The Moretti Men Series of 3 Books
by Anna Dynowski
Keeping tabs on Who is Who
Question from the e-mail: Thanks for the tip how to fix my 1930s story, Arline. I am already slotting those suggested details in. The other complaint I get from my writers' group is is that they get my characters mixed up. Any advice on that one? Marie.
Answer: The first bit of advice is not to be afraid to name the characters in your speechtag attributions. Many writers name them once, and the they become "he" or "she" without any more names for the rest of the scene. In a scene that is longer than half a page, this is almost certain to lead to confusion.
This can be very confusing if there are two or more "hes" or "shes" present.
We are all taught to write exposition in English 101. But many of us don't pick up much advice on how to punctuate dialogue and the rules of grammar that apply to it are different.
A pronoun always refers to the preceding noun. If a scene has two characters, Mary and John, and the pronoun "He" is preceded by door (A noun, though not a proper one!), no one will complain. And if the pronoun he, is preceded by Mary, most of us would still "get it." But an English Freak would freak, screaming "Mary's NOT a HE!!"
Many writers use a proper name once and then the character becomes he or she for the rest of the scene thereafter, but that is not at all a good habit to form. To cue the reader as to who is speaking, it's a good idea to remember that rule, and to name the character if the noun changes, and at least once for every two pronouns.
The worse sin in publishing is to confuse the reader as to who is speaking OR who is acting. A sentence like:
A gunshot rang out!
Will certainly get everyone's attention, but it will almost always confuse the reader, unless more explanation follows quickly. We don't know who fired the gun, what they were shooting at, whether they hit anything, or anyone, or why they brought a gun along to start with, etc.
If you can get hold of a copy, Marie, you might want to read Dick Francis’ The Edge, and study his reader cues.
It’s a mystery set on a train trip across Canada. He had several sets of characters: the detective and security people; the horse racing crowd — villain, suspects, owners, and horses, etc.; the train crew conductor, kitchen staff, etc.; and finally, the cast of a mystery play who were performing a murder mystery as if they were part of the party.
Francis managed to cue the reader every time, with (I counted) upwards of 40 characters involved, that was not an easy task. But he is a masterful writer. He sometimes identified the horse owners with the name of their horses, but he did identify they every time.
I hate it when critics say, “Francis is an excellent writer for a mystery writer.” As if mystery writers don’t have to be very good — or as if it’s a surprise that a mystery writer should be “excellent” at all. Francis's images were flawless, his attention to detail phenomenal, and his reader cues infallable.