second chance.
It’s a two way street, remember.
Editors want to work with writers who are willing to work hard and are open to ideas and suggestions and advice, writers who are adaptable, those who can show respect for their editor and their decisions, and more importantly, those are dedicated to their craft.  They are simply doing their job to help you accomplish yours.
Often I have had to make changes to stories at the request of editors.  I’ve had to change the titles of a story; I’ve had to change some parts of the narrative in other stories, or certain words.  But rather than gnashing my teeth and throwing my rattle around as tough I’d been affronted, I made the necessary changes, showed my willingness to adapt, and above showed my professionalism by trusting their decisions.  The result is a solid, working relationship with all my editors. 
The message is quite simple.  Being professional and co-operative will earn your editor’s respect.  And that means they will want to work with you again and again.
Chances are that if you do get onto the published ladder, and you collaborate and work on your relationship with your editor, you’ll gain each other’s respect and stay published for many years to come.
Next week: Writing and self-confidence.

Saturday, 16 November 2013

How to Write Dramatic Dialogue

Dramatic dialogue can create the right atmosphere for the reader, whether it’s action or emotion, or it can fall flat, depending how well the writer has structured such dialogue.

Effective dialogue in a story is one thing, but dramatic dialogue is somewhat different. It should create an edge, a sense of presence.  It should hold the reader’s attention for several reasons: to impart necessary or critical information, to create character-reader immediacy, to create tension and conflict and to move the story forward.

The most common problem with dialogue is that writers tend to write lots of ineffectual and unnecessary dialogue in order to pad out the narrative, but most of it is rubbish.  It’s just not necessary.  Every writer should learn that dialogue must have meaning for both the characters and the reader.

Dialogue should only contain information necessary to the story arc, otherwise it becomes unnecessary padding.

The knack to writing great dialogue is all to do with how well writers listen.  Listen to real conversations. It’s not just about what people are saying, it’s the way they say it that sometimes makes us take notice. The tone, the depth and the strength of someone’s voice can mean so many things.

To understand this concept, simply close your eyes while listening to people talking.  Rather than seeing them talk (and thus be open to interpretation and predisposition), you are only hearing them. Your brain will automatically tune into the different tones, variances, nuances and pitch. You notice much more in their dialogue. 

It’s the ability to listen that helps writers create dramatic – and effective – dialogue, not the ability to write.

There are, of course, other factors that help writers to create dramatic conversations that add so much more to the story.

Firstly, dramatic dialogue evolves with the drama you create in your scenes. No drama = no dramatic dialogue, it’s that simple. Emotional scenes, action scenes, tense scenes…they all require the kind of dialogue to enhance it and emphasise it.

What happens when people argue and fight?  What happens when lovers get together?  What happens when people are threatened?  What happens when people find themselves in a terrible, life-threatening situation? 

Their conversations or exchanges would differ greatly for each situation, but each one would have drama in one form or another.  This is true for your story scenes.

Your characters are the key here.  You have to know what your characters want and why they want it.  All characters have objectives and motives - they’re always trying to influence other characters, perhaps trying to get something from them, or they’re hiding something from others (in a good way or an evil way). Other characters, meanwhile, may be resisting the urge to give in to such influences, and will have their own motives.

In other words, tension and conflict within the story should exist between characters, and this should be reflected in the dialogue.

Remember, rhythms in our speech patterns alternate within conversations, so the same should be true of your characters. In heated conversations, the tone of voice changes intensely; ranging from high pitched with emotion, to gruff and raw if someone is shouting.  When we’re cagey our voices tend to waver or stutter, and when we’re happy we become loud and tonal.

People in conversation will have contrasting voices.  So should your characters.
For example:

He leaned in.  Low whispers licked against her skin.  ‘Where are they?  Tell me, and I won’t have to hurt you.’

‘I -- I must have dropped them…’

‘Don’t lie to me!’

Her voice trembled. ‘I swear, I dropped the keys, I was scared…’

Again, it’s worth listening to people’s conversations to understand how this works.

Dramatic dialogue relies on emphasis to create the right effect for the reader.

Shorter dialogue structure is very effective for creating drama, tension and conflict, rather than long, boring monologues. Dialogue should carry emotion and vulnerability and reflect the kind of scenes you’re writing.
‘I can’t open the door, it won’t move.’

