Writing Polish: Going Off Subject

I’m getting back into the grammar weeds today, based on common problems I’m seeing in beta manuscripts. In this case, I’m talking about the subject of a sentence, and making it clear to your readers which character is acting at any given time.

Sentence 1: Chris turned around.

We have a basic simple sentence here with subject (Chris), verb (turned), and adverb (around). It’s clear to us that Chris is the one doing the turning, because he’s the only person mentioned. But what if I complicated things?

Sentence 2: Chris turned around and waved at Jim.

We have two people in this sentence, but it’s clear that both verbs (turned and waved) apply to Chris. That’s because readers read words in order, and associate action with the last person mentioned. Even though “waved” is closer in the sentence to Jim than it is to Chris and they are both present in the scene, we associate all action with Chris until Jim is introduced.

Sentence 3: Chris turned around and waved at Jim, ducking a flying frisbee.

Now we’re having problems. Is Chris or Jim ducking the frisbee? Maybe it’s not important in the grander scheme of the story, but it means we don’t have a way to visualize the scene with any kind of clarity. Technically, Chris is the subject of the sentence and the verb “ducking” should be attached to him. But here’s the key takeaway:

In English, readers read words in the order they appear.

While our working memory allows us to hold on to information and re-arrange things in the correct order, that’s a process that happens after we finish the sentence. When it takes longer it takes for the brain to double-check meaning before letting us absorb the sentence, it breaks the reader’s flow. It reduces clarity. It dulls your prose.

So even if the sentence above is technically correct, at least some part of the reader’s mind tries to attach verbs to the most recent subject mentioned (Jim). Part of the confusion is the change of verb tense, which cues the reader that other changes, like subject, might have occurred as well. You reduce the confusion by keeping the verbs parallel and making it clear this is an ordered list of events:

Sentence 4: Chris turned around and waved at Jim, then ducked a flying frisbee.

The Takeaway

Of course, you can structure and edit your voice right out of your prose. Sometimes, though, confusion can clutter up and distract from your voice. The key takeaway here is that people read words in the order they appear. This is the part you can’t change. What you can do is use sentence structure to compensate, tricking our minds into holding crucial information with less effort. When writing is clear, we’re able to immerse ourselves in the story itself, without distraction. That’s in your power as a writer.

Books on Writing: Rivet Your Reader With Deep Point of View by Jill Elizabeth Nelson

Ever had a reader say they just didn’t feel like they were in the character’s head? Deep Point of View is a vital key to engaging modern readers with your writing voice and immerse them in your story. In Rivet Your Readers with Deep Point of View, Jill Elizabeth Nelson gives you a crash course in eliminating distancing language, including examples and exercises from her own books. It’s short (only 60 pages in Kindle) but packs a LOT of great tips into that short space. Whether or not you’re a fan of her fiction writing, I cannot fault her advice on how you can make your own writing better.

Visit Jill Elizabeth Nelson online for information. The book is currently available for free on Kindle Unlimited.

Writing Polish: The Bulldozer Sentence

Literature trained a lot of us to drone on a bit. William Faulkner’s Absalom! Absalom! has a single sentence that clocks in at 1,288 words.  Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables offers up an 832 word gem.  Modern writing, especially genre writing, are more about the sharp.

One of my biggest revision tasks revolves around bulldozer sentences. These come from moments when I have so much I want to express that I cram it all into a sentence without stopping. This may be fine for a first draft, when the goal is to get the words out onto the page. They don’t work as well for a polished draft, where they make the reader do a lot of heavy lifting. Trying to make a sentence accomplish too many tasks dilutes the effect of each task it’s trying to accomplish. It makes the sentence, and the writing, weaker.

For example:

Jonathan kept a promise to his wife to raise the boys multilingual, but although she had come from a moderately successful business family who had emigrated from Barcelona, the vocabulary and culture of the Mexican migrant workers and their children had a lot of influence.

This is a bit of backstory/description I threw into a scene in my first draft. I was rushing through it to get to the next action, and it shows.  Here’s how I would break it up if keeping it relatively the same:

Jonathan had kept his promise to his wife to raise the boys multilingual. She had come from a moderately successful business family that had emigrated from Barcelona. Now, the influence of the Mexican migrant workers and their children showed in the boys’ vocabulary and cultural references. 

This version is much more clear and easy to read (although it may need a second rewrite to show instead of tell!).

