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September 17, 2014

Margie’s Rule #5: If the Hyphenated-Run-On Fits…

Margie Lawson

THANK YOU to all the uber-talented and uber-fun WITS gals for inviting me to guest blog again!

Margie LawsonReady for some fun?

Margie’s Rule #5: If the Hyphenated-Run-On Fits…

If you’re a Margie-grad, you know I love well written hyphenated-run-ons. That’s my term for stringing three or more words together with hyphens. They give you a boost on the write-fresh scale. You can make a hyphenated-run-on as fresh as you dare.

Okay. Dare may be too strong. Rewrite: You can make a hyphenated-run-on as fresh as fits the character and the scene.

Look at this series of hyphenated-run-ons in one sentence from an NCIS episode. Tony looks at Gibbs and says,

"Uh-oh. I know that look. That's the stay-up-all-night, no-sleep, take-one-for-the-team, I've-got-a-plan look."

Four back-to-back hyphenated-run-ons, probably not something you’d want more than once per book. Maybe zero times. But you may have a place where two or three in a row are perfect.

The Second Virginity of Suzy Green, Sarah Hantz, Margie-Grad

I look across at Lori, who’s smiling at me. Thing is I don’t know if it’s a wanting-to-please-teacher smile, or whether it’s a genuine I-want-to-get-to-know-you smile.

Sarah Hantz played up that contrast with two hyphenated-run-ons in one sentence. Smart!

Chasing Luck, Brinda Berry, Immersion-Grad, 7 examples

  1. JT takes a sip of red wine and relaxes into his you're-being-unreasonable smile.
  2. The older man who exited the men's room gives me the she-must-be-on-drugs look, mumbles apologies, and walks off.
  3. I hook the printer up and know I'm in for some death-by-reading and I'm definitely on a suicide mission coded please-get-to-the-point.

Brinda Berry took what could have been mundane, used power words (death, suicide mission), and added humor hits with two hyphenated-run-ons to make that sentence strong.

  1. And I almost melt into a pool of girly goo. Jerk. Totally gorgeous-beyond-words jerk.

Fun, fun, fun!

  1. I'm struggling to hold my totally-undeniably-pissed expression.
  1. Call me a coward, but I don’t know how to do this friend-with-a-female thing.

I shared the full paragraph in the next example.

  1. The scales definitely tip in the direction of bad news. She's not his trophy wife or barely-legal mistress. She’s his niece — the number one spot on the dateable-but-off-limits list. The girl looks at me and her gaze makes a slow run down the length of my body. I'm beyond screwed. Goodbye Miss Innocent, hello Miss Seductress.

Strong writing. Fresh hyphenated-run-on. Compelling cadence throughout.

The Last Breath, to be released Sept. 30th, MIRA, Kimberly Belle, 4-time Immersion-Grad, 4 examples

  1. By the time I make it to the front door, she’s standing on the welcome mat with a crate of medical supplies and a hurry-up-and-let-me-in grin.
  1. When the kitchen door swings wide a few minutes later revealing Jake coming at us with two plates piled high with tonight’s special, I realize I’m ravenous. Outta-my-way-and-let-me-at-it ravenous.
  1. Plus, one look at Jake’s just-got-laid grin and the purple love bite below his right ear, and everybody in the place will know.
  1. I give him an I’m-thirty-four-so-don’t-even-go-there look. “Out.”

Kimberly Belle used a hyphenated-run-on to slip in the POV character’s age. Brilliant!

When You Are Mine, Kennedy Ryan, Immersion-Grad, 3 examples        

  1. “How are you holding up, Aunt Kris?” Jo kept her eyes on Kristeene’s thinner-than-usual face. “Don’t lie to me.”

Two examples with strong dialogue cues.

  1. “Walsh, you know Cam is serious about Kerris, right?” Jo used her don’t-play-a-player voice on him. “He’s going to propose again.”
  1. Walsh lobbed a silent yes-get-me-out-of-this expression to his mother. She returned with a mama-always-knows smile.

Love the way Kennedy Ryan used one hyphenated-run-on as a stimulus, and another one as a response. Smart writing!

