It’s a question that arises regularly among new fiction writers – what is the best way to represent a character’s thoughts in print?
In reply, the first point I would make is that this is a stylistic matter, not one of grammar. There is no single “correct” way to punctuate or otherwise represent a character’s thoughts. Some authors put them in quotation marks, others use italics. I’ve even seen thoughts put in parentheses or ALL CAPS, although I certainly don’t recommend that!
In fact, though, the most common approach nowadays is to avoid using any special punctuation or formatting to represent thoughts, and that is the style I would strongly recommend.
A crucial point here is that most stories today are written in scenes portrayed through the eyes of a single viewpoint character, whether first person (I) or third person (he/she). In such cases there is no need for any extra punctuation to signify a character’s thoughts. The whole scene is, in effect, the thoughts and perceptions of the ‘viewpoint’ character. The example below – written in a third-person limited viewpoint – may illustrate why extra punctuation for thoughts is usually unnecessary.
“What time is it?” Sarah asked.
That’s the third time you’ve asked me in the last twenty minutes, James thought. Still, he checked his watch. “Five to eight,” he said.
“Why aren’t they here?” Sarah asked. She stared at him. “Do you think they’ve been in an accident?”
“I doubt it,” James replied. “Probably they just got held up in the traffic.” Unless Phil’s car has broken down again, he thought to himself.
If you tried putting quotation marks around the thoughts in this passage, you would end up with almost everything in quotes, and total confusion over whether the character was speaking or thinking.
In general, the problem with using quotation marks around a character’s thoughts is (a) it makes the text look cluttered, and (b) it invites confusion with speech.
So what about the alternative of using italics for thoughts? Yes, you can do this, but as mentioned above, when a scene is written from a limited viewpoint anyway (as is usually the case in modern fiction), there is no need to represent thoughts any differently from the rest of the text. And if it’s unnecessary, why do it?
Using italics to represent thoughts also has a number of drawbacks:
You are likely to waste a lot of time agonizing over whether a particular line is a thought or a description.
You will end up with much of your text in italics, which looks ugly and distracting.
And finally, you will lose the option of using italics when, for some dramatic reason, extra emphasis is required.
If you want further evidence for my case, browse through any popular novel published today. You will be hard pressed to find ANY examples of quotation marks or italics used specifically to represent thoughts. In the vast majority of cases, thoughts are presented in plain text without any other punctuation or adornment.
So my advice is clear. NEVER use quotation marks for thoughts. If it’s absolutely necessary to indicate thoughts in a special way, use italics (but mostly this shouldn’t be required). And keep italics for their proper purpose, which is providing extra emphasis.
Words’Worth – A Fiction Writer’s Guide to Serious Editing is a book by Jane Riddell, available on Amazon in both paperback and Kindle e-book form. Jane was kind enough to send me a review copy, so here are my thoughts…
Words’Worth (as I’ll call it for short) is a concise (54-page) guide for fiction writers who wish to edit their own work (or have no other option). The main content is set out in three chapters: Overview Editing, Line-by-line Editing, and Pace.
The idea is that you use the advice in the book as a kind of checklist once your first draft has been completed. The chapter on Overview Editing covers such matters as locating the reader in time, avoiding melodrama, and providing breaks from tension. Each item is described in a paragraph or two, and in most cases examples are given as well.
The chapter on line-by-line editing covers the sorts of thing typically covered in traditional copy editing, including avoiding cliches, using strong verb forms, active rather than passive voice, and so on. Finally, the chapter about Pace covers such matters as varying sentence length and deleting unnecessary adverbs and adjectives.
I thought that the advice was sound and the plentiful examples were helpful. If I was being picky I would say that there could have been a bit more about the key areas of viewpoint and showing not telling (writing in scenes, in other words). While the need to avoid telling after showing is covered, the fundamental principle of showing rather than telling isn’t discussed in any depth. That is a relatively minor criticism, though.
New fiction writers should find Words’Worth an invaluable guide to making their writing as tight and compelling as possible. Old hands will find much of the advice familiar, but the book can still serve as a useful checklist and aide memoire.
Words’Worth is not, of course, any substitute for a developmental editor: someone who can assess your book’s basic structure and suggest ways it can be revised and improved. For many new authors accessing such an individual may be difficult or impossible, however.
