Too Real For Fiction?


A Fact Checker Is Born

I’ve always been geeky, more so at some phases of my life than others. Back in the late 90s, when I finally gave in and started internet service for my work computer, I was instantaneously hooked. All that lovely information out there, right at my fingertips! Suddenly, I could easily and quickly access facts about any subject I chose, no matter how obscure.

Besides being geeky, I’ve also always expected authors to know at least basic information about their settings, and other elements of their books. Put a key Civil War battle in the wrong location, call a mare ‘he’, or place a wild animal outside its possible ecological range, and the book turned into a wall-banger. Add the internet, and I could immediately check facts that just didn’t quite ring true.


And apparently, I wasn’t the only one. Today’s reading public is more demanding than ever for accuracy and realism in fiction. We want police procedures to ring true, manufacturer-model-caliber of firearms, medical facts accurate enough for the JAMA, and so on.

As a result of all that, countless readers criticize certain genres for being unrealistic. Make up a creature? Can’t exist, so it’s unrealistic. Alternate history? Yeah, right. A man who treats the woman he loves with respect? Absolutely not!

If you’re going to do something like those things, as an author, you’re often expected to make sure everything else in your book is accurate. No fudging historical details. No bending of physical laws. No hedging of medical details. No liberties with geography. No contriving logic. Well, you can, but someone, probably lots of them, is going to give you grief about it.

The info hound in me is glad for this insistence on accuracy. In part, because it means that as I read, I might be gathering little bits of trivia that could prove useful eventually. Also because I don’t like misinformation being distributed as what someone might mistake for truth.

Creativity v. Real

But the creative part of me wonders just how much realism and accuracy I should expect in fiction. It is, after all, fiction. Inherently not real. Do I really need the author to give the right police code for a kitten up a tree, when the responding officer is going to fall victim to the spree killer? And do I seriously care what kind of suture the surgeon uses to close the gut-spilling, as long as the hero survives it? And what the hell difference does it make whether the germ causing the pandemic is correctly named and classified, if the heroine doesn’t manage to get the cooler with the cure in it across the city so it can be put to use? Do I really care if the heroine’s ball gown is a color that won’t be widely available for another 75 years, as long as she manages to escape the evil countess’s clutches and entice the duke into falling in love with her?


As a reader, why do I get pissed if the author fails to correctly name an obscure object, if the characters are multi-dimensional, the plot interesting, the conflicts exciting, and all the elements of the story well-written? Is it really that important?

I’m not questioning whether the big things should be realistic, things like key battles in the wrong location in a historical novel, or sending low-slung sports cars along heavily rutted logging tracks in a contemporary novel, and that sort of thing.

I’m talking about those little insider details that no one outside a particular field of expertise would know. Do you care that the little container a tattoo artist puts the ink in when tattooing someone is called an ink cap? Or that the narrow band at the top of a horse’s hoof is the coronet? If it doesn’t matter to the story as a whole, do we need our fiction to be that real?

What’s your preference, as a reader? Do you like books filled with excruciatingly real details? Or can you tolerate a little laxness, if the story is good, and otherwise well-written? What are some of the glaring errors you’ve spotted in books?

Who’s Telling Who?

Dialog ballons

Image via Wikipedia

Last week, for Nailing Down the Essentials, I posted a really basic overview of several facets of writing dialog. Now, it’s time to focus in more tightly and have a more in-depth look.

Dialog tags serve as attributions, telling the reader which character is speaking. When I was in High School – more years ago than I care to admit – we were required to use descriptive dialog tags. Points were marked off for every said, asked, or replied, and the tag would be crossed out, leaving the speech unattributed. If anything was left unattributed, either on purpose or because the tag was crossed out, the teacher crossed it out, refusing to read it, then marked off for incomprehensible dialog. So we had lists of descriptive verbs to use instead of said. Words like: admonished, advised, exhorted… Plain old said bored the reader, and our teacher did her best to keep us from such a dreaded fate.

Imagine my surprise at learning Mrs. Smith was *gasp* wrong! Back then, I knew that some of my favorite authors didn’t use outlandish words to replace said. They also often left several lines of dialog unattributed, expecting the reader to understand that when there are two speakers, they generally take turns. I didn’t have access to any writing craft materials in those days, so I had to study my favorite authors, and attempt to emulate what I liked about their writing.

Now I know the reasons behind…

The Missing Descriptive Dialog Tags

Our goals as writers should be to disappear, let the reader forget they’re reading a story and get lost in our world. So we do whatever we can to help them get lost. One of the simplest ways is to be unobtrusive. If the reader has to stop and figure out what pontificating sounds like, they’re worrying about their dictionary rather than the story. Readers don’t have to think about said, so it becomes less intrusive, and lets them stay deeply involved in the story.

