Dialogue by Donna Andrews, Guest Blogger, Award-winning Author, and Friend o' the Tarts
(No, not on writing good dialogue; just on punctuating it properly. Punctuation matters. It's another way to keep editors, agents, and other people who read your manuscripts happy and receptive, instead of annoying them into a cranky, rejection-happy mood.)
Ordinary punctuation of dialogue
"Yes," he said. "I did it."
Punctuation inside the quotes. Punctuation after the tag (the "he said").
When it gets more complicated...see below.
Said is not a word--it's a form of punctuation. Use said as often as necessary to ensure that the reader knows who is talking with every line of dialogue. And only as often.
"Yes. I did it," John said.
"You couldn't have," Mary said.
"Yes, I did," he said.
"I can't believe it," she said.
"Believe it," he said.
"Really?" she asked.
"Yes," he said.
Bad, in another way:
"Yes. I did it."
"You couldn't have."
"Yes, I did."
"I can't believe it."
"Yes," John said. "I did it."
"You couldn't have."
"Yes, I did."
"I can't believe it." Mary said, with a shudder.
"Yes." He nodded.
Another acceptable option:
"Yes-- I did it."
"John! You couldn't have."
"Yes, I did."
"I can’t believe it," she said, with a shudder.
"Believe it, Mary."
Note that it's still not great dialogue, in either case. . . but infinitely better punctuated! Just remember, don't tag each sentence. But don't ever make the reader wonder who's speaking.
When someone starts speaking, don't make the reader wait too long to find out who he or she is.
"I have a confession to make. I'm the murderer! I know that you'll probably find that hard to believe, and I hope one day you'll find it in your heart to forgive me. But I couldn't keep you in the dark any longer," Jack said.
The reader will probably go to sleep before the killer outs himself. Look for the first natural break in the dialogue and insert the tag there.
"I have a confession to make," Jack said. "I'm the murderer! . . ."
Not better at all:
"I have," Jack said, "a confession to make."
This is not a natural break point; instead of clarifying, the dialogue tag interrupts the flow and force of Jack's words. If you're not sure where to break dialogue, read it aloud. Watch for the places where you naturally stop to take a breath. The first such pause is usually the optimal place to put the tag.
Don't use action verbs as dialogue tags. People don't shudder or nod words. They don't laugh or gag them, either. About the only thing you can laugh is "hahaha," and a gag invariably like "ggggggggg." So unless that's what's inside the quotation marks--and most of us already know what laughing or gagging sounds like--use said. Or nothing.
Don't use too many synonyms for said. The fancier the synonym, the more likely it is you should use it sparingly or not at all.
"Why did you do that?" he interrogated.
Yuck....just say he asked. Or demanded, if that applies.
Verbs that describe HOW someone says something--whispered, shouted, murmured, hissed--are okay. Just make sure your characters don't whisper, shout, murmur, or hiss every single thing they say.
And if you're ever tempted to have your characters aver or expostulate, burn your thesaurus. (In fact, thesauruses do most writers more harm than good. They tend to cause what one writer friend calls "writerly" prose, and he doesn't mean that in a kind way. He means stilted.)
Learn your favorite synonyms for said--the ones you consistently overuse. Maybe your characters growl a lot. Or bark every other sentence. Once you've figured out which tags you use too often, you can go back and prune them.
Said (or any other dialogue tag) should normally appear after the noun or pronoun doing the saying. Putting said in front is now considered archaic and somewhat awkward.
"Hi," said Frank.
"Hi," Frank said.
The exception is if you need to modify Frank. (And you should make sure Frank really wants to be modified. He might not even want to trim his nose hair.)
"Hi," said Frank, the eighth and always forgotten dwarf.
"Hi," said Frank, who was holding the bloodstained dagger.
though the following might work even better:
"Hi," Frank said. He was holding the bloodstained dagger.
Avoid using an adverb ending with ly to modify said or other dialogue tags. It's not that you should never do this, but it's one of the most common forms of overwriting, and many readers (including editors) have become allergic even to the occasional appropriate use of adverbs. So save adverbs for when they absolutely positively have to be there, and be prepared to get dinged for them anyway.
(And it's very easy to commit accidental Tom Swifties with an adverb.
"This pencil needs sharpening," Tom said bluntly.
"Give me a haircut," Tom said barbarously.
"It rained all summer," Tom said intensely.)
You shouldn't overuse exclamation points in dialogue! Save them for the most dramatic moments of your dialogue! Because if you put an exclamation point after everything, what will you do when something's really exciting? And no, the answer isn't to use multiple exclamation points. You might get away with that once every other book or so. (The King James Bible uses precisely one exclamation point in telling the entire story of Lazarus.)
Outside dialogue, you should almost never use exclamation points.
Mixing action and dialogue
Passages that are all action without dialogue or all dialogue without action are both less interesting than an intermingling of the two. But you have to mix them carefully.
For example: Don't start a paragraph with exposition and then switch to dialogue. Start a new paragraph whenever someone begins speaking.
