Fiction Q&A: Styling Royal and Noble Titles

Q: When referring to a king or lord, when do you capitalize—if at all—for sire and your majesty and such? For example:

All we can do now is wait and pray that you and your healers can help my sister, your majesty.

I’m so confused. Thanks for your help.

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A: Titles are tricky, because it depends how you’re using them.

Generally speaking, the title will be capitalized if it’s being used with or in place of the person’s name. So in your example, Your Majesty would be capitalized. That’s what we call “direct address.” But if you and I are talking about the king, “king” isn’t capitalized because we’re using the word to talk about him, not as a name when talking to him.

Similarly, “Prince Charles” is capped because it’s part of his name, but when you refer to “the prince” it’s lowercase because you are not addressing him directly.

This is also true of military titles. So you might write:

Next, Admiral Akbar will give the briefing
(capitalized because it’s part of his name)

“Good morning, Admiral.”
(Capitalized because it’s a direct address in place of his name.)


“The admiral said it was a trap.”

The exceptions—I see a lot of people get these wrong—are these:

  • sir
  • ma’am
  • my lord
  • my lady

Unless they’re at the start of a sentence, these are lowercase, even in direct address, per The Chicago Manual of Style 8.32. So “lord” is capitalized in “Lord Fauntleroy” and “Your Lordship,” but lowercase in “my lord.” Chicago doesn’t include “sire” in this list, but the usage example in Merriam-Webster shows it lowercase, presumably because it’s akin to “sir.”

Generally speaking, the “Your” forms are capitalized (Your Excellency, Your Majesty), as are “his” forms (His Excellency, Her Majesty), while the “my” forms not (my lord, my liege).

This post originally appeared at my other blog.

Q&A: Do I Need Italics for Flashbacks?

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Q: I used italics in a scene with a flashback, but my critique partner said I should never use italics. Here’s the part I put in italics:

He sat in the cold hospital waiting room, feeling numb. This was just like when Mom died. We did all we could, the doctor had said. 

I thought characters’ memories were supposed to be italicized. Now I’m confused. What’s the right way to do this?

A: Confusion is understandable, for a several reasons.

First, you’re not the only one who’s confused. Your critique partner is—I’ll be generous and say “overstating the case.” Whenever someone gives you a never in regards to writing, your inner warning klaxon should go off. Writing is an art, and cannot be governed by rules involving always or never.

For example, we italicize words when they are used as words.

Second, you are only partly correct about characters’ memories. The practice you’re thinking of is to put remembered dialogue in italics. But this only applies to dialogue. We use italics instead of quotation marks so the reader won’t mistake it for something being spoken aloud at the moment.

But the rest of the character’s memory does not need to be in italics, because it’s interior monologue. It could be italicized, but it doesn’t have to be.

Fiction Q&A: Using italics for character thoughts

Here’s how I’d set your sample:

He sat in the cold hospital waiting room, feeling numb. This was just like when Mom died. We did all we could, the doctor had said.

So the only italicized words are the ones the doctor spoke.

The difference between memory and flashback

The last point of confusion has to do with defining a flashback. What you have is not a flashback. It’s a character memory. The character is thinking about what happened in the past—that information is his interior monologue.

A flashback is a fully formed scene set in an earlier time. So it should be typeset like any other scene. In fact, in the flashback, you would not set the dialogue in italics. You’d put it in quotation marks, just as in any other scene.

Here are a couple of excerpts from Rescuing Olivia by Julie Compton. At the start of the story, Olivia is comatose after an accident. The story is told in a set of flashbacks alternating with present-day scenes in the hospital. The story is told from the viewpoint of Olivia’s boyfriend, Anders.

The day before had started pretty much like many of the others they’d spent together.… She reached for him, wrapping her arms around his neck and pulling him close. “Let’s go for a ride today. A long ride.” She gave him a peck on the lips. “Take me somewhere I’ve never been.”

The time cue “day before” lets us know when the flashback takes place, and this is emphasized by the use of the past perfect tense (“had started.”) Olivia’s dialogue is in regular quotation marks.

Later, Anders is sitting in the hospital and remembers the conversation.

The doctors and nurses stood in stark contrast to the family and friends of patients, whose hollow eyes and weary efforts to smile at strangers gave them away. They were like the walking dead, and Anders wondered how in the short span of twenty-four hours he’d managed to become one of them.