He tugged on the handle as the flames licked around the car wheels.  No use. ‘Damn it…’

Her voice became serrated. ‘Please hurry!’

‘I can’t, it’s buckled.’

‘Please, I don’t want to die!’

‘You’re not gonna die. Cover yourself, I’m going to smash the window…’

Dialogue shouldn’t be flat or unemotional. It shouldn’t go on too long and become boring and it shouldn’t become leaden.  Of course, if you have created a thoroughly multidimensional character that leaps from the page, then the dialogue writes itself.

Create obstacles to communication between characters.  For instance, if character A is trying to get his point across about something extremely important, perhaps life changing, then provide resistance from character B or C; something that provides tension and frustration. For example:

‘We have to close the plant down, right now, before it’s too late.’

‘You said that six months ago, Mr Jones, and nothing happened,’ Smith said. ‘Do you know how much that cost this town?  I’m not prepared to do it again, all on a whim.’

‘It’s not a whim, it’s scientific fact. There’s gonna be an explosion if you don’t close the plant, I’m telling you.’

Smith turned away. ‘I haven’t got time for this rubbish. I’m not prepared to close down a multi-million dollar operation because of some mad scientist…’

Something else to consider is that dramatic dialogue should create a sense of immediacy with the reader.  In other words, the reader should identify with the characters and the situation. That should come from the emotion, tension and conflict created.  They should feel the fear of a character in danger. They should feel the frustration of a character not getting what he wants or needs. They should empathise with the character when they lose something dear.  You get the idea.

To summarise, remember the following:-

·        Dramatic scenes require dramatic dialogue.
·        Know your character’s motivations and desires – create obstacles in their conversations, get them passionate or frustrated or angry. Get the most from their dialogue.
·        Emphasise speech – use tone and pitch and contrasting rhythms.
·        Keep the dialogue short and snappy.  People don’t prattle on and on when in an emergency, neither should your characters.
·        Emotions and tensions and conflict all create drama.
·        Create immediacy with your reader.

Above all, the key to writing dramatic dialogue isn’t your ability to write, it’s your ability to listen.

Next week: Working with editors.

Saturday, 9 November 2013

Getting to grips with simple punctuation – Part 2

Following on from part 1, we’ll take a look at the remainder of simple punctuation, such as Semi Colons, Colons, Question and Exclamation Marks, and Dashes, and how to use them effectively in fiction writing.

These are useful little things, and often underused. There are those who argue against their use, however, when used correctly, they add so much to the readability of a story and can alter a sentence dramatically.
They can separate two independent clauses that are too closely linked for a full stop to interrupt the flow and pace, for example:

He barely had time to digest her news; she broke it to him, gleeful.
The light flickered; she knew she was in trouble.
Semi colons can be used to introduce an independent clause preceded by an adverb, such as then, so or however. For example:

John thought she’d forgotten, as always; so he left it.
He wondered why she hadn’t showed; then he remembered.

While they are very useful, try not to overdo them. One thing to remember, however, is that semi colons should never be used where a comma will suffice. 

These are not used as much as commas and semi colons, but they still have their uses.  And, surprisingly, they still cause writers problems, because they’re never quite sure if they should use them or where they should be used.
Colons can be used in place of commas when introducing speech that suggests directness, for example:

She said: ‘Get out.’
He knew what followed: Death.
You will also notice I have used colons to express examples…for example:

Colons, on the whole, don’t make too many appearances in narrative, but like all other punctuation, they should be used correctly and in moderation.
Question and Exclamation Marks

This is another area that can confuse writers.  Firstly, any direct question must be followed by a question mark.
Are you coming with us?
Do you like the colour blue?
What time is it?
What do I care?

These examples are all direct questions, so if your characters are asking direct questions, they must have question marks.  In narrative, if the author is asking an open question, that must also be followed by a question mark.
John watched from the window.  What was he supposed to do?

Indirect questions don’t need questions, even if they sound as though they might:
Now where could it be, you’ve hidden it so well.
I don’t suppose you care much.
I wonder if he’s bringing Dave with him.

Something else that writers struggle with is where to place a question mark if the when using interior dialogue or character thoughts. For example:
Now what, he wondered.
Now what? he wondered.

