Using Commas in Dialogue
There seems to be some confusion when using commas in dialogue. The commas and periods always go inside the quotation marks, whether single or double. Example: “I want to go with you,” he said. Or: He said, “I want to go with you.” I constantly see errors regarding this rule in print. The Chicago Manual of Style says this is the traditional style, and was used well before the first edition of the manual in 1906.
Question marks and exclamation points go inside if they are part of the dialogue and outside if they are part of the entire sentence. Example: Why did I keep hearing over and over in my head the words, “I’ll never forget you”? Before he said good-bye, he asked, “Will I ever forget you?”
“Commas in Adverbial Phrases and Clauses” will be the topic of next week’s blog.
Now let’s look at some basic rules regarding commas:
Always place a comma before a conjunction introducing an independent clause. In other words, place a comma between two independent clauses separated by a conjunction. Independent clauses have a subject and a verb, and they can stand alone. (The situation looked hopeless, but there was one remaining chance for success.) or (The situation looked hopeless, but I didn’t believe it.)
However, do not join independent clauses with a comma if they are lacking a conjunction. They need to be joined with a semi-colon, or they can be cut into two separate sentences. (The situation looked hopeless; there was one remaining chance for success.) or (The situation looked hopeless. There was one remaining chance for success.)
A common mistake made with the comma is to separate a dependent clause from an independent clause when they are joined with a conjunction. (I was told the situation looked hopeless but didn’t believe it.) Each clause must have a subject in order to need a comma before the conjunction.
Misuse of the comma in this way is one of the most common errors made in writing.
We are beginning a seven-part series on “The Elusive Comma.”
“The comma, which seems to cup the sense of the preceding phrase and hold it out to us, timidly and respectfully, is one of our greatest breakthroughs. The civilizing influence of this punctuation aid derives partly from its odd shape, the shape of mosquito larvae and sea horses: close inspection reveals the implied high culture of its asymmetrical tapering swerve, so distinctly an advantage over the more rustic period.” –Nicholson Baker
The punctuation error that seems to occur most often in the hundreds of manuscripts crossing my desk each year is misuse of the comma. It is important to learn when to use and when not to use commas. To make matters worse, The Chicago Manual of Style, The Associated Press Handbook, and most grammar books list different rules. Most Christian publishers have their own style sheets, but they basically follow The Chicago Manual of Style, which is the standard in the book publishing industry. Since it is costly, I suggest you buy Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style to help you with grammar, punctuation, and word usage. First copyrighted in 1935, this little 92-page book is packed with all the basics. It can be purchased inexpensively on Amazon.com.
After you reach the climax in your story, be brief and be gone. Wrap it up as quickly as possible, being careful not to leave any loose ends. Once you have reached the climax, your readers won’t have any reason to keep reading.
Set your story aside for a week, then go back and rewrite and rewrite more. Ask yourself, “Will it hurt the story if I leave out this word, this paragraph, this entire scene?” If not, take it out. Whittle away all the dead wood. Make sure your characters are well developed, and the main character solves his or her problem, averts disaster, or overcomes his opponent himself? Your scenes should move along smoothly and transition well from one to another. And also make sure you have not left any loose ends?
It doesn’t matter if you are writing fiction or nonfiction, you must use good fiction techniques. People love stories. They want to escape from real life into an imaginary adventure, but they need help with their problems too. You can meet their real needs by meeting their felt needs through the vehicle of fiction or nonfiction stories. And God can teach spiritual truths through your fictional or real characters. If you are writing about real people, you may want to change their names and/or possibly write the story under a pseudonym. We don’t want friends and family hurt by what we write.
This ends the blog series on “Writing the Short Story.”
It may help to think through your story in scenes. (See previous blog for more information on scenes.) Each scene must move the story forward. If an event is unnecessary, leave it out. Even in a book, your writing must be tight.
Scenes include five things:
- Somebody wins
Build suspense as you go along. Keep your readers guessing. Before a conflict is solved, put a barrier in your main character’s path. Don’t give the story away. Once you get into novel writing, you can confront the main character with conflict upon conflict, but in short stories stick to one conflict. Keep your readers hanging on a cliff. In novels, try to end each chapter on a cliffhanger. If you don’t, the readers might put your book down and never pick it up again. Don’t you have half-read books on your shelf?
Stories need to be filled with action. Stay out of your character’s mind, and keep the story focused on his or her activities. Once in a while, you can tell us what the main character thinks, but not all the time. Help your readers identify with the main character and the problems he or she is experiencing.
Short stories and novels have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Write the beginning and the end before you go back and fill in the middle. You may change some things as you go along, but you must have a game plan.
Another way to phrase this is the three O’s:
Objective – Beginning
Obstacle – Middle
Outcome – End
In the first paragraph of your story, you must hook your readers. Open with an exciting beginning that makes them want to read on. Also open with the viewpoint character. Write your story as seen from one person’s viewpoint, either first or third person; third person is usually easier to write. Paint a brief picture of your main character, showing their personality, so the reader can see that person and identify with them.
Example taken from The Hair Pulling Bear Dog by Lee Roddy:
At first, D.J. Dillon thought the terrible nightmare had returned. In his sleep, he again heard the squeal of brakes, the crash, and then the awful silence. The 13-year-old boy’s blue eyes blinked open. He stared into the soft moonlit darkness of the kitchen where he slept on a rollaway bed.