Likewise, this is not a proofreading guide, and some common mistakes in new writers’ work (the omission of the vocative comma, for example) aren’t covered here. If you’ll excuse a quick plug for my own work, you might find my own guide Essential English for Authors useful in this respect.
Nonetheless, Words’Worth is a book that new fiction writers in particular will find extremely helpful, and at its modest asking price it will definitely be a valuable addition to their resources library.
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Show, Don’t Tell is a mantra frequently repeated to new fiction writers. It’s good advice, but can cause some confusion unless it’s properly explained.
I was reminded of this by a question posed a while ago on the forum at www.mywriterscircle.com. The question was as follows:
“I’m a new writer and I know that the main thing new writers do is that they tell and don’t show. I get that. I just don’t get how you would show things. Not really.
Okay, this is hard to explain. I have seen instances where it’s shown, I just don’t get how to do it.
For example: I want to show that someone is quiet and doesn’t talk a lot about herself. How would I do that?”
I thought this was a great question, and one that deserved a reasonably in-depth answer.
I wrote about this subject at some length in my CD course Write Any Book in Under 28 Days. I’ve therefore adapted the relevant section in my answer below, starting with a couple of examples…
(1) It was nine o’clock on the night of Sunday 16 October 2009. This was also the date when, six years earlier, a young cashier named Nicola Smith had been murdered in the bank. Tonight another young cashier, Catherine Nicholls, was working late in the bank on her own. (2) Catherine gazed up from her report to the desk calendar. The date showing was Sunday 16 October 2012. She sighed. Working alone on a Sunday night was bad enough, but the fact that it also happened to be the sixth anniversary of Nicola Smith’s murder in this very building was giving her a bad case of the jitters.
In the first example the writer is simply telling the reader things. This is sometimes called reportage.
Much the same information is conveyed in the second example, but here all the events are portrayed through the eyes of a (third-person) viewpoint character, Catherine. The second example works much better at bringing the character of Catherine, and hence the story, to life.
Show, Don’t Tell can be expressed in another way: Write In Scenes. Think of your story as a movie or TV show. Rather than telling your readers what happens, your story will be much more entertaining if you show it in a series of vividly portrayed scenes.
Many new writers have difficulty grasping this concept. So they write material such as the following:
George Johnson was in the dining room. He was a tall, thin man with a permanently mournful expression, aged fifty-two. He had spent all his adult life working in local government. He sat at the table and looked at the kitchen door expectantly. Rosemary, his wife of twenty years, knew he would be expecting his usual Thursday night steak. George lived by his routines, and normally Rosemary was happy to go along with them. Someone else might have resented it, but she was normally very easy-going. That day, however, she had had the urge to try something different, so at the supermarket she had gone past the meat to the fish counter, and bought red mullet instead. When George saw the fish, he wondered for a moment whether he had become confused and today was Friday rather than Thursday. He asked Rosemary what was going on. A few moments later he would lose his temper.
Written (correctly) as a scene, this might look more like the version below:
“Is it ready yet?” George shouted from the dining room. “Nearly,” Rosemary shouted back. Six new potatoes were neatly stacked on the dinner plate, topped with a sprig of mint and a dollop of butter. The garden peas steamed appetizingly in a little mound alongside them. The fish was almost ready to come out of the oven. Everything looked perfect, but she hesitated. George could be such a stick-in-the-mud. He liked his routines. But just for once, she had decided to do something different. Oh well, it was too late to change now. She put the fish on his plate and took it into the dining room. George looked down at the plate in front of him. “What’s this?” “It’s fish. Red mullet.” “But today’s Thursday.” Rosemary noticed a pinkish tinge creeping up from his collar. Inwardly, she sighed. “I know it’s Thursday. I know we always have steak on Thursday. But just for once, I thought we’d try something different.”
As these examples demonstrate, Show, Don’t Tell is closely linked with the principle of writing from a single viewpoint.
In beginners’ work, the viewpoint is often vague and constantly shifting – from Character A, to Character B, to the omniscient author, back to A again, and so on. By contrast, in a story written in scenes, consistency of viewpoint is usually maintained throughout each scene (though different scenes may have different viewpoint characters).
Look again at the examples with George and Rosemary. The first begins with a few sentences of explanation from the author’s perspective. Then the viewpoint shifts to Rosemary, then to George, and finally back to the author again.
By contrast, the second is written as a scene, portrayed from the first word to the last from Rosemary’s point of view. I hope you will agree that the second version is more vivid and entertaining for the reader than the first (and, incidentally, helps and encourages readers to identify with Rosemary).