Action Happens Quickly

Despite the fact that the bulldozer sentence shows my urge to write quickly, the shorter, tighter sentences read more quickly. This is especially important in high tension scenes. Short, terse sentences move the pacing along more quickly and lend an atmosphere of urgency.

“No,” he growled, snatching the gun from the floor to whip it upwards into the chin of his first attacker, then spinning to point it at the second.

This is definitely too much work for the sentence. It’s especially too much to hook onto what is essentially an extended dialogue tag.

“No,” he growled. He snatched the gun from the floor. He whipped it upward and smashed it into the chin of his first attacker. Spinning around, he pointed the gun at the second. 

Breaking it into shorter sentences emphasizes the main event in each beat. Because there is only one event/action in each sentence, the brain can process it more quickly. This makes the scene more vivid and easier (therefore quicker) to read.

How Long is Too Long?

The answer to this really depends on your genre and category. Literary fiction tends to have longer sentences, because the goal is to create a more languid, thoughtful atmosphere. Genre novels have shorter sentences because the goal is to create a fast-paced, easy read with plenty of action. Books for younger readers are also going to have shorter sentences, regardless of genre, for ease of comprehension.

In general though, if your sentence is more than 25 words long, it should at least be flagged for scrutiny. A longer sentence may serve a particular purpose, but it should be used deliberately. If not, consider breaking it up.

Writing Polish: Putting Things in Order

One of the most valuable experiences of having a good critique partner or editor is finding all the mistakes you didn’t know you were making!  In the current draft of a Witch in Wine Country, my critique partner found a couple of bad writing habits that, while not terrible, added up to clarity problems when I used them over and over again. One of these is the problem of ordering.

Your writing is a guide for your reader to experience events by proxy. In reality, we experience events in order. Something happens, then we react to it. In writing, sometimes we jump to the most interesting or dramatic thing (the reaction), putting events out of order. Can we get away with it? Usually. Does verisimilitude and clarity suffer? absolutely.

Order Within a Sentence

Action and reaction beats have a specific order in real life, but we don’t always reflect that in writing. For example:

I burst into laughter when his eyes widened.

I want instinctively to lead with the most interesting/active event (bursting into laughter). But the laughter is a reaction to an event (the widening eyes). By placing the laughter first, the reader has to finish the sentence, then re-arrange things in their mind to get a clear picture of what’s happening. We do that automatically, but not effortlessly. It becomes easier to read and understand if I put events in the order they occur:

His eyes widened. I burst into laughter.


His eyes widened and I burst into laughter.

Ordering Within a Scene

This is a little more subtle, but it has a strong effect on how immersive the scene is. For example:

Her heart began to race as she crept into the room. The sound of breaking glass had drawn her downstairs. She checked the windows and doors, but everything was still locked. She tightened her grip on the bat she kept in the hall closet. The faint scent of sulfur suggested her visitor might not have been human.

Step back a moment and imagine walking through the scene itself in real life. What’s the order things would actually happen? It would probably be something like:

  1. Hear breaking glass
  2. Heart races
  3. Get weapon
  4. Go downstairs
  5. Enter room
  6. Smell sulfur
  7. Check windows and doors

A rewrite of the same scene in order:

The sound of breaking glass downstairs sent her heart racing. She moved quietly to the hall closet and retrieved the baseball bat she kept there. When she crept quietly down the stairs and into the room, the faint smell of sulfur suggested her visitor might not be human. She tightened her grip on the bat and began checking the windows and doors. Everything was still locked.  

Notice how there isn’t anything new in the rewrite, but the feel of it is much more immersive. We’re in the character’s head, experiencing things in the order she experiences them. The result feels more “showing” and less “telling,” but also feels more polished. It’s the difference between hearing a joke from a teller who has to backtrack to fill in details (“oh, and there was a bat, I forgot to mention that. So there she is with a bat…”) and a joke from a professional comedian who has practiced it enough to tell it seamlessly.

Again, one or two of these ordering issues won’t ruin a book. But if you do it over and over again, the writing loses clarity. It might not even register consciously for readers, but if you compare a block of writing with a lot of ordering problems to one without, the latter will feel much more polished and professional.



“Ejaculated Slughorn” – Dialogue Tags and Action Beats

Among the well-meaning advice I thoroughly disagree with, new writers are often told to never use a dialogue tag other than “said” and “asked.” The most quoted example used to support this comes from JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series:

Snape!” ejaculated Slughorn, who looked the most shaken, pale and sweating.