The first example reads more like a statement, and doesn’t look right, however, it’s perfectly acceptable to place the question mark directly after the question being asked, as per the second example. 

The other thing to remember is not to place a full stop or a comma after a question mark after question marks or exclamation marks because they already include the full stop.
So what about exclamation marks? (Notice this is a direct question, therefore it needs the question mark).

Exclamation marks are always overused by writers. Beginners pepper their fiction with them, thinking that they will add drama or emotion, when in fact the narrative should do that work for them. 
The following examples are exclamation uses that are not required.

‘Oh, you sill thing!’
‘That’s not fair!’
‘I love this!’
The rule of thumb is this: use exclamation marks for genuine exclamations.
He saw the danger. ‘Stop!’
Terror rose up her throat. ‘Help!’

The dash is another one of those little punctuation marks that should be used effectively and in moderation. They can be used singularly or as a pair to parenthesise a phrase.

Pairs are often used in place of commas to separate parts of the narrative, for instance:
The fact that she lied – and she knew this – made Jane angry.

The separated part ‘and she knew this’ is informing the reader, like a little aside.  The sentence still makes sense without it. The same is true of this example:
The part she’d dreaded – the climb – made her stomach bunch.

Always make sure that when you separate narrative with dashes, it makes sense when you read it, otherwise you lose the effect you are trying to achieve and it loses readability.
Singular dashes are often used to add dramatic tone to a surprising end to a sentence.

He tripped over his feet – by then it was too late, and he fell down the slope.
He swung the pole – angry at the intruder...

Dashes can also be placed at the end of a sentence to show a speaker has been interrupted or someone else has cut in with dialogue, for example:

‘I could always take the dog for a w--’
‘Don’t bother,’ she said.

All punctuation has a place in writing, but it’s how writers use it that matters.  Correct usage is paramount if writers want the right effect within their narrative. Knowing when and where to place punctuation is key.

Next week: Creating dramatic dialogue

Saturday, 2 November 2013

Getting to grips with simple punctuation – Part 1

Some things might seem simple to most writers, but sometimes the prospect of executing correct punctuation can bring many writers out in a cold sweat.
We all have different abilities and weren’t all born with the ability to execute perfect written English. That said, there are plenty of writers who have fallen into bad habits with their punctuation and wrongly assume an editor will correct all their mistakes for them. They won’t. That’s the job of the writer, so it pays to get on top of punctuation.

This simple checklist below is there to help those writers who struggle with punctuation. It shows how and when to use it, with examples of correct usage.
Full Stops/Period

It’s the single most important punctuation mark and yet the least understood by many writers. That’s because they don’t fully understand its significance to sentences, or how to use it to their advantage.
Full stops in the right places can not only change the tone of sentences, but they can alter the pace and flow and they can add or detract impact for the reader.

The most common mistake among new writers the use a comma in place of a full stop.  That means the comma becomes overused and sentences become overly long or clunky.
We all know that full stops indicate the end of a sentence. But how they’re used makes all the difference. Full stops in the right places show assertiveness. They show breadth. Depth. Pace. They create better sentences.

Now, if I had written the above paragraph differently, without the full stops placed strategically, and I’d used more commas, then it would look like this:-
We all know that full stops indicate the end of a sentence, but how they’re used makes all the difference, because full stops in the right places show assertiveness, they show breadth, depth, pace, and they create better sentences.

While there is nothing too wrong with the above paragraph, other than being longer, the construction loses impact. There is no pace, no tone and certainly no assertiveness created by the first example.
Here’s another example. Which do you think is the better strategic full stop placement?

David reached for the light, felt the darkness invade his senses, pressing against him heavily.
David reached for the light. He felt the darkness invade his senses. It pressed against him, heavy.

Where sentences are concerned, writers should consider their construction, and what they really want to convey to the reader. Placing full stops in the right places helps them achieve that.

A comma indicates a short break within a sentence, a pause for breath, before continuing. They add clarity to sentences by grouping together or separating words or phrases, or they can separate a clause from the main sentence. For example:

One, two, three, go!
I used carrots, onions, parsnips, potatoes and leeks in my stew…
He was alone, afraid, so I went to help.