His blond head turned automatically toward his parents’ bedroom wall beside him. He started to call softly, “Mom?” Then he remembered.
She was dead six months now, killed in that auto accident. The mountain’s silence had carried the sound for miles. D.J. had heard it up the canyon without knowing who was in the collision.
Memories flashed over him again. The hurt swallowed him like a silent, ugly monster. D.J. started to turn over and bury his face in the dusty pillow when he heard the crash again-but now he was wide awake!
Now write a synopsis of your story (whether it is true or fictional). Eventually this will form the body of your story. On the first draft, let it flow down on paper. Don’t worry about grammar, punctuation, or phraseology. Just get your story down. If you think of small details as you go, include them. But don’t worry about your construction in this first rough draft. Leave yourself free from constraints so your creative juices can flow. After it is written, lay it aside and let it cool.
Now go on to work on another project. Have a file folder or a folder on your computer labeled with the name of each project you are working on. Keeping organized records is imperative. Every time you find something pertaining to that idea, place it in the file. You may prefer to keep your files and research material electronically on your computer, but I would always suggest you have a hard copy backup.
God inspires us to write; I’m convinced of that. But God doesn’t tell us the words will flow down on paper and settle in concrete. He is not going to do our work for us—He will only guide us along the way. Writing the first draft is the creative part. For me, this is the easiest part. The hard part is rewriting, and rewriting, and rewriting.
Remember that I told you to write a theme sentence and to make an outline before you began the actual writing. Then get as much down on paper as you can without worrying about the structure. Now let’s go back and put in the actual structure in the next blog.
Currently, one of the fastest growing markets in all of Christian writing is fiction. However, if you are a beginning writer, I do not suggest you start with a novel. Instead, write a short story for a church school take-home paper or an online website. See The Christian Writers Market Guide for a list of markets.
The tips I give will work for fictional techniques in nonfiction pieces, such as personal experience stories, as well as for short anecdotal stories written within nonfiction articles and books.
An excellent definition of fiction is given by author Lee Roddy. “Creating characters in conflict culminating in crisis and change with commentary.” The four key words are character, conflict, crisis, and change, called the “4 C’s of Fiction.”
A story is comprised of three elements: theme, plot, and character. Normally you can think of theme as the foundation on which the story sits. Your focus sentence will be based on the theme or main point you are trying to achieve. The story is either character-driven or plot-driven, depending on whether the main character is the most important element or whether the storyline is more important. These three qualities are always integral parts of your story, regardless of your emphasis. Think of them as forming a triangle with the theme as the base.
As in other writing, whether books, articles, or stories, form a focus sentence before you begin. This is the glue that holds the entire story together. The structure will be different for fiction than for nonfiction. Also, write a rough outline or a short running synopsis of the story. This may change as the story unfolds, but you need to have a plan in mind even though this may end differently.
Last week you were given Tips 7-9 for Time Management. Here are Tips 10-12 to help you manage your time, so you will be able to find more time for your writing.
- Keep Accurate Financial Records
Keep a ledger of expenses and income for your writing. Excel is an excellent computer program for keeping financial records. If you are making a serious attempt to run a business, you can write off the expenses on your tax return. Get receipts for your postage, office supplies, telephone calls, and dinners with editors. Also, if you drive to an interview or other job-related function, mileage can be deducted.
Keep track of your submissions—what is out in circulation, where you sent it, and when you e-mailed it.
- Avoid Procrastination
Have you heard people say, “I’ve always wanted to be an author. I’m going to write when the children grow up, when I retire, when my husband retires, etc. Someday, when I have the time, I’m going to…” If you are going to become a writer, you need to start right now.
- Touch the Lives of Others
Writing is 99 percent perspiration and one percent inspiration. It takes a little talent, a strong desire, and a lot of hard work. If you manage your time properly, you will find time to write. Remember what I said at the beginning: God gives us enough hours to do all that He wants us to do. We have 86,400 seconds every day. Let’s use this time to glorify God in all we do.
This concludes the series on Time Management Tips for Writers.
Here are tips 7-9 to help you manage your time, so you will be able to find more time for your writing.
- Find a Quiet Place to Concentrate
When you write to glorify God, He deserves all of your attention. You can’t concentrate if the TV is blaring, the phone is ringing, or children are screaming. You need to find a place that is free from interruptions.
- Keep Your Body as Well as Your Mind in Shape
If you eat properly, get enough sleep, and exercise regularly, your mind will be sharper and more creative. Also, go out and participate in activities. In order to pull information out of your mind, there has to be a storehouse from which to withdraw it. Have you ever experienced a time when you were pulling more out than you were putting in? Didn’t you feel drained? Read. Read for pleasure as well as things related to what you are writing. You should spend as many hours reading as you do writing.
- Organize Your Work
Keep your home-office looking professional. Organize each writing project in a file folder as well as on your computer and on and electronic backup. Label each folder as you obtain ideas for articles or books. What may start out as an article file on “Dealing with Stress” may turn into a book five years down the road. Place everything you find regarding that subject in your file folder and/or computer file.
Tips 10-12 will be given in next week’s blog.