Punctuating Dialogue

If there had been one grammar rule I wish I would have learned earlier on in my writing career, it would have been to learn how to punctuate dialogue. Where it’s possible to pick up many grammar rules without thinking about it, dialogue punctuation tends to be one of those unnoticed things that can then become very annoying to fix after the fact (especially if you’re a naturally dialogue-heavy writer as I’ve always been).

So, when writing dialogue, keep in mind:

1. Each speaker gets a new line.

This rule is simply to make it easier for the reader to see who is saying what. Every time you change a speaker, you will want to move to a new paragraph, e.g.

Correct:
“Hi,” Sally said.
“What’s up?” Jane asked.
Sally shrugged. “Not much.”

Incorrect
“Hi,” Sally said. “What’s up?” Jane asked. Sally shrugged. “Not much.”

Source: writersdock.com

Source: writersdock.com

2. Both tags and beats can be used to mark who is speaking, but they are punctuated differently.

Simply put, a tag is something connected to dialogue that is specifically how the line is said (e.g. said, asked, yelled, whispered…) and a beat (sometimes called an “action tag”) is an action that is taking place while/closely to when the line is spoken).

If you are using a tag, the tag will be treated as part of the same sentence as the dialogue and thus connected with a comma and followed by a lowercase letter (if the first word of the tag does not include a proper noun such as a name). e.g.:

Correct
“Hi,” she said.
“Howdy,” he shouted.

Incorrect
“Hi.” She said.
“Howdy.” He shouted.

If you are using a beat, however, the beat will be treated as a separate sentence and thus be separated from the dialogue with a period. The first word of the beat will be capitalized, no matter what word, much like any other sentence. e.g.:

Correct
“Hi.” She waved.
“Howdy.” He walked into the entryway.

Incorrect
“Hi,” she waved.
“Howdy,” he walked into the entryway.

Note 1: Special punctuation, such as a question mark or an exclamation point, follows the same general rule with tags/beats, acting like a comma with a tag or a period with a beat when it comes to capitalization. e.g.

Correct
“Who is she?” he asked. (tag)
“She who?” She looked around. (beat)

Incorrect
“Who is she?” He asked. (tag)
“She who?” she looked around. (beat)

Note 2: The first word inside quotation marks is always capitalized, whether it is preceded by a tag or a beat. See second example in point three.

3. A tag or beat can be used at any point in a line of dialogue.

It is possible to put a tag or beat ahead of dialogue, at the end, or even in the middle. e.g.

“Hi, Jane. When did you get here?” she said.
or
She said, “Hi, Jane. When did you get here?”
or
“Hi, Jane,” she said. “When did you get here?”

As long as it’s the same speaker, the dialogue remains on the same line no matter where the tag/beat falls. This, once again, comes down to readability. If dialogue begins to be separated from tags/beats, it can become confusing. For example, if you have:

“Hi, Jane,” she said.
“When did you get here?”

It will likely look like a new speaker (perhaps Jane replying) is saying “When did you get here?” rather than “she” continuing her line.

Note: If a line of dialogue goes on for several sentences, it is generally best to move a tag to either the start of the line or after the first or second sentence so the reader doesn’t have to get to the end of the line and then go back to attribute the line to the proper speaker.

4. If you only have two speakers going back and forth, you can drop some tags altogether.

Sometimes, if you only have two speakers in a scene, it is possible to have lines of dialogue with no tags or beats at all. For example:

“Hey,” Sally said.
“Hey.” Jane waved as she walked into the room.
“Are you staying for dinner?”
“I don’t know yet.”
“Oh.” Sally frowned. “Let me know when you do?”

As there are only Sally and Jane in the scene, even though there is no tag/beat on lines three and four, the reader can assume that Sally asks another question and then Jane answers once again. Again, though, readability trumps all. You want to be careful that you don’t go for too long a stretch with no tags–as a reader might get lost as to who was speaking what line and have to backtrack to the beginning of the conversation to figure it out–and you likely don’t want to drop may tags if you have more than two people in a conversation–as you don’t want the reader to have to struggle to figure out if it is Sally, Jane, Tom, or Steve who answered the previous line.