Peter Rabbit nibbled another carrot. He said "I hope Farmer McGregor doesn't catch me. I wonder if his lettuce tastes this good."
Peter Rabbit nibbled another carrot. "I hope Farmer McGregor doesn't catch me," he said. "I wonder if his lettuce tastes this good."
Also correct, and perhaps even better style:
"I hope Farmer McGregor doesn't catch me," Peter Rabbit said, as he nibbled another carrot. "I wonder if his lettuce tastes this good."
Don't start a new paragraph if the same person is speaking--unless he or she has been going on for such a long time that you think the reader needs a break. Or unless the speaker is changing topics.
"I hope Farmer McGregor doesn't catch me," Peter Rabbit said, as he nibbled another carrot.
"I wonder if his lettuce tastes this good."
(The reader is left to wonder whether it's Peter Rabbit saying this or whether Flopsy and Mopsy have snuck onto the scene and joined the conversation.)
If one character is speaking for a long time, you can break his or her speech into paragraphs. By not putting a quotation mark at the end of the paragraph, you signal to the reader that the same speaker continues in the next paragraph.
However, if your characters are going on that long, maybe you should consider whether you should let them. Outside of lecture halls, people rarely get away with monologues in real life. If it feels like a good time to start a new paragraph, might it not also be a good time to let one of the other characters take a turn? Have someone interrupt--agree--ask a question. Show the speaker's supporters nodding and his enemies frowning and shifting in their seats. Or have a delicate snore rise from the back of the room.
"I'm going to set up a firewall on your computer," the guru said. "You need something to protect you from malware--programs that could harm your computer, including Trojans, worms, spyware, and viruses, like the Sobig virus that infected your computer last month and caused you to lose three days of work. So we should also upgrade your virus protection software while we're at it. "
(And the guru continues for three pages of dense techno-talk, straight from the manual. The computer user doesn't even get to nod admiringly. Odds are he nodded off about the time the reader did.)
"I'm going to set up a firewall on your computer," the guru said. "You need something to protect you from malware."
"Malwhat?" the computer user asked.
"Malware--programs that could harm your computer."
"Oh, you mean viruses."
"Not just viruses--Trojans, worms, spyware. But don't worry about that," he added, noticing that the user's eyes were glazing over. "Just take it from me--you need a firewall."
(And so on. Notice that in structuring the same information as back and forth dialogue, it almost automatically becomes less formal and more like real dialogue.
A small note on contractions:
Star Trek fans will remember how the character of Data (from Star Trek: The Next Generation) talked--absolutely no use of contractions. I was never sure this made sense. Did his programmer accidentally leave out that part of the grammar book? And couldn't Data have figured out how to reprogram that part of his language data banks? Whether or not it makes sense, there's a reason they did it: it reminds the viewer that Data is a machine. So unless your characters are androids, or very pedantic, go back over your dialogue and make sure they're not saying "do not" when real people would say "don't" and "I will" when most of us say "I'll." If you're contraction-shy on paper, you'll be surprised how much life this can breathe into your dialogue.
Quotes within quotes:
American usage calls for using double quotation marks around dialogue. If you're using a quote within a quote, set off the second level of quotes with single quotation marks. The same goes for anything, like a short story or song title, that would normally be inside double quotes.
She asked Elvis if he could play a Beatles song, so he played "A Hard Day's Night."
"She asked me if I could play a Beatles song, so I did," Elvis said.
"She asked 'Can you play a Beatles song,' so I played 'A Hard Day's Night,'" Elvis said.
If you need show a quote within a quote within a quote, the most commonly used method is to show the third level of quotes in italics. But don't go there--your readers will have a hard time following you. And more important, the very fact that you're having to worry about quotes within quotes within quotes just might signal that the format of whatever you're writing is getting too convoluted to keep the reader's interest. If you are telling a story in the first person, and in the middle of your story, you let the old prospector tell the story of his life, and in the middle of his story he tells an anecdote that his mother told him when he was a boy....don't go there.
In fact, that's generally a good rule to follow whenever you have a punctuation question. If what you're doing is so complicated that you can't figure out how the heck to punctuate it, maybe the problem's not a punctuation one. Try finding a simpler way of doing it. Your writing will almost always benefit.
I could go on--in fact, such excellent references as The Chicago Manual of Style do, for pages and pages--but if aspiring writers would master this much, they'd eliminate ninety percent of the mistakes that annoy editors, agents, and other people who might be reading their manuscripts.
Confession time: I'd like to claim that I absorbed all of the above instinctively, just by reading attentively. But a long time ago in another galaxy, I took a course that included editing and copyediting, and I used to do a fair amount of it in my day job. And even so, I'm still working on a couple of these points. My last copyeditor still thought I used "said" too much. None of us will ever be perfect at any of this grammar, punctuation, and formatting stuff.
But that doesn't mean we shouldn't keep trying.
Donna Andrews is the author of OWLS WELL THAT ENDS WELL (Meg Langslow series) and ACCESS DENIED (Turing Hopper series). Visit her web site and blog for more scoop!