Easy Stuff to Fix – Past Perfect and Dialogue Punctuation


It’s contest judging season again — seems to come along every year with baseball and summer and picnics. And I’m seeing some of the same mistakes I always see. Now some stuff is tough to fix — as in you have a plot that’s not plausible, or wooden characters, or an idea that’s just too tired and cliche. That’s throw out the baby and the bathwater time. But some of this is easy to fix, and folks, you do need to fix the basics. What I’m seeing….

Tense issues. As in past tense, present tense, and past perfect tense (there are others, but these are the three you really need to nail).

Past tense works for most fiction. This is where you write: “He went to the store.” (Went being the past tense verb.)

Present tense is needed for a synopsis (it’s more dynamic), and you can also use it in a story. This is action happening now, as in: “He goes to the store.” (The verb become goes, or is going for present tense.)

Past perfect is where folks seem to really trip up. If you’re in the past tense and you want to write about the past (further in the past that is), you have to switch to past perfect.  As in: “He went to the store, and since he had been given a shopping list by his mother, he knew what to buy.”  Notice the switch to “had been” instead of “was” — that’s past perfect.

(And if you’re still confused, go and buy a copy of Strunk & White’s Element’s of Style. It’s a thin book, easily read in an hour and even easier to keep by your keyboard to sort out this stuff.)

The other thing that crops up a lot is weird uses of commas — commas put in where they are not needed or left out in other spots. That’s not too bad, but you do have to get this right around dialogue.

You use a comma to separate words spoken by a character from any action when (and only when) that action influences what is being said.

So these are all correct:

“You’re wrong,” she said.

“I can’t win,” he told her.

She cleared her throat, and said, “I love you.”

The action here is called an “action tag” by some and notice how these all form one sentence, and therefore use a comma.

The period is used when the action is NOT influencing what is said–when that is a separate thought and therefore should be a separate sentence. As in:

“You’re wrong.” She slammed her hand down on the table.

“I can’t win.” He let out a breath and shook his head.

She cleared her throat.  “I love you.”

Notice a couple of things. First, if you have action, you generally don’t need to attribute the dialogue (as in he said, she said). The reader knows who is speaking because there is action around the dialogue. Second, he said and she said are valid ways to attribute dialogue. It’s the mark of a beginning writer to go crazy with the adverbs and have folks chuckle, laugh, cry out and otherwise try to talk while they are doing something else.

In other words, rewrite when you put down stuff like:

“You’re wrong,” she yelled at him loudly. (If she’s yelling, then loudly is redundant, and the yelled is not letting the dialogue be strong.)

“I can’t win,” he chuckled sadly. (Try chuckling a word and see if you can do it — I dare you.)

She cleared her throat and breathed sexily, “I love you.”   (When in doubt read something aloud — if you cringe or someone laughs, you know you’ve hit melodrama. )

If you feel as if you need to add an adverb to any dialogue before you do this try rewriting the dialogue — dialogue that needs a crutch needs to be stronger so that it stands on its own.

And that’s my rant for the week. Or at least until the next contest I judge.

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