Sixth Grave Beyond the Edge, Darynda Jones, NYT Bestseller, Margie-Grad,  4 examples

  1. I’d have to pull the talking-into-the-phone routine.
  1. If her puking-on-demand skills were anything like her acting skills, she’d nail it.
  1. “They definitely bugged. That whole gun-to-the-head thing was very annoying.”

Darynda Jones is a master of Humor Hits. Gun-to-head thing, annoying—great understatement.

  1. This was the part I didn’t handle well. The people-left-behind part. Their sorrow was like a boulder on my chest.

Darynda Jones can also grab your heart, and squeeze. You feel her characters’ pain.

Sweet On You, Laura Drake, 2014 RITA Winner, Immersion-Grad, 4 examples

  1. Doc spoke in his calm-a-spooked-horse voice, his hands running over the cowboy’s neck, checking his skull, his facial bones.
  2. Buster was going to get on a ton of pissed-off, stomp-your-guts-out bull, and he smiled.

In the next example, the male POV character is referring to a girl. Love it!

  1. “Tiny, blond, and shiny as a showroom-floor sports car. Fully loaded.” He closed his eyes. “It was more than that. She looked at me like I’d made the world just for her. That’s pretty heady stuff for a fresh-off-the-farm boy.”

I had to share the full paragraph in the example below too.

  1. But under that, deep in the bottom of her mind where light couldn’t penetrate, was fear. Helpless, paralyzing, curled-in-a-ball-blubbering fear. Every screw-up took her down farther into that hell-hole. She wondered when she’d reach the place where she wouldn’t have the energy to try again.

Wow. Look how Laura Drake kept amplifying and taking the reader deeper and deeper.

Notice the power words and phrases in that last example: deep, bottom, mind, penetrate, fear, helpless, paralyzing, blubbering, fear, screw-up, down farther, hell-hole, wouldn’t have energy

Hear the compelling cadence.

You’ll notice that all the examples in my blogs, and lectures, have compelling cadence. Yep. Cadence is that critical.

You’ll also notice that all the examples in this blog are from Margie-Grads.

I am proud, proud, proud of my uber-talented Margie-Grads!

Wrapping Up:

You may have some common hyphenated-run-ons like door-to-door, hundred-mile-an-hour, or off-the-grid. They work. They’re fine. But I encourage you to write some fresh, make-the-reader-laugh, or carry-a-punch, hyphenated-run-ons too.


You can have too much fun with hyphenated-run-ons:

  • If you have too many too close together
  • If they don’t fit the emotional tone of the scene
  • If they don’t fit the POV character’s voice
  • If they don’t fit the writer’s voice

Hyphenated-run-ons can be all-purpose slip ins. You can use them to slip in a hit of backstory, setting, attitude, facial expression, dialogue cue, humor, angst…

You can use them to provide a contrast, or a balance.

You can use them to make the mundane more interesting, to make a character more interesting, to make a scene more interesting.

You can use them to share a concept or a visual in fewer words. They pick up pace.

If you haven’t included hyphenated-run-ons in your WIP, dig deep and write fresh.

If you have fun writing a hyphenated-run-on and it fits, your reader will probably have fun reading it too. Make your writing like chocolate mousse on the tip of the tongue. Make your reader want more and more.


Want to post a hyphenated-run-on you’ve read, or a hyphenated-run-on you wrote?

Post a comment, and you’ll be in the drawing to win an online course from Lawson Writer’s Academy!

 If you want to see the previous Margie's Rules you can find them here:

Check out the courses we’re offering in October:

1.   Scene and Sequel: Superpowered Writing Tool, Instructor: Kathleen Baldwin

2.   Taking a Book From Good to Sold, Instructor: NYT Bestseller Shirley Jump

3.  Taming Twitter and Facebook Too! Instructor: Julie Rowe

4.  Create Compelling Characters, Instructor: Rhay Christou, MFA

5.  Creating That Historical Feel, Instructor: Anne Mateer

6.  30 Days to a Stronger Novel, Instructor: Lisa Wells

7.  From Madness to Method: Usingacting techniques to invigorate your story and make each moment Oscar worthy!  Instructor: Tiffany Lawson Inman

The drawing will be Friday, September 19, 8:00 PM Mountain Time.

See you on the blog!

All smiles................Margie

About Margie

Margie Lawson teaches writers how to use her psychologically-based editing systems and deep editing techniques to create page turners. Margie has presented over ninety full day master classes for writers in the U.S., Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.