One other thing to watch is when a large proportion of your story consists of one character telling another about something. This is telling rather than showing in another guise. If the action described is important, show it to the reader as it happens, rather than have a character in the story tell someone else about it later.
Returning to the question reproduced at the start of this post, saying that someone is quiet and doesn’t talk much about herself is – of course – telling.
If you wanted to show this instead, the key would be to portray the story in scenes from either her viewpoint or someone else’s. The action and dialogue (and thoughts if you use her as a viewpoint character) will then convey the desired impression to your reader. Something like this, maybe:
The hands of the clock crept slowly but inexorably toward five. Susie logged off her computer and closed it down. Her colleague Clare was way ahead of her. Her computer was already off, and she was touching up her lipstick. She caught Susie’s eye and grinned. “Friday night at last! I suppose you’ll be out clubbing it again tonight.” “No.” Susie picked up her handbag and headed toward the door. “Oh, come on. I know you’re out every night really. That Goody Two Shoes schtick is just an act, isn’t it?” “See you on Monday, Clare.” Susie closed the office door behind her and headed out into the high street. She took a deep breath, relieved that another week was over and she didn’t have to pretend to be sociable with her colleagues till Monday. And her favourite dance show was on TV tonight! Despite what Clare might have thought, a night in watching the stars twirl, her ginger cat Darcy purring on her lap, suited her just fine.
As characterization goes, that’s about as subtle as a brick, but in a short story for the popular market, it would serve to establish your viewpoint character as a quiet, stay-at-home type. And it does so by showing rather than telling.
To sum up, here are a few tips to help you follow the Show, Don’t Tell principle throughout your story…
* Write in scenes portrayed through the eyes (and other senses) of a viewpoint character. * Don’t switch viewpoints in mid-scene. * Don’t include asides or other information that can only come from the author. * Aim for as high as possible a proportion of action and dialogue. * Keep reportage and reminiscence to a minimum. * Aim to write most of your story in your characters’ present. * Avoid having characters tell one another about events – if something is important to the story, show it happening instead.
If you have any comments of your own about “Show, Don’t Tell”, please do leave them below!
It’s been a while since I discussed a grammatical topic on my blog, so today I thought I’d address a problem area that arises quite often among writers. It concerns the use of the word who and its variations whom, whoever and whomever.
Grammatically speaking, who is a relative pronoun. The relative pronouns (who/whoever/which/that) relate groups of words to nouns or other pronouns – for example, “The writer who works the hardest usually achieves the most.” Here the word who connects or relates the subject, the writer, to the verb within the dependent clause (works).
One major source of confusion among writers is when they should use who and when whom. Of course, in spoken English today the word whom is seldom used, and many people simply use who in every context.
In written English, however, and formal English especially, the distinction is still preserved.
The rule is that who is used when it refers to the subject of a sentence, and whom when it refers to the object.
Often, the simplest way to decide which version is correct is to re-phrase the sentence so you choose between he (the subject form of the third person singular pronoun) and him (the object form). If you want him, write whom; if you want he, write who. The examples below should make this clearer.
Who do you think is responsible? (Do you think he is responsible?) Tell the officer who has done this. (Tell the officer he has done this.) Whom shall we ask to the party? (Shall we ask him to the party?) Everybody knows whom I mean. (Everybody knows I mean him.)
Choosing between whoever and whomever can be even trickier. There are two rules to guide you here.
Rule 1: First of all, use the ever suffix when who or whom can fit into two clauses in the sentence.
Example: Give it to whoever/whomever asks for it first. Give it to him. He asks for it first.
Rule 2: Now, to determine whether to use whoever or whomever, follow the rule below. him + he = whoever him + him = whomever
In the example above, the first clause contains him and the second one he. Following the rule above, this means that whoever is correct. Give it to whoever asks for it first.
Here is a further example: We will hire whoever/whomever you recommend.
The two clauses here are: We will hire him. You recommend him
In this case, the first clause has him and the second also has him. The rule tells us that whomever is the correct form here.
We will hire whomever you recommend.
Even experienced writers and editors sometimes slip up over when to use whoever and when whomever. One reason may be that the word often follows a preposition such as to or from, and we are accustomed to anything following a pronoun taking the object form. (Give it to him. Take it from me. He’s with her.)