Take me somewhere I’ve never been. 

The irony of Olivia’s request was that it seemed to Anders she’d been everywhere, and he’d never left Florida.

A flashback, like any other scene, can run as long as necessary to show what’s needed. A character memory should last only a couple of lines, as you have done.

If you find that a character is spending a lot of time thinking or talking about the past, consider whether it’s all really needed to move the story forward. If it is, consider rewriting those parts as flashbacks rather than character thoughts. Because a flashback is—or should be–characters doing things. Which is usually more interesting than characters thinking about things.

I know flashback and memory sound like the same thing, but they’re not. A flashback takes the reader into the story’s past. A memory keeps the reader in the story present, but the viewpoint character is thinking about the past. It’s a subtle distinction, but an important one.

Subplots, Side Stories, and What to Do with Them

Novelists often get carried away with characters. Or maybe that should be, characters often carry away novelists. Either way, well-developed secondary characters can run away with a story if you let them. In one of my sample book maps, I showed how this can happen.

In my fictional fiction (sorry for going so meta on you here), the secondary character Cordelia suddenly gets a lot of attention in Chapters 5 through 8, with a big-city adventure that has nothing to do with the heroine, the hero, or the villain.

Sample Book Map

Click to open larger so you can actually read this.

If we can in fact tie Cordelia’s storyline together with Antonia’s in a plausible way, then Cordelia has a subplot. But if that’s the case, the subplot should amplify or contrast what is happening in the main plot. Also, we’d want to see more alternation between Antonia’s main plot and Cordelia’s subplot. If you stray from your primary story line for too long, the reader’s attachment to the protagonist can break. This leads readers to stop reading.

So the book map can show you where you need to mix up your subplot with your main plot. In this case, we need to insert some Antonia chapters in between Cordelia’s chapters. It’s also possible to mix scenes within a chapter: alternating three scenes featuring Antonia with three scenes featuring Cordelia or someone else. Tolkien does this in The Return of the King when he switches back and forth between Frodo and Aragorn.

What if Your Story Isn’t a Sublot?

When a story line like Cordelia’s branches off on its own like a runaway freight train, and you cannot plausibly tie it back into the main plot line, you don’t have a subplot. You have a side story. The difference is that a subplot is integral to the overall story arc, and removing it will damage the narrative. Perhaps not irreparably, but it will take some doing to patch up the holes.

A side story, on the other hand, can be pulled out of the narrative without doing any significant damage to the surrounding scenes. It’s like the difference between remodeling and redecorating. You can take the curtains down without too much fuss, but if you rip out built-in bookshelves, you’ll have some work to do to mend the walls.

I have seen books make it to print with side stories intact, but these make for unsatisfying reading. The feeling of reading two unconnected stories at once is unsettling, especially when we’re accustomed to seeing such stories come together eventually.

If you find yourself with a side story, I recommend pulling it out and letting it stand on its own. There are several things you can do with such a story.

My favorite is to offer it as a free download for subscribers to your newsletter. If these subscribers have not read your book yet, the side story will give them a taste of your writing style and can help convince them to buy the book. If they have read your book, the side story gives them a chance to spend some more time with your setting and characters.

If you already have some other item serving as your sign-up premium, the side story can be offered as a feature on your web site. This is best for short stories, that is, under about 7,500 words or so.

If your side story is longer than that, consider publishing it as an e-book instead. Whether you choose to make it permafree or charge for it is entirely up to you. The longer the story is, the more likely you are going to be able to charge for it. Your ability to sell a short work will also depend on your track record as an author. Results vary widely, so it’s certainly work experimenting to see what kind of results you get either way.

You probably had fun writing the side story, so your readers will probably have fun reading it.

Use Storybreaking to Fill Narrative Gaps

Once you’ve made your book map, you may find that it reveals a gap or disconnect in the writing — a place where you’ve jumped from point A to Point D without explaining to the reader how you got there. Storybreaking can help you close that gap.

Narrative gaps can happen when you know how your characters accomplished something, but the readers don’t. In first drafts we may accidentally omit a scene that needs to be included. It’s also possible to write a scene so quickly that your characters accomplish their goal but you’ve failed to give enough detail for the reader to imagine it happening.