During a conversation that’s more than one or two lines for both speakers, the use of said will stand out. And here’s a huge revelation: readers can be trusted to follow a few lines of dialog and know who’s speaking. As long as we follow standard formatting, 5 or 6 lines are easily understood. Of course, we don’t want long exchanges with no way for the reader to know which character said what unless they go back to the beginning to count lines. Yup, it happens regularly.

But that isn’t the end of the story.

And Now, The Disappearing Author!

If our goal  is to disappear, and said is less intrusive, wouldn’t it be better to use no dialog tags? Well, yes. Yes, it would. The trick is, using no, or very few tags, effectively. Occasionally, a tag is simply necessary to let the reader know who is speaking and how, but normally, dialog tags really aren’t necessary.

We still have to be sure the reader knows who’s speaking. There are several techniques for doing that, and using a combination of them is often the best approach. The good thing is, those techniques also serve to make our dialog more realistic, more like people actually talk. So, by using them, you’ll be killing two birds with one stone.

No two people speak exactly alike, so giving each character a unique voice will make it less necessary to use dialog tags. People don’t often sit and look at each other, and exchange roughly equivalent bits of conversation. They squirm, adjust clothing, play with their hair, eat or drink. And that’s just if they’re sitting. We can use those little actions, or action beats, to let the reader know who’s speaking, as well as make our dialog more interesting.

We can let the reader know how something is said through word choice, context, action beats, and description. Using an adverb with said is pretty much on a par with those descriptive verbs. Rather than telling the reader that the character spoke plaintively, use all those other techniques to show it.

Next week, I’ll take a look at giving each character her own way of speaking, complete with accents, patterns of speech, vocabularies, and favorite expressions. The following week I’ll cover action beats. Both will tie in with showing how the character is speaking.

What’s Your Favorite…

Line of dialog from your WIP? Why?

Nailing Down The Essentials: Dialog

Recently, I’ve seen a lot discussions about the various elements of a story. Because of some of the questions, and yes, some of the replies, I decided to put together a new Writer Wednesday Series. Each week, I’ll take a look at some aspect of one of the story building blocks.

Basically, it’ll be the kind of stuff I searched for when I came back to writing fiction seriously, after a couple of decades just dabbling. I needed a refresher of the techniques and rules I’d learned long ago, as well as all the skills I still needed. So, I’m going to begin each element with just the broad strokes, then tighten the focus.

Some if it will be very basic stuff for some of you, but it might clear things up for others. If we don’t have an understanding of the very basic rules and techniques, the  more advanced skills won’t do us a lot of good. And rest assured, once I’ve covered that basic stuff, I’ll start on more advanced things.


Dialog, The Rules:

The art of writing dialog, or conversation between two or more people, is, for some writers, one of the most difficult parts of writing fiction to grasp. The goals are to make it sound real, the way actual people talk, keep it interesting to the reader, and make it understandable. If we don’t follow some standard formatting and punctuation, the reader will have a hard time following the dialog. Readers don’t like to work to be entertained, so if they can’t understand what we’re writing, most of them will toss it across the room. Or at least, click away. Since we want them to keep reading, and to enjoy it so much they tell their friends, we better keep the writing understandable.

Formatting and punctuation for grammar is pretty straight forward, once you know the rules. Now, if you’re one of those writers, who think the rules don’t apply to you because your story is so amazing, the reader will carry it home on stone tablets if need be… Well, just be aware, very few readers would go that far for the greatest works of fiction in the world, let alone your story. Besides, if you don’t know and understand the rules, how can you possibly break them consistently and effectively?

Formatting and Punctuation

So here we go, some of the basics of formatting and punctuating dialog.

  • The paragraph changes every time the speaker does.

“How are you doing?” John asked. The conversation opens.

“Busy lately. You?” Mary said, tying her shoe. The speaker changes, so we have a new paragraph.

“Yeah. Work’s been a madhouse.” John paid for his coffee. Another new paragraph, since the speaker has changed again. If we added a 3rd person here after John, we would start a new paragraph.

  • Every word spoken aloud is enclosed in quotations.

“How are you doing?” John asked. If John said something further, we would open a new quotation for those words, and close it when he stopped. If, instead of saying something else, he does something else, like walking on down the street, we would write that without quotations.

  • Punctuation that goes with the words being spoken aloud is inside the quotations.

“How are you doing?” John asked. Notice the question mark after doing is inside the quotes. If an exclamation were warranted, it would be inside as well.

“Yeah. Work’s been a madhouse.” John paid for his coffee. Here, I ended the speech with a period, since I didn’t use a dialog tag. *see below*

If, instead of the above, I had used a tag, it would be: “Yeah. Work’s been a madhouse,” John said, paying for his coffee. If a dialog tag is used, a comma replaces a period at the end of the last sentence being spoken. Question marks and exclamations are not replaced by a comma.