However, in a sentence such as “We will give the award to whoever performs best”, the object of the preposition to is not whoever but the clause “whoever performs best”, and whoever is the subject of this clause.
This means you should check any such instances carefully, using the rules set out above. As a final test of your skills, see if you can decide which form is correct in the sentences below. The asterisks can represent who, whom, whoever or whomever.
1. It doesn’t matter ***** you choose. 2. Do you know ***** is going to the conference? 3. She gave gifts to ***** she liked best. 4. ***** arrives first will win the first prize. 5. She asked me ***** I was with last night.
The correct answers can be found at the bottom of this post.
Even if (to sound more life-like) you choose to have your fictional characters say “who” rather than “whom”, it’s still important to understand the grammatical rules governing the use of these terms.
In my view, professional writers should always understand when they are breaking the rules of grammar and their reasons for doing so. Understanding the rules will also help you avoid the potentially more embarrassing mistake of using “whom” when actually “who” is correct.
I do hope you found this post helpful. As ever, if you have any queries, please feel free to post them below.
If you need a bit of help getting your English up to a publishable standard, my downloadable course Essential English for Authors may help. It’s a guide to the main things you need to know to ensure that your manuscript is taken seriously by agents and publishers and not rejected out of hand due to errors of grammar and punctuation. For more details click here.
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Grammarly is a service that promises to help improve your written English. Their website says it corrects up to 10 times more mistakes than popular word processors. Other features they highlight include…
Instantly find and correct over 250 types of grammatical mistakes
Context-optimized vocabulary suggestion
The producers of Grammarly were kind enough to grant me access to their full service so I could review it, so here’s what I found…
First, you can use Grammarly in various ways. Once you are logged in to the website, you can either copy and paste text for checking, or you can choose a file from your computer and upload it.
There is also an option to download a Grammarly plug-in for Microsoft Office (or Outlook), which allows you to check documents within Word by clicking on a button in the main menu. This is the main option I used for testing purposes.
Grammarly gives you a choice of styles. The main options are Business, Academic, Medical, Technical, Creative, and Casual. In each of these categories you can choose from a number of sub-categories.
In Creative, for example, you can choose from general creative, creative non-fiction, novel, script or short story. For test purposes I used a 2500-word article I wrote for my clients at More Money Review about website flipping. I decided to select “creative nonfiction” for this.
Grammarly is switched off by default (which is good, in my view). You can activate it at any time by clicking on Enable Grammarly in Word’s main menu. Grammarly then begins its analysis. It takes just a few seconds to complete.
You are then presented with the results of the analysis. For my sample article, it listed 25 potential issues in total. These are underlined in green in the main text, and set out in more detail (with suggested corrections) in the right-hand column (see screen capture below).
Clicking on the small down arrow beside any item will reveal an explanation of the potential issue Grammarly has identified (as shown above for “will, of course,”). If you agree with this – and you won’t always – you can click on the item and the suggested correction (shown in green) will then be implemented. This is a neat, time-saving feature.
Grammarly looks for mistakes in five main categories. These are Contextual Spelling, Grammar, Punctuation, Sentence Structure, and Style. You can switch all or any of these categories on or off as you wish.
You can also select Vocabulary Enhancement (which will suggest alternative words/terms you might not have considered) and Plagiarism (which checks online for similar text that may have been plagiarized). The latter is most likely to be useful if you are correcting or editing someone else’s work, of course!
One thing you can’t do is change specific types of correction, e.g. if you don’t want to be constantly reminded about use of the passive voice or you prefer to use a variant spelling for certain words. This probably won’t be a major issue for most people, though.
Some of the possible errors that Grammarly identified in my test article I didn’t agree with, and others were clearly not errors at all. For example, I had one sentence that read, “They only accept sites they believe have good sales potential, and claim a success rate of over 95 percent.”
Grammarly wanted to delete the comma after potential, but in my view that would be wrong. Deleting the comma would inject a note of ambiguity, as the reader might then think I was saying that the company in question (a website broker) only accepted sites with good sales potential AND a claimed success rate of over 95% (whatever that might mean). This is, of course, not at all what I intended.
Still, I don’t want to be too hard on Grammarly. Some false positives are inevitable with any sort of grammar-checking software, and I didn’t think the number it flagged up was excessive. And on the plus side, though I pride myself on having good grammar and punctuation, it did identify a few examples of wordiness which, on reflection, I agreed with.