When dropping tags, you also want to be careful that you don’t end up with talking heads–that is, so many lines with no tags (or only quick “said” tags) that the characters are no longer grounded to the scene. Dialogue should be able to carry a lot of emotion, but don’t forget to put in tone of voice or body language when needed–or show how a character is moving around in general–or it can quickly become like reading a script without actors to deliver the lines.

All in all, when writing dialogue, making it simple for the reader to keep track of who is saying what is the most important thing. There is nothing quite like having to jump away from a line of dialogue to find out who speaking (or having to go back to re-attribute a line to a different speaker) to take a reader out of a flow of conversation. After all, in writing prose, the author needs to provide both the lines and actors–if you prefer just dialogue, consider if your story might be better off as a play.

Professional Writing from A to Z

Today’s post comes to us from Nikolas Baron, part of the Grammarly marketing team. Find more about him on Facebook or Twitter or Check out Grammarly (billed as “an automated proofreader and your personal grammar coach”)

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There are some practices that not all professionals share. Some writers have the luxury of working at home. If so, they might spend the day in pajamas. Why get dressed if no one is going to see? What about the days that they have a conference call with an editor? They might keep on the pajama bottoms, simply putting on a nice shirt for the camera. Anyone who would criticize this practice is probably jealous. Professional attire is not as important for telecommuters as it is for other professionals. Nonetheless, there are some things telecommuters can learn from their colleagues in other industries. Let us examine a few to see what we can apply to the writing field.

  • Astronauts

Years before a mission, astronauts begin preparations. They learn special procedures to perform important tasks in space.  Because of the lack of gravity, they learn to swallow special toothpaste instead of spitting it out. They practice what to do in case of an emergency. They rehearse hundreds of times before a launch. To produce a high-quality product, writers also prepare. They take writing classes to learn procedures that will aid them in the writing process. They learn to use computers. They might perform hundreds of writing exercises before they ever begin a novel, but this time is not lost. Practice does make perfect.

  • Emergency Medical Technicians (EMTs)

EMTs have one of the most challenging professions of all because life and death depends on whether they perform well under pressure. Timing is essential. Writers often have deadlines, but focusing on them can cause writer’s block. Rather than panic, writers can draw from emergency response advice: Decide what needs to be done, and then do it! Try not to obsess over deadlines. Grab a drink, find a comfortable place, and write. Once you relax, the words will begin to flow.

  •  Jockeys

Jockeys are great at staying on a moving horse. You, too, can ride your work to victory again and again. Many writers do not realize that they can resell their articles. Imagine you wrote a short story and sold it to the imaginary Amazing Tales magazine. You could develop the same characters and themes into a novel. Or vice versa; you could use one of your novels as the basis for a series of short stories. What happened to your characters before or after the novel? Think of these stories as deleted scenes from a movie. Many of your fans would love to read something like that. It is also a great idea for a blog! Other journals, such as Reader’s Digest, welcome reprints. Remember, though, that you must own the rights to any article that you sell.

  • Zoo Keepers

Zoo keepers have fun, dangerous work. These professional caretakers must learn the habits of the animals that they keep; otherwise, they could get hurt. Writers hurt themselves if they fail to use the tools of the trade. If they do not take advantage of free proofreading online, they could lose time and money. If they do not attend writer’s groups, they miss out on encouraging association and valuable feedback. There’s no need to spend a fortune on education. Local colleges often offer writing and computer classes to the community. Learn what is out there and take advantage of it.

Lemonade stand workers set a great example. Their business may consist of only a sign, a table, and a pitcher of lemonade. The venture may be small, but the young entrepreneurs create a great product. They offer it to the community in attractive packaging. Simple though their business may be, they know the importance of creating a great product and treating customers well. Whether you identify with jockeys, jewelers, or janitors, you will be successful if you take a look at other professionals. No matter what kind of professional you look at, there is always a lesson to be learned.

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NikolasNikolas Baron discovered his love for the written word in Elementary School, where he started spending his afternoons sprawled across the living room floor devouring one Marc Brown children’s novel after the other and writing short stories about daring pirate adventures. After acquiring some experience in various marketing, business development, and hiring roles at internet startups in a few different countries, he decided to re-unite his professional life with his childhood passions by joining Grammarly’s marketing team in San Francisco. He has the pleasure of being tasked with talking to writers, bloggers, teachers, and others about how they use Grammarly’s online proofreading application to improve their writing. His free time is spent biking, travelling, and reading.