  • We can use attributions, or dialog tags, to let the reader know who’s speaking. The use of dialog tags is becoming less favored than it once was. Now, the preferred method to let the reader know who’s speaking is to make it clear through word choice, sentence structure, action beats. I’ll delve into all that in another post. It used to be fashionable to use all sorts of creative dialog tags to keep from boring the reader with said. Who can forget the ever popular “Oh, no!” he ejaculated.?  Now, said and asked are considered sufficient, and nearly invisible, or unobtrusive, to the reader. Personally, I prefer to use almost no dialog tags.
  • When using a dialog tag, following the closing quotation, the next word is not capitalized unless it is a proper noun, since it is a continuation of the same sentence.

“I’m glad that’s finished,” Mary said. The comma replaces the period after finished, and since Mary is a proper noun, it’s capitalized.

“Me, too,” he said. Again, the comma replaces the period after too, and since he is a pronoun, it isn’t capitalized. 

Next week, I’ll look at dialog tags, action beats, and breaking up the dialog.

Is there anything about dialog in particular that drives you nuts?

Rule of Three Blogfest Part Two

This week is Part Two of the Rule Of Three Blogfest. Each Wednesday in October, I, and the other participants, will post a portion of a story set in a shared world called Renaissance. Other than the shared world, there are only a couple of other rules: there must be 3 characters, there is a 600 word limit for each part, each week’s entry must be based on one of several writing prompts from the organizers, and the entries go up each Wednesday or Thursday.

If you haven’t already, check out my Part One. I’ve finally settled on a title for my story, which is nearly impossible for me to do before the piece is finished. Telling myself that I’m conserving creativity, I decided to call it “The Storm”. 😉

Please take the time to visit the organizers’ blogs: Damyanti, JC Martin, Lisa Vooght, and Stuart Nager. Check out the rules, and visit the other participants’ blogs.


The prompts participants were given to choose from this week are:

Someone is killed or almost killed. 

One of the characters is revealed to be not who he or she is. 

A relationship becomes complicated. 

A character lies to another on an important matter.

I selected “Someone is killed, or almost killed.”

“The Storm” Part Two”:

Despite his fatigue and the bone-chilling wind, Teguere wiped the sweat from his horse’s back while it munched grain from the packs. The nanny goat tethered to one side of the shed bleated pitifully, and he gave her a small measure as her kid butted at her udders.

After a half-second’s debate, he hoisted his saddle to his shoulder, and headed toward the shack. Probably wouldn’t be much drier than the shed, but the goat kid would wreak havoc on the leather.

Low light flickered in the gaps between the plank walls. The door blew open just before he reached it, and he quickly ducked inside, pulling it closed. The low roof forced him to remain stooped, but he ignored the discomfort. Depositing his saddle and packs on the dirt floor next to the door, he removed his hat.

Silhouetted against the fire in the hearth, Eriahne smiled over her shoulder at him, and went back to filling bowls. “There’s a bench here by the fire if you’d like to sit.”

Teguere crossed the little shack in three strides and lowered himself to the low bench. His belly growled as she removed the spitted rabbits from the fire. “It smells wonderful.” Should he say something else? It seemed like he should. Lack of experience in female company left him at a loss.

“I hope it isn’t too plain for you. Or too little.”

They ate quickly, the shack shuddering around them. Would it withstand the coming storm? Teguere had his doubts. Windblown objects struck the wall with growing frequency, each harder than the last. Perhaps he should have continued on the Villein into the heart of Renaissance, or even halted earlier in the Kastanes caverns. He’d have been warmer, at least. Which reminded him of Eriahne’s thin dress. She had to be freezing.

As soon as the remnants of the meal were stored in the cook pot, Teguere crossed to his gear and unrolled his bedroll to take out his spare coat. “Here, put this on.”

Eriahne shook her head, pride sparking in her eyes. “I’m fine, thank you.” Cold-hardened nipples clearly apparent despite the shapelessness of her dress proved she lied.

Before Teguere could insist, the end of the shack quaked, then screeched as the planks parted from one another. The roof sagged sharply, then peeled back, and the remaining walls gave way.

Eriahne stood, guttering firelight from the still-standing hearth illuminating her horror.

Teguere dove to shield her, but a missile knocked her to the dirt floor first, and he dropped on top of her. Trying to protect her, he ran his hands over her, searching for the source of the blood he smelled. Finally, he found it. A long gash over her right ear bled too freely.

She would bleed to death if he didn’t do something. Reaching inside his shirt, he tugged out the cotton square he tied over his mouth and nose when he met strangers on the trail. It had saved him from recognition, maybe it would save Eriahne’s life. He bound it over the wound and wished he could do more. Stretching out his hand, he found the corner of his bedroll, and pulled it partly over them.

A cold rain joined the wind, plummeting the temperature to near freezing. The cold was brutal, but pooling water posed more danger. Cursing, he half-carried, half-dragged Eriahne and the bedroll a few yards from the low floor.

The storm continued to rage as Teguere struggled to roll them both inside the protection of the tarp. Before it stopped, exhaustion claimed him.