It’s where the writer places the comma that demonstrates the right impact for the reader. Take these examples:

You can have it, too.
You can have it too.
You can, have it too.

Grammatically speaking, the first example is the correct one. It’s clear in intention and doesn’t show any ambiguity. The construction of the other two examples isn’t good, so the sentences are weakened. The last example is grammatically incorrect, so don’t make this kind of mistake in your narrative.

There are many different commas, too, like vocative commas and series commas.
Vocative commas are used when someone is addressed.  ‘Morning, John’, ‘Hi, Sue’ or ‘Welcome, Doctor.’ The comma separates the greeting from the person being greeted.

The thing with commas is that it’s also very easy to create ambiguity if placed incorrectly in the sentence.  For example, many writers (beginners and experienced alike) fall for this type:
What’s on, Pedro?
What’s on Pedro?

The first one is correct because the comma denotes a short pause while asking Pedro a question. The second one is asking what’s on him.  A piano?  A sheet? A huge spider?  See how the lack of comma creates ambiguity and shows how the sentence can change in meaning? Be careful to avoid this.

The series comma, which is sometimes referred to as the Oxford comma, is a comma placed before the co-ordinating conjunction (and, nor, or) when there is a series of words. It is often used to give an extra pause in longer sentences so that they read better. I used an Oxford comma in an earlier example:

…because full stops in the right places show assertiveness, they show breadth, depth, pace, and they create better sentences.

The series comma has been placed directly after the word ‘pace’ and before the co-ordinating conjunction of ‘and’.
The thing to remember with commas is to use them only when necessary.  Don’t overuse them – that’s what other punctuation is for. 

Apostrophes can cause lots of confusion, but there’s no real need to fear them.

They are used to contract words such as can’t (cannot), won’t (will not), don’t (do not) etc. They also show possession – Jane’s car, the boys’ lockers, David’s toy, the car’s interior.  In these examples, the car belongs to Jane, the lockers belong to the boys, the toy belongs to David and the interior belongs to the car.
One of the most simple contractions causes the most confusion – it’s and its. 

Always remember that it’s is a contraction of ‘it is’, whereas its means ‘belonging to it’.  Writers should always double check if it is the contracted form by reading the sentence aloud, for instance:
It’s raining outside – This is correct use.  It’s is contracted from ‘it is raining outside’.

Its eyes closed – This is correct. If you read the sentence as though it were a contraction, you’ll see it doesn’t look or sound right - ‘It is eyes closed.’  Therefore, ‘its’ is the correct form.
What about these examples? Correct or incorrect?  (Answers at the foot of the article).

It’s all in the genes.
It’s wrath became stronger.
Its time we got going.
It’s unlikely to happen again.
The bit between its teeth.
Hope its okay for you.
It’s time you knew your apostrophes!

It seems all fairly simple enough, but here’s where it gets a little more complicated.

Apostrophes are also required even if the noun is inanimate; for instance, the car’s engine, the pub’s door or two years’ probation.
It’s also worth noting that where plurals are concerned, apostrophes are not required, even if a noun ends in a vowel.  That means words such as bananas, tables, aeroplanes, vegetables etc, don’t have an apostrophe.

Take the earlier example of the boys’ lockers. The apostrophe is placed after the ‘s’ because in this sentence, boys is plural.  If it had been singular, it would be the boy’s locker. This denotes possession of the locker by the boy. 
If you’re still unsure, here are some other examples:

The girls’ dormitory – girls is plural.  The dormitory belongs to several girls.
The girl’s dormitory – girl is singular. The dormitory belongs to her.
The dogs’ walk – dogs is plural. There are several dogs walking.
The singer’s studio – Singer is singular.  The studio belongs to the singer.
The Managers’ meeting – managers is plural. There are several managers in the meeting.

It’s understandable that apostrophes, especially possessive ones, cause confusion, but the more you work with them, the better you understand them.

Answers to the apostrophe examples:-

It’s all in the genes P
It’s wrath became stronger (Should be its) Ò
Its time we got going Ò     (Should be it’s)
It’s unlikely to happen again P
The bit between its teeth P
Hope its okay for you Ò     (Should be it’s)
It’s time you knew your apostrophes! P

Next week: Getting to grips with simple punctuation – Part 2