Adjectives and Adverbs

Keeping on my “parts of speech” kick, today’s post will cover another part of speech that is commonly misused–adverbs. Unlike pronouns which replace nouns, adverbs are modifying words more akin to adjectives. As both adjectives and adverbs modify words, however, their largest problem is being confused with one another.

As a refresher:

Adjectives are words that modify nouns. The short boy with brown hair, for example. Short and brown are both adjectives, modifying the nouns “boy” and “hair” respectively.

Adverbs are words that modify verbs. The short boy bounced the ball forcefully. Forcefully is an adverb, not an adjective, since it is modifying the verb “bounced” not either of the nouns (“boy” or “ball”).

As a helpful tidbit, adverbs often end in -ly making it a little simpler to differentiate them and adjectives.

Luckily, for the most part, people have some natural idea whether to use an adjective or an adverb, especially since adverbs should be used relatively sparsely (double adverbs there!) in prose as it is. (More often than not, it is possible to use a stronger verb rather than an adverb in writing: said softly=whispered; ran quickly=sprinted). The largest problem I tend to find in writing, however, is quicker vs. more quickly.

Part of this comes from the lexicon. When speaking, people–more often than not–tend to use as few syllables as possible. That’s why not using contractions seems odd. Few people say, “That is why I am not going to go…” when they could just say “That’s why I’m not going to…” With “quicker” being, well, quicker to say than “more quickly” people speaking tend to use it as a catch-all (“If he doesn’t do his homework quicker he’s going to be late”).

So what’s the problem? “Quicker”, when used properly, is an adjective. Okay, okay, you can get into an argument about English evolving with usage and using “quicker” as an adverb not being the end of the world (it really isn’t), but the fact is “more quickly” is the proper phrasing to make “quick” an adverb.

Most tips I have seen suggest using “quickly” over “quicker” in formal works with “quicker” being all right informally (again, not the end of the world), but I, personally, tend to use this as a narrative vs. dialogue tip in my own writing. If it sounds too formal for your character who says “ain’t” and “gotta” to turn around and say “more quickly” don’t try to force it. The voice of your character comes first in dialogue. In narrative, however, proper grammar seems a little more important (works written as missives notwithstanding).

Will this rule change in the future? Possibly. Someone once railed against splitting infinitives, after all. But for the time being, it is always my suggestion to use “more quickly” over “quicker” when it comes to adverbs unless it is a conscious choice about voice.

The Problem with Pronouns

As far as parts of speech go, pronouns are not too hard to understand. Where a noun is a person, place, or thing (as School House Rock taught us all) a pronoun is a word which is used as a general substitute for a noun (for example Tommy and the dog would be nouns, he and it would be pronouns).

Since we tend to use pronouns so much in speech, people very rarely (I’ve found) have problems using proper pronouns when writing fiction (outside of cases where there is a genderless character, which is a different problem with if it’s proper to use “it”, singular “they”, or some gender-neutral pronoun like “xe”). People know they don’t have to write “Tommy” over and over again in a paragraph. “He” can take over and make things seem a little less cluttered.

No, the most common problem writers come up against with pronouns is using them vaguely. For example:

Tommy looked between himself and John. He was dressed in orange…”

In this case, “he” is used correctly as a pronoun. It is replacing a noun. The problem becomes, which noun is it replacing?

Perhaps it becomes a little clearer as the sentence continues (“He was dressed in orange while Tommy was dressed in…“) but that doesn’t really fix the problem. With that first “he” the reader is now left trying to figure out which “he” is being talked about, and then go back and fit things together at the end of the sentence (“Oh, okay, Tommy’s in green, that means that “he” was John”). Not only can that be annoying, but it starts killing the flow of the story. You want a reader keep moving forward and–hopefully–get sucked into the action. You don’t want them reading a sentence, jumping back to the beginning, figuring it out, and only then continuing forward. It might not take a reader too long, but it still breaks tension and can quickly grow annoying (and that’s assuming the reader can figure it out. Sometimes, especially in dialogue, you just have to guess in general and go with it).