Sketching out a storyboard is a good way to break down a story if index cards aren't your thing. • Illustration via Fotolia

Sketching out a storyboard is a good way to break down a story if index cards aren’t your thing. • Illustration © ojtisi • Fotolia

Let’s say your hero is breaking into the villain’s fortress. In Scene 41 he arrives at the alligator-filled moat. In Scene 42 he climbs through the window of the drawing room. Wait, what? How did he cross the moat, evade the guards, and scale the wall? We need a storybreakdown here.

Get out your index cards.

Working from the onset forward works for most writers. He arrives at the moat — then what? Will he swim, or something else? Let’s say there’s a flying buttress on the other side, so he’s going to get out his grappling hook, toss it onto the buttress, and swing across the moat. Write that on a card.

Now see, that was a cool bit. Aren’t you glad we thought to add it? Now go back earlier in the story and edit that grappling hook into his kit so it doesn’t come out of nowhere.

Conversely, you can work from the result backward: to climb in the window he has to scale the wall, so write “scale the wall” on a card. That grappling hook will probably come in handy there, also. From there you can keep stepping backward until you close the narrative gap.


This technique isn’t just for novelists. A memoir writer may gloss over an incident, thinking it’s unimportant. But omitting the incident can leave a gap in the reader’s knowledge that leaves a subsequent scene confusing.

If a memoirist is writing about the time she was on her way to an event and was angry with her friend for not being there, we have no context for understanding her anger if we haven’t had a prior scene to set that context.

Step back: Why would the memoirist expect the friend to be there? How about because the friend was the one who talked the memoirist into going. But then the friend bailed on her.

That’s a valid reason for the memoirist to be angry. So we need to add two scenes to provide the context: One in which the friend does the cajoling, and another in which the friend bails. Those two scenes would close the gap.

In instructional nonfiction, gaps can happen when an expert forgets that newbies need to have all the steps broken down for them, sometimes to the foundational basics. I’ve been guilty of telling clients to set their paragraphs to first line indent of .5 inches without telling them where the Format Paragraph dialogue box is or how to get to it.

Break down the steps one by one, keeping in mind the knowledge level of your target readership. How much you can gloss over and how much you need to explain in detail will depend on how much they already know. So now I know to write, “In Word, click on Format and then Paragraph …”

Whether you’re writing fiction or nonfiction, book mapping and storybreaking can help you ensure you hit all the points necessary for your readers to follow your story or explanation.

Using a Book Map to Edit a Novel

Last time we looked at how book maps can help in nonfiction editing. Now let’s look at how this technique can help novelists.

As I worked on how to illustrate this, I found myself redacting so much information from so many client book maps, that you would get more out of this exercise if I just created a fictitious book map that illustrates multiple problems at once. All of these represent real problems I’ve seen in unpublished manuscripts, but this way I don’t run the risk of violating client confidentiality, and you get all the illustrations in one place.

Sample Book Map

Listing the chapter titles on the map illustrates a problem I see occasionally—an author giving chapter titles to most chapters but missing a couple. While reading the manuscript this could be easy to miss. Writing the chapter titles on your book map forces you to look twice at each one.

Nonfiction writers use epigraphs (introductory quotations) more often than novelists do, but I have seen them in novels. In one case, the author had placed the same epigraph at the top of two different chapters, so I recommended changing one of them. Another chapter had no epigraph at all.

Sample epigraphs courtesy of the LitQuotes Random Quote generator.

In one novel I edited, most chapters concluded with a diary entry. But some of the chapters lacked this feature. For consistency, every chapter needed a diary entry. The book map clearly showed the author which chapters broke the pattern, and also showed when the entries were out of order.

Mind the Gaps

The first installment of this series, Use Book Mapping to Examine Structure,” included J.K. Rowling’s book map for Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, which includes columns for various aspects of the story, including Harry’s relationships with Cho and Ginny, the Order, and a subplot featuring Hagrid and Grawp. That chart shows that she doesn’t let any one subplot go for long without attention, and some chapters touch on every one.

Conversely, a book map can show the gaps when too much attention is being paid to one subplot at the expense of others. When you depart from your hero or heroine for more than a few chapters at a time, you have to ask who’s story you’re really trying to tell. Secondary characters can take over a story if you let them. Return to your main characters frequently to keep the readers focused on the principal characters.

Sometimes the subplot needs to be cut down or even cut out. Other times it means the main plot needs to be beefed up. Every situation is unique, but the book map will help you look at the scenes in a condensed space so you can consider your options.

