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Parents put a great deal of thought into naming their newborn son or daughter, understanding that a name is often the very first thing a stranger learns about you. An offbeat name can make a child the target of bullying. Later on, a name that’s too cute can be off-putting to a potential employer.
You should give the same amount of attention to naming your characters—after all, they’re your literary babies.
Did you know that Charles Dickens considered naming Tiny Tim “Puny Pete”?
That Sherlock Holmes’ assistant was almost named “Ormond Sacker”?
That Scarlett O’Hara’s name was originally “Pansy”?
Names can act as shorthand between you and your readers, giving the reader clues about the character’s age, where they’re from, what era they’re from, and what image they want to present to the world.
For instance, what initial impressions would you have about a character whose name is Elizabeth, but she calls herself Betsy? Liz? Beth? Lizzie?
What are your first thoughts about a couple named Byron and Madeleine? How about Trey and Madison?
It may take a while to decide on the perfect names for your characters—and you may change them as the story evolves. But those small choices are among the most important you’ll make.
“I’m ready to go now.” She said.
“Are you ready yet?” He asked.
“Let’s go!” He shouted.
This is a tricky situation for a lot of newbies. Which one gets a comma? Which one gets a period? Are “he” and “she” capitalized?
Think of it this way. She said isn’t a complete sentence. It needs to be connected to something, using a comma at the end of the dialogue and a lower-case he or she.
“I’m ready to go now,” she said.
Even if the bit of dialogue that comes before ends in a question mark or an exclamation point, He said isn’t a complete sentence. That’s still true if he’s shouting or asking or replying or whispering.
“Are you ready yet?” he asked.
“Let’s go!” he shouted.
What about the bit that comes before the dialogue?
Liz crossed the room, “I’m ready to go now.” Yes or no?
What Liz is doing is a complete sentence, independent of the line of dialogue, so here, a period is correct.
Liz crossed the room. “I’m ready to go now.”
I’m sure anyone who’s given birth will readily tell you that contractions are no fun. But when you’re writing dialogue, embrace them!
The writers of Star Trek: The Next Generation wrote all of Commander Data’s dialogue without contractions because he was an android. His contraction-less speech was a small, subtle reminder that he wasn’t human, that there were things he couldn’t quite grasp. But in real life, few actual humans say I will do that or I am planning to go.
If you’ve got a little spare time, turn on a TV show or movie and listen to it with your eyes closed.
I can’t believe you did that.
He’s really worried about her.
Unless your character, like Commander Data, has a reason for speaking in a stilted, unrelaxed way (if he’s an elderly professor, an alien, or someone who’s just beginning to learn English), you can’t go wrong using contractions. They’ll go a long way toward making your dialogue sound more natural.
Oh, how I loved that story. I thought it was the shiniest thing in town, and I presented it to my creative writing teacher with great pride.
The next day, she handed it back to me.
She’d red-circled every time I used the word “so”—dozens and dozens of the darn things.
We’re all guilty of having favorite go-to words, and often, they’re the same ones other writers dearly love.
So. Just. Very.
Or we’ll fall in love with a pretty new adjective and will unconsciously use it over and over.
Trust me: you’re doing it.
How do you find them, other than by racking your brain, or scanning the pages over and over?
Use a word cloud. Within a few seconds, you’ll have a multi-colored picture of the offending tidbits. Just Google the words “word cloud” to find a site that will generate a cloud for you. Then, do your best to stop saying things like:
He just really wanted to show her his new car.
Your readers will thank you.
Okay, maybe not, but you’ll know you’ve taken another step toward better storytelling.
Jen spent the whole morning worrying about the job interview. Choosing the right outfit was a nightmare; she changed clothes five times before she settled on a dark blue skirt and a white blouse. Downstairs, her younger brother was watching TV. Her shoes were another problem. The slim, sexy pumps she’d splurged on went best with her outfit—but were they too much for a job in a quiet office in a small town?
Jen’s brother may play an important part in the story. He may offer some encouragement during breakfast, or drive her to the interview.
But in this paragraph, what he’s doing isn’t important.
Don’t switch gears mid-paragraph, and then switch back. Finish telling us about Jen’s wardrobe choices, then shine the spotlight on her brother (or not).
You’ve found the right names for your main characters. That’s Job One out of the way—but it’s just as important to choose the right names for your supporting cast.
If a character doesn’t appear very much, don’t worry about picking a name that will endure through the ages. But do worry about setting that character apart from the people who surround him or her. Readers will grow frustrated at having to remember who’s who if the names are too similar: Matt, Mark, Mike, Matt…
You don’t want your minor characters to be more interesting than your “stars.” But when Mike walks into the lunchroom to find Kelly nuking her leftovers, if your readers remember that Kelly’s the one who encouraged him to ask Michelle out, that bond will help drive the scene.
I opened the door to find a stranger standing on my porch. He was 6’2” tall.
There was a redhead sitting on the couch. She was 32 years old.
The room was 18 feet long and 15 feet wide.
There’s no yardstick built into the doorframe. That redhead doesn’t have her vital statistics printed on her shirt.
Tell your reader you’re estimating. Extra points if you tell them how.
I opened the door to find a stranger standing on my porch. I had to look up at him, so he had to be over six feet tall.
I opened the door to find a tall stranger standing on my porch.
That tells the reader what they need to know, without being overly (and awkwardly) specific.
Most of us can’t get through a day without measuring time somehow. We need to be on time for work or school, to pick up kids, or meet a friend for lunch. Lucky for us, keeping track of time is easy. We’ve got clocks at home and in the office, and on the dashboards of our cars. Our cell phones can give us the right time at a glance.
But if your characters live somewhere (or are stranded somewhere) without those conveniences, there’s a problem.
Not for them; for us, as authors.
We waited two hours for the prince’s party to arrive.
It took us nearly ten minutes to climb the stairs to the tower.
Does the character have a pocket watch he relies on? Are the characters waiting for the prince’s entourage judging time by the movement of the sun?
We waited until late in the afternoon for the prince’s party to arrive.
Let the reader know how your characters are figuring things out. Make the situation real for them. Otherwise, you risk pulling them out of the story.
Mary tapped her lips with her fingers. “I’m not sure what to get Susan for her birthday.”
“I know what you mean.” Kris twirled her coffee cup around. “It’s really a problem.”
“Mary tucked a lock of her hair behind her ear. “I know.”
Kris took a bite of her sandwich. “Maybe we should ask Tom.”
A lot of newbie authors are frightened by stretches of dialogue that aren’t broken up by some sort of action. Rather than simply letting the characters talk, they fill the scene with so many insignificant gestures that the characters seem completely unable to sit still—as if they’ve been chugging Red Bull all day.
But, really, it’s okay to let those folks talk.
Tell us who they are, and who initiates this chunk of conversation. Then stand back and let ’em fly.
“I’m not sure what to get Susan for her birthday,” Mary said.
Kris nodded. “I know what you mean. It’s really a problem.”
“Maybe we should ask Tom.”
That works just fine.