Margie is excited to share that Romance Writers of Australia is bringing her back to present at their conference next summer!

To learn about Lawson Writer’s Academy, Margie’s 4-day Immersion Master Classes (in Denver, Atlanta, Philadelphia, Dallas, Seattle, San Antonio, Columbus, Jacksonville, Houston, and on Whidbey Island), her full day Master Class presentations, keynote speeches, on-line courses, lecture packets, and newsletter, please visit www.MargieLawson.com.

57 comments on “Margie’s Rule #5: If the Hyphenated-Run-On Fits…”

  1. MUAH! I so love you, Margie, because you make me sound intelligent!

    I love hyphenated phrases in key areas - they are so the way we think, and a shortcut to display varied emotions. And I can see from the examples, they're a good way to display the voice of the character in dialog. Never thought about it that way.

    Thanks for making me think, Margie!

    1. *****************HELLO EVERYONE!*******************

      I'm flying from Denver to Houston today to teach an Immersion class with the Readerlicious girls. I'll respond to a few comments now, then I'll be back online tonight, and tomorrow.

      LAURA --

      Muah, muah, muah to you!

      It's so easy to make you sound intelligent. 🙂 Whatever blog topic I choose, I know your books will be loaded with stellar examples!

    1. Kennedy --

      Your writing is super strong too!

      Miss you. So glad you think about me. 🙂

      Ah -- You're ready for your second Immersion class. The next 9 Immersion classes are full. I have openings in a May class in Denver. Or maybe I'll see you next fall!

  2. I do love using these, especially when writing Deep POV, because that's how people think. However, I've also used italics from time to time, especially when it's a long run-on. I think e-book formatting software can get 'confused' by the lack of spacing, which is how it identifies words.

    1. Hello Terry!

      Hyphenated-run-ons are such a perfect fit for some characters.

      Good idea to use italics for e-book formatting. Excellent point! Thanks so much for chiming in.

  3. Thanks for the refresher, Margie. Ever since taking one of your classes, I've been experimenting with the hyphenated run-on idea. Here's one from my WIP:

    "“It’s good to meet you, too, Mr. Barton.” Jenna responded with her I’m-confident-but-not-over-confident professional smile."

  4. Margie,

    I pressed my lips together, firm and tight. A resolution formed in my mine. I must remember to spice my WIP with Marie-hyphenated-run-ons I learned from her superb Lecture Packets to make my writing stellar.

    Thanks for the reminder.


  5. Yay! I love your posts. They are great refreshers.
    Hyphenated-run-ons are so much fun. I'm having Margie class withdrawls 🙂

    He ducked but the foaming missile bounced off his hair-sprayed-until-bullet-proof hair.

    1. Bonnie --

      Great example!

      Hyphenated-run-ons fit you and your characters and your life.

      That sentence may not pass a credibility check. I don't know if they fit your life. But that sentence with polysyndeton has an enviable flow.

      I bet you're enjoying your new home!

  6. I love hyphenated-run-ons. And I LOVE Margie's on-line class I am presently involved in. LOTS of great info. The lecture packets are terrific as well. Here are two hyphenated-run-ons from my WIP middle grade novel. (I only used these two in the whole book, so as not to over work them )
    I looked over at Mama. She had that don’t-you-even-say-a-word look on her face, the one that also said 'we-have-already-discussed-this-too-many-times.' So I swallowed and clamped my jaws tight."

  7. This is a great lesson. I never considered hyphenated run-ons being used in such clever ways. I'm going to have to try a few in my writing! Thanks for the lesson.

  8. I love hyphenated-run-ons and could write half my novel with them! One in my WIP is "Sorry? My-too-wide-ass he wasn't sorry!" They're a great way to be creative, and really, don't we THINK in hyphenated-run-ons with our thoughts all random words jumbled together? What? Is it just me?
    Great post!

  9. Yes, yes, yes ... the Master strikes again !!! Okay, love certain types of run on sentences, composite, complicated, cadence ... loved your talk about how to mix-it-up with short and long, like a concert ... and I do so love to hit cliches up-side-the-head.