Download a sample spreadsheet book map.

Reading the manuscript straight through, you could miss these things. Taking the time to chart them on a book map, no matter what mapping format you choose, makes the elements of your novel easy to view so discrepancies become more noticeable. A book map might also reveal when a climax comes too early, or when a scene repeats something that’s already been shown.

Next time, we’ll return to the concept of storybreaking and see how it can be used to fill in those gaps.

How to Use a Book Map

If you’ve read the last few posts, you may have decided to make a book map of your current project, whether it’s in progress or in editing. Great! But once you’ve built a book map, what do you do with it?

You use it to examine the structure of your book and see whether it shows any anomalies or holes.


In an informational nonfiction book with multiple elements, the book map can be used to ensure everything is in place.

Nonfiction book map

I built this book map for a small group study I edited for a client. (For my clients’ privacy, I’ve removed the distinguishing information from these sample book maps.) The chapters were originally handouts the author made for her own small group. The publisher had several concerns: epigraphs, exercises, and permissions.

The book map verified that the epigraphs were consistent. There are two per chapter, which is unusual, but that’s the way the author wrote it so the publisher was OK with that. The introduction and conclusion don’t have epigraphs, but the publisher decided that didn’t matter. If only one of them had an epigraph, we probably would have edited so that the introduction and conclusion matched each other, even if they didn’t match the chapters.

The number of exercises per chapter was fairly consistent, but the book map did reveal an anomaly: One chapter had far more exercises than the others. After discussion, the publisher chose to leave it, but he could also have asked the author to revise. The map showed what was going on so he could make an informed decision.

The book map highlighted the four elements of the book that needed permissions. The author secured reprint permissions for three of them. The fourth had to be cut and totally rewritten from our own research.

One thing I was taught to check for—both in fiction and nonfiction—is chapter length. How long your chapters are may vary by your style and genre, but it’s a best practice to keep them about the same length, give or take five pages.

Chapter length map

In this case, the book map showed that one chapter was longer than average, and another was far shorter. We decided to beef up the shorter one, but the lengthy one had a topic that warranted the higher page count, so we let it go. I also used the book map to call out to the author that one of the chapter titles was a little too vague.

The Mechanics of Chapterization

Note that I use a formula in Excel to calculate the average chapter length. I take that number and then use conditional formatting to highlight the chapters that are more than five pages greater or less than that number.

Next time we’ll look at applying book maps in fiction.

How to Make a Visual Book Map

Last time I wrote about how to use Excel to create a book map. My friend and editor Travis Perry once declared spreadsheets to be “antithetical to coherent communication,” and maybe you feel the same way, in which case a graphic representation may work better for you.

Especially for people who learn visually better than verbally, a diagram like Gustav Freytag’s pyramid structure can provide a framework. On the “Rising Action” part of the structure, you would list your major turning points from bottom to top, with the inciting incident at the bottom and the turning points above it.

Because of concerns about permissions I hesitate to share some of the better plot graphs that are floating about the interwebs. But do a search on Google Images or Pinterest for “plot chart template,” and you’ll find an abundance of inspiration.

Of course, this kind of chart works best if your plot follows Freytag’s plan or the hero’s journey. If you have a less structured plot, you may need something more like a mind map or flow chart. In that case you may want to draw your plot map freehand on a poster board or butcher paper.

A mind map starts with a central idea and spreads outward circularly, possibly in multiple unrelated directions. A flow chart is more like tree roots, starting at the top and branching downward (or left and right) as decisions are made. If drawing is not for you, there are apps that can help you with either:

Lifehacker: Five Best Mind Mapping Tools

Tech Republic: Five Flow Charting Applications

If you’re a kinesthetic learner, you may prefer something hands-on instead of digital. There are plenty of options. You can stick Post-it notes on a wall, pin 3 x 5 cards to a bulletin board, write on a white board … anything you can use to get ideas out of your head and into the world where you can manipulate them and see them all at once can work.

For more ideas about how to make all sorts of book maps, have a look at  Heidi Fiedler’s Pinterest board Book Mapping Like An Editor. She includes examples of all the ideas mentioned above, and a few more besides.

Screenshot of just a part of Heidi Fiedler's Book Mapping Pinterest board.

Screenshot of just a part of Heidi Fiedler’s Book Mapping Pinterest board.

Your book map can be, and should be, as unique as you and the story you are writing.