My fourth grade teacher, Miss Lack, is Forever in the Building

I had a fourth grade teacher called Miss Lack. Imagine a young Mother Superior with a beehive instead of a wimple and habit. She had to be in her twenties, but that never occurred to us. She was scary.

She was also a good teacher. I first remember thinking about writing in her classroom, the elements that went into it, how a comma made a difference. Of course she was a product of her time, and she was a strict grammarian. One way and one way only to speak and write the language. We diagrammed sentences and labored over quotation marks.

Still today I think about Miss Lack when I hesitate over where a period goes. Even though her rules are now way out of date and new punctuation fashions are in place, I remember her rules. And when I see somebody using them, I’m torn between admiration and irritation.

Here’s the rule I still see used a lot and it drives me nuts because it’s so stilted:

Mary took her best friend, Louise Harrigan, out to lunch.

The old fashioned rule is: got two semantically equal noun phrases (friend=Louise), set the second one off with commas. Now I ask you, is this not awkward? Doesn’t it make you pause and think about, say, beehive hairdos intead of what Mary and Louise are talking about at lunch? It’s like a footnote stuck right up into the face of the story. But I see this a lot. I never, ever do it myself. I try to find a way to achieve the information without evoking Punctuation Parameters.

Mary took her best friend out to lunch. Louise was always in the mood for sushi, and she had no compunctions about gossip.

You can get the Harrigan part in there someplace in the scene, it doesn’t need to be right up front. At least not for fiction. I would make this same argument with a slightly different approach for creative non-fiction. It’s just awkward and silly and fourth-grade to stick to this better-introduce-the-character-to-the-reader approach.

Miss Lack taught me some very useful things, as well. For example, I credit her with the beginnings of my extreme dislike of excessive exclamation marks.

on writing dialog

Stoppard

As most of us aren’t Tom Stoppard (in fact, I’d guess nobody reading this is Tom Stoppard, but do compare your face in the mirror to the picture to be absolutely sure), and as I get a lot of questions from people on the mechanics of writing in general and dialog in particular, I thought I could put up a few points. Not all at once, but now and then. These are from my teaching notes.

(If it turns out that you are Tom Stoppard, we’ll carry on without you. On the other hand, if you find this kind of thing interesting or of use, please let me know.)

Before beginning, a word to the wise in the form of an Italian proverb: Do not remove a fly from a friend’s forehead with an axe. (I ask you, who but an Italian would think it necessary to state this?)

So here goes.

1. Dialogue must never convey information alone. It must accomplish more than one thing at once to earn its keep. It may:
characterize,
advance the action,
provide exposition
(introduce theme/characters),
provide setting,
foreshadow,
convey information.

2. Conversely, a line of dialog shouldn’t do all those things at once because then it will probably slip over the line (or march proudly over the line, better said) into the realm called (so elegantly) info dumping. Here’s an example (it’s fun to make examples of info dumping; but then I’m easily amused).

“But Joan, you went to law school because you adore your mother who has a law degree from Yale and worked for two years in the Eisenhower administration as White House Council.”

That is, never convey backstory in dialog. Very tacky.