Overall, I was very impressed with the 2015 version of Grammarly, which is a considerable improvement on an earlier version I looked at a few years ago. I am now using it regularly on my own work to give it a final check and polish. Of course, it’s by no means a complete substitute for a human editor, but it can undoubtedly help spruce up your writing and identify possible issues.
Grammarly is sold on a subscription basis. You can choose to pay monthly, quarterly or annually, with the latter (obviously) being the best value. There is a seven-day money-back guarantee if you find that it doesn’t meet your needs.
If you have any comments or questions about Grammarly, please post them below and I will do my best to answer them. Thank you again to Grammarly for giving me the opportunity to review their service. Please do click on any of the links in this article for more information.
If you’re looking to improve your grammar and punctuation and bring your writing up to a publishable standard, I also strongly recommend my downloadable course Essential English for Authors. I talked about that in detail in this blog post.
Essential English for Authors is basically a crash course for anyone who would like to write for publication but fears that aspects of their written English might let them down
In twelve modules, Essential English for Authors takes you through all the common problem areas for new writers: from the basics of grammatical sentence and paragraph construction, through principles of capitalization and punctuation, to “minefield” topics such as subject/verb agreement and how to set out and punctuate dialogue. I’ve tried to explain everything in simple, easy-to-grasp terms, with lots of examples to illustrate the points made.
It’s not just the basics, however. A long module titled “Putting on the Style” covers a range of matters that – while they may not all be essential to achieving publication – will help bring your written English up to the highest professional standards. The topics discussed include parallel construction, active v. passive voice, use of the subjunctive in modern English, when to use “who” or “whom”, and many more. There are also self-study tests you can complete to check your understanding of the material covered.
The course assumes no previous knowledge, and is ideal for beginners and people for whom English is not their first language. It is, however, equally suitable for established writers who want to brush up on their knowledge of grammar, spelling and punctuation. And for aspiring self-publishers – especially if they won’t be engaging a professional editor – it’s an essential reference, to ensure that your book isn’t laughed out of court by critics and reviewers.
And finally, even if you don’t actually aspire to write for publication, but just want to bring your written English up to the best possible standard in the shortest possible time, Essential English for Authors is the guide for you!
Essential English for Authors is suitable for anyone in the world. It is written in US English, but British English is also referred to throughout (I’m a Brit myself, of course). To give you a flavour – or perhaps I should say flavor – of the guide, here’s a short extract from the section about subject/verb agreement…
One of the fundamental rules of grammar is that the parts of a sentence should agree with one another. So if the grammatical subject of a sentence is in the plural, the verb should be plural as well. Likewise, if the subject is in the singular, so should be the verb.
So a sentence such as, “The boys was playing in the street” is an example of faulty agreement. “The boys” is plural, so the plural verb “were” is required: “The boys were playing in the street”.
Likewise, “The telephone were ringing” is a sentence with a singular subject but a plural verb, so in this case the verb needs changing to the singular: “The telephone was ringing”.
Put this way it sounds easy, but there are various situations that can cause unwary writers to trip up. In this module I will therefore set out some of these situations and the grammatical rules that apply to them.
1. Two singular subjects connected by “or” or “nor” require a singular verb. Haddock or plaice is fine by me. Neither Bill nor Suzy is able to come.
2. When one of your subjects is “I”, put it second, followed by the word “am”. Neither Ruth nor I am planning to attend.
3. When a singular subject is connected by “or” or “nor” to a plural subject, put the plural subject last and use a plural verb. Either one adult or two children are allowed in at one time. Neither roast turkey nor sausages are on the menu today.
4. As a general rule, use a plural verb with two or more subjects when they are connected by “and”. Tennis and swimming are my favorite sports. But where the subjects clearly form a single entity, a singular verb should be used. Steak and fries is my favorite meal.
By the way, don’t worry if you’re a bit hazy about nouns and verbs and such like, and the differences between them. This is all covered in Module Two, where I discuss the so-called “parts of speech”. I promise, after reading this, everything will be much clearer 🙂
Essential English for Authors is available as an instant download and will run on any PC using Windows 95 or later. More details can be viewed on my publisher’s website, which can be accessed by clicking on any of the links to Essential English for Authors on this page. Alternatively, just click on the banner below.
And, of course, if you have any queries, do feel free to leave a comment as usual.
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