    I am not the first to say it ... you are one hell of a bad-ass "listener." Thanks. Because of all you do, we are all better 🙂

  10. Thanks, Margie! I love this idea and these examples. I believe hyphenated run-ons work great in YA, because I hear teens talk that way. Here's one from my WIP, a girl describing her BF: "She showered me with that all-kinds-of-mischief grin—the one that turned up her mouth a little and lit up her face a lot."

    And a little later in the chapter when the love interest enters her domain: "I’d talked to him plenty of times before, but that had been taken Hunter, Elizabeth’s-boyfriend Hunter, no-chance-for-me Hunter—not single-and-available-and-leaning-across-my-counter Hunter."

    Can't wait for you to put this baby through the ringer at Immersion! 🙂

  11. "Jon twisted in the seat. Under the glow from the streetlight he saw the pout on Lorilyn's face. It was her if-I-don't-get-my-way-something-bad-is-going-to-happen face."
    ~~from my current WIP - Second Chance for the Cowboy

  12. I think in hyphenated phrasing but I can't think of one example in my writing. Maybe that's because I write historical or maybe I've just been procrastinating and haven't focused on writing anything. Thanks for the advice. I'd love to take your class sometime.

  13. I love hyphenated run-ons! They can say and do so much in a few short words. The only one I can see in my WIP so far: He wore a rumpled old plaid shirt over denims and that just-rolled-out-of-bed-after-wild-sex hair.
    Great post, as usual, Margie!

  14. When I wrote this sentence in my WIP, I definitely thought of you, Margie:
    Tom Yates looked up, a this-is-my-ranch-and-I’ll-go-where-I-please expression on his face.

  15. Do you know, I never used hyphenated run-ons until you, Margie? It was one of those I-can-do-THAT bits of awesome I took away from your lecture packets. 🙂

  16. I like them in moderation. They get on my nerves when they're used too much. It seems like a gimmick after a while. Great blog as usual. I'm applying some Margie courses to my final pass on my novel before it goes out. They really help.

  17. Ahh, Margie, another fabulous post. 🙂
    I love hyphenated run ons. Here's from the scene I wrote this morning (will resist the urge to rewrite it five times in this small space; twitch) -- "When she sees me approach, she crosses her arms in a coming-close-will-be-your-dumbest-move-yet."

  18. Sitting in the living room with Margie at Immersion and she encouraged me to post a couple...

    Even now, though my body still shook from a Grayson-induced, post-coital high, I still loathed my couldn’t-be-more-wrong-for-me-mate.

    Len kissed the top of my head and I melted into him, the contact reaffirmed my stance that Len would not be meeting Ms. Jogging-To-Make-Her-Ass-Look-Better.

  19. Hanging with the wonderful, lovable, fabulous Margie at Immersion! Here's mine from my new WIP, Twelve Years.

    He smiled his climbing-the-corporate-ladder smile again, and walked out the door.

  20. I'm with Margie at Immersion too!

    A couple of my hyphenated-run-ons:

    When I opened my eyes, Daniel stood in front of me smiling an I-will-kill-you-soon-and-there's-nothing-you-can-do smile.

    And this one was inspired by my fellow Readerlicious and Immersion sister, Christina Delay: His faded jeans clung to his oh-so-grab-able ass. Damn, he was scrumdillyumptious.

  21. Hi Margie,
    Your Fab 30 is pure awesomeness. So here goes my first ever hyphenated-run-on:
    Apparently Oprah knew a lot about relationships, but had missed the chapter on confronting assholes. Evie could write that chapter, expert account: how-to-confront-an-asshole-and-not-look-like-an-idiot.

  22. I'm here at Immersion, too! Can't wait to get into things...so excited. And nervous. Eek!

    Here are a couple of hyphenated run-ons from my own writing:

    1. Dren flashed her a gold-and-glitter smile. "Brilliant, isn't it?"

    2. Lisa shrugged off her ever-present bag of kid-away-from-home necessities and butt-shoved the front door closed.

    And I can't resist sharing a spontaneous funny from while we were sitting around:

    Carol chuckled, a soft sound in the silence, an I'm-thinking-something-dirty-and-I'm-not-gonna-tell laugh.

  23. Hi Margie,
    I do love the hyphenated-run ons. I'll admit I have to intentionally create them because they don't always come naturally when writing first drafts. Here's a current one:

    Sam eyed the gnome who stood there monk-like, upright and serene, casting his I-can-split-a-stack-of-popsicle-sticks-with-my-bare-hands gaze.

