Tag Archives: dialogue

The Editor Pontificates: He Said, She Said

Punctuating dialogue seems to be a bête noire for a lot of fiction writers. Never mind what word you should use for describing your character’s utterance – he said, she yelled, it whispered, I answered – the real question seems to be, do you capitalise it or not? Which punctuation mark goes on the end of the sentence, inside the quotation marks, and what goes outside?

It’s not really that hard. Dialogue in fiction, I told the Offspring when we were homeschooling, is like speech bubbles in comic strips (I made them transcribe lots of Garfield comics to practise, poor things). The quotation marks are the speech bubble (somebody is saying something); the text is what goes inside the bubble (here’s what they’re saying); and the little pointy tail on the bubble is the speech tag (this is who is talking).

So if you picture your scene as a comic strip (or call it “graphic novel”, if that makes you feel more grown-up), all you need to do is put those speech bubbles in place and write down what you see.

The thing to keep in mind is that the speech bubble, pointy tail and all, is one unit. What that means is that speech and speech tag are one sentence, and you punctuate them accordingly: the speech tag is in lower case, because it’s the middle of the sentence. It’s easy to figure out: “he said” can’t be a sentence in its own right, ever – so you don’t capitalise it when it comes after a speech.

So here’s an example:

Steve comic 1

“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” said Steve the Bear.

Easy speech tag, lower case. Question marks and exclamation marks stay just as they are, at the end of the sentence inside the bubble, so we know that the speaker is asking a question or exclaiming.

One slightly tricky case, however, is the period at the end of a speech. Because the speech and the speech tag are one sentence, English punctuation converts that period into a comma inside the quotation marks, and puts the period at the end of the speech tag instead.

Like so:

Steve comic 2

“Why on earth would you want to do that? That’s weird,” she said.

If you want to expand the speech tag, the period goes on the end of the expanded part, because it’s a part of the sentence:

“Why on earth would you want to do that? That’s weird,” she said, frowning at him.

This is the thing that trips people up the most, that comma/lowercase convention. The thing is that if you capitalise the word after the speech, you’ve started a new sentence – you’ve chopped off the pointy tail. A lone “He said” is just as disconcerting as a free-floating pointy speech bubble tail.

You are, of course, free to start a new sentence after a speech – often, a speech tag isn’t necessary; it’s clear who speaks without the pointy tail. And in that case, you want to keep the period as a period. Here, for example, I could say:

“Why on earth would you want to do that? That’s weird.” She frowned at him.

Another thing that’s a bit tricky is interjected speech tags – the speech tag in the middle of that sentence package. You read the first part of the speech, then look at where the tail is pointing, then read the rest of the text in the bubble. But once again, we’re dealing with one sentence here, so the speech tag is set off with commas, and what comes after a comma is always a lowercase letter.

Steve comic 3

“You’re right,” he said, “it was a silly idea. Never mind.”

If you break up the sentence inside the bubble with a speech tag, lowercase the letter in the second part of the quotation. If, however, your speech tag comes between two complete speech sentences, the second sentence still starts with an uppercase letter, just like it does inside the bubble:

“You’re right, it was a silly idea,” he said. “Never mind.”

And there you have it. Punctuation of direct speech, caps and lowercases, and Steve the Bear waxing Shakespearean on me.

“I can only blame the heat of the day for it,” she said, wrinkling her forehead, “it’s pretty toasty today.”

“You just can’t take compliments!” yelled Steve from the back of the couch. “Besides, bears don’t mind the heat.” His voice got quieter as he rolled down onto the couch cushions. “Have you seen my notebook? I’m sure I left it somewhere around here…”

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“That’s Funny,” He Laughed

quillandqwerty cropI just read a quite interesting article about “The Seven Deadly Sins of Dialogue”, i.e. what not to do when you’re writing fiction dialogue. And yes, I quite agree with the author on almost all points.

For example, a nasty writing habit is replacing “said” with other verbs like “queried” or “cajoled”. Or even worse, practising what they call “Impossible Verbing”.  “As a reader, that jolts me right out of the story,” I shuddered. ← There, that was one of those. One does not shudder a sentence. Try it – scrunch up your shoulders, let that shiver run over yourself from your head down your arms into your finger tips, and see if you get any sound out of that, let alone words. If you do, you’re a better vocal cord acrobat than I am.

However, there is one point on which I beg to differ with the authors of that article. Well, one sub-point. Under “Impossible Verbing”, they emphatically state that you should never use any verb other than a variant of “to say” as your speech tag, and they continue: “[E]ven more experienced writers can sometimes have a character laugh or sigh or cry a line that could not logically be produced in any of these ways.” That’s a statement I’ve heard more than once. But I’m sorry, just because people who lecture others on writing – uh, sorry, give out writing advice – like to repeat that statement that does not make it true. You can so laugh a line.

How would they suggest you describe it when someone says something while laughing? I presume the approved form would be “he said with a laugh” or something like that. But think about it: that’s actually quite a different thing than “laughing” the words. I don’t know about you, but laughing makes noise come from my vocal cords. Right? Hahaha. That’s sound. So, try this: ‘”That’s funny!” he said and laughed.’ What are you hearing in your head? Me, that arrives as: “That’s funny! Hahaha!” But now look at this: ‘”That’s funny!” he laughed.‘ Mental audio: “Thahahahat’s fuhuhuhunny!” Two different effects, no?

Okay, I’ll give you that you could write the latter as ‘”That’s funny!” he said laughingly.’ or even ‘with a laugh.’ But there’s a certain amount of clunkiness in that – too many “-ly” or “with a” would yank me out of the story more effectively than the occasional “he laughed” and “she sobbed”. (‘”You don’t love me!” she said sobbingly.’ Uh, no. Not with clunky language like that, I don’t.)

So, Impossible Verbing aside (she shrugged), I vote that laughing, sobbing, hissing, snarling, groaning, and sighing can take their occasional (very occasional) place alongside shouting and whispering in the lineup of acceptable synonyms for “saying”. After all, they do all make sounds. I will, however, draw the line at burping – yes, I know there are people who can burp the alphabet, but really, there are limits. If not of language, then of good taste.

“Life, the Universe, and Speech Tags,” she said. “Try laughing it sometimes.”

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