Technically, yes, ejaculated is a synonym for blurting out or yelling something…but for many, it looks like an unfortunate mash-up of an excessively enthusiastic thesaurus and an insufficiently dirty mind. Going to the other extreme, however, ignores the fact that “said” doesn’t always do enough heavy lifting in the scene.

What’s a Dialogue Tag?

A dialogue tag tells you who’s speaking, and can offer some non-verbal cues as to how they’re saying what they’re saying. 90% of the time, “said” is going to be sufficient, along with “asked” for spoken questions.

“You’ll never get me to talk,” George said.

In this example, the tag is telling us who is speaking, which reduces confusion when there are multiple people in the room. For most readers, the “said” fade into the background while reading, making it an unobtrusive option that focuses on the actual dialogue and action. Occasionally, you can use the dialogue tag to convey strong emotion, or make it more clear that there’s non-verbal emotional cues happening that aren’t conveyed easily with description or the dialogue itself.

“You’ll never get me to talk,” George growled.

The use of “growled” (or shouted, or hissed, or screamed) does a little more work. It’s more obtrusive, which is why it should be used sparingly. It’s a little more atmospheric and evocative, which is why you don’t need to avoid it altogether.  Chances are, if you flip through the nearest bestselling novel, you’ll find at least a few of these.


A dialogue tag before the text has a comma after the tag, and before the first quotation mark. The end of the dialogue itself is punctuated as a normal sentence. The first word of the actual dialogue is capitalized.

George said, “You’ll never get me to talk.”

A dialogue tag after the text has a comma at the end of the dialogue, followed by quotation mark and uncapitalized tag.

“You’ll never get me to talk,” he said.

But sometimes you want to use an exclamation point (sparingly) in the dialogue, or a question mark to ask a question. In this case, you treat the other punctuation as a comma, and keep the lower-case tag.

“You’ll never get me to talk!” he said.

“Do you really think you’ll get me to talk?” he asked.

You can also split up a dialogue with the tag. In this case, punctuation depends on whether the tag interrupts a sentence.

“You’ll never get me to talk,” he said. “They trained me for this.”

In this case, the first part of the dialogue is a complete sentence, and so the tag ends the sentence with a period. The next (tagless) piece of dialogue is on the same line, and so the reader understands that the same speaker is continuing. As the beginning of a new sentence, the first word of the second piece is capitalized.

“Do you really think,” he asked with a slow grin, “that you’re going to get me to talk?”

This should be used sparingly, as the tag breaks the line of dialogue and becomes more obtrusive and distracting. It can also serve as a dramatic pause, though, and comes down to a stylistic choice. The important thing is that because the first piece of dialogue is not a complete sentence, the tag ends with a comma, and the sentence continues in the next set of quotation marks.

Action Beats

An action beat is an action or thought that can give clarity to a dialogue tag, but cannot be substituted for one.

George growled, “You’ll never get me to talk.”

This is a dialogue tag. It means that George is saying the line of dialogue in a deep, growly voice.

George growled. “You’ll never get me to talk.”

This is an action beat. It means that George makes a growly noise, then says the line. It’s an action he takes before the dialogue, not as part of it. However, since it is on the same line, it effectively tells us who’s speaking, without an additional “he said” at the end.

Action beats give invaluable context surrounding a piece of dialogue, and allows us to avoid using too many flowery and distracting dialogue tags. They also help break up the dialogue so that it looks less like a script and more like a scene playing out in our heads. Almost nobody just has a verbal conversation. There’s always movement, non-verbal cues, small sounds, tone of voice, etc. that puts what’s being said in context. Action beats let us show this.

Laugh Your Words?

Words like laughed, smiled, and sobbed are often appropriated as dialogue tags, but whether it is a correct use is hotly debated.

“Tickle me all you want! You’ll never get me to talk,” he laughed.

On the side against the use of these “said-bookisms” is the argument that you don’t laugh your words (or smile them or sob them). These are things going on around the words, and are more appropriate to an action beat.

“Tickle me all you want! You’ll never get me to talk,” he said, laughing.

George laughed. “Tickle me all you want! You’ll never get me to talk.”

The argument adds that as a dialogue tag, words like “laughed” and “smiled” are telling, while as action beats, they are showing. The latter gives us a more immersive look into the scene and the character’s head.

On the side for their use, they’re a good way to convey the non-verbals in a compact way, and some argue for them as a purely stylistic choice.

In Summary

The TL:DR version? Dialogue tags tell you who is speaking and how. Action beats tell you what’s going on around the actual speech, adding atmosphere and context for the words!