  24. I could jump through the screen and hug you! Or better yet, I'll hug you in person. I'm so excited about being at Immersion with you. I look forward to all the hard work this week. 🙂

  25. Oh my gosh, I love, love, love this post. I love Margie and Laura and Kennedy. I love hyphenated-runs-ons. I love all these fabulous examples.

    I just recently branched out and added a sentence to my middle grade WIP with TWO hyphenated-run-ons.

    "Allen doesn't say anything, but he notches back his glare from I-should-kill-you to I-should-punch-you."

  26. Hi Margie!
    Lovely post.There's a hyphenated-runs-on that Brad Meltzer used in The Book of Lies that caught my attention:
    “Oh that’s right—you took the far more honorable resign-on-your-own-and-avoid-the-indictment.”

  27. Hi Margie!
    Fascinating as always.
    Here's a hyphenated-run-on from my WIP:
    "Mom had that adamant look about her. Don't-even-think-about-it-buster adamant."

  28. This post was a revelation for me. What I love about hyphenated-run-ons is how powerfully and easily they get the message across without having to resort to over-explanation.
    Kudos to Margie who just has this way of making us work harder to produce fresh fresh writing that simply cannot be ignored.

  29. I also think of Margie every time I write a hyphenated-run-on. Here's one from my wip: (Note to the grammar police: the apostrophe is a problem I haven't solved-yet.)

    The longer I pondered on my I’m-sorry-for-me’s, the madder I got.

  30. Hi Margie!
    I had so much fun reading the examples! Especially "I give him an I’m-thirty-four-so-don’t-even-go-there look". I love that you named hyphenated-run-ons with a hyphenated-run-on.

  31. I hadn't really noticed hyhenated-run-ons before, but they seem like an exciting tool, one that could be a lot of fun. These examples definitely display a lot of character, and that's something I need to work on. I'll have to experiment. Thank you! 🙂

  32. I am currently reading a book called BONE BY BONE. I liked this particular hyhenated-run-on:
    Her voice dropped into the guttural range of Pay-attention-or-else.
    Hyphenated-run-ons are a wonderful way to add freshness to worn-out expressions but only if used sparingly.
    Super examples Margie.

  33. I've got a couple from my W-I-P:
    Rachel's enthusiasm was immediately shut down by his useful-as-tits-on-a-bull expression.
    At that moment all I wanted was to smack that I-don't-wanna-brag smile off his face.
    This was a fun post. Thanks Margie.

  34. Hi Margie!
    Hope you are doing well after your surgery. It's great to have another wonderful post from you. This whole series has been a fun learning experience. Thank you for making us better writers.

  35. I always love your posts so full of fresh, useable writing wisdom and you are so generous in sharing them with is all. Glad to hear you're recovering well from surgery.

  36. I've got a couple from my W-I-P:
    Rachel's enthusiasm was immediately shut down by his useful-as-tits-on-a-bull expression.
    At that moment all I wanted was to smack that I-don't-wanna-brag smile off his face.
    This was a fun post. Thanks, Margie!

  37. It's amazing how you make learning so much fun, Margie. I am pretty sure I have come across these strings of attached words that you so aptly call hyphenated-run-ons, but never paid much attention to them, unless of course the author had sprayed a whole lot of them all over the scene. But here you are demonstrating how simply and powerfully they work if used correctly. Such an informative piece. Hats off!

  38. So much to learn! From Stale and Cliched to Fresh and Fun -- with just the use of a hyphen.
    How good are these examples!!! Especially "I’m struggling to hold my totally-undeniably-pissed expression." I'll be really pleased with myself if I ever pull off a line like that. I have bookmarked the entire "Margie's rule" series. I’m looking forward to more of your rules.

  39. I’m always excited to see Margie posts -- they always manage to teach me something unusual and exciting.

  40. Jeannie Ruesch used this line in one of her books: "His brisk, do-not-argue-with-me tone raised her temper and she stood taller, squared her shoulders." Simple, precise, fresh.
    It's an underrated tool this hyphenated-run-on. Thanks Margie for yet another fun, enlightening post. Hope you're recovering well from your surgery.

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