So, while pronouns are a good thing in writing (it would feel clunky and unnatural to not refer to anything in your story as he, she, it, they, or so on) writers have to be careful to watch for when one pronoun can refer to two different people/objects. This can happen in just about any scene you’re writing, but here are a few examples:

1. One person; or Two people, two different genders.

In a scene where you have one character acting, or two characters written as different genders for any reason (a man and a woman; a man and a character that identifies as female; etc.) you for the most part are in the clear. “He” and/or “She” should only be referring to one person at a time. If using the above example:

One person: “Tommy looked at himself. He was dressed in orange.” He is obviously “Tommy” so there is no pronoun confusion.

Two people, different genders: “Tommy looked between himself and Sally. She was dressed in orange…” Assuming normal gender assignments, Tommy is not going to be referred to as “she” and thus it’s simpler to assume “she” is Sally.

Dialogue between two people of different genders also becomes simpler this way as it is possible to go back and forth using simply “he said”s and “she said”s without the reader getting lost.

2. Two people, same gender.

As the first example shows, having two people in a scene who would share a pronoun (two “he”s, “she”s, or “it”s) leaves you more open to having pronoun confusion. The trick to watch out for here is not inserting another noun in between a noun and its intended pronoun. Should you change the above example to “Tommy looked at John. He was dressed in orange. Tommy didn’t like orange, that was why he was wearing green.” The first sentence is directed at John and there is no other noun between “John” and the first “he” thus you don’t have Tommy (“himself”) and John fighting for the next pronoun. As John is not in the third sentence entirely, there is no confusion that Tommy is the “he” wearing green.

This set up can lead you into situations where all of a sudden it becomes awkward to use pronouns in general (you want to refer to two different “he”s in a sentence but end up with:

a) “Tommy looked at John. He didn’t like how he was looking at him.”

b) “Tommy looked at John. Tommy didn’t like how he was looking at Tommy” (since “he” and “him” would go together)

or c) “Tommy looked at John. He didn’t like how John was looking at him.”

In this case, none are the ideal (as there is room for confusion with all of them) but sometimes a situation like this comes down to the lesser of two (or three) evils. “C” would be the best choice, as you can keep one person as pronouns “Tommy” becomes “he” and “him” while you aren’t stuck only using names. (When you come up against this issue, see which is the least confusing while being the least awkward sounding).

3. More than two people.

When you get into a group situation in a scene (where there are multiple people running around) do your best to only use pronouns to refrain from saying a name over and over in the same sentence (“Sally looked up, eyes narrowed. Sally said…” vs. Sally looked up, eyes narrowed. She said). Since the reader will have to keep track of multiple “he”s and “she”s in the scene, it’s better not to make it any harder than it already is and just use names.

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Googled Questions: Part II

Every once in a while, I like to take a look at what search terms bring people to my blog. Helpful as it is, it’s also fun to see how people stumble upon the site. Sometimes, however, it seems there are questions that are never really answered that still end up with people on the blog. It’s for these people that I like to do a quick Q&A to hopefully answer more thoroughly what they were originally trying to Google (read the my first Q&A post here).

1. Is “shut the light” grammatically correct?

Yes, grammatically it’s fine. As to common…”shut the light” as a phrase is regional–mainly used in Brooklyn/the New York area from my understanding. More commonly you will hear “turn off the light” in common parlance. If your character is from Brooklyn, however, it is grammatically correct and a great way to show some regional differences in speech patterns.

2. What is the DSM diagnosis is for the movie Silver Linings Playbook?

Touched on briefly in this post, Silver Linings Playbook depicts Bradley Cooper’s character, Pat, having Bipolar Disorder (seemingly Type 1). I’m not sure if Jennifer Lawrence’s character, Tiffany, is ever diagnosed, but she seems to admit to suffering from some form of Clinical Depression (Major Depressive Disorder [MDD] in the DSM) and Hypersexuality (currently labeled as Sexual Disorder Not Otherwise Specified [Sexual Disorder NOS] in the DSM, with a push to have Hypersexual Disorder added in the appendix), perhaps caused and/or exacerbated by her husband’s recent death.

3.  Should I accept to be a ghost writer on commission?

Probably originally directed to this article, my advice would be a resounding “no”. If you are looking for a little more experience and don’t especially care about how much you get paid for your work, you can. Unless best sellers, however, books tend to make very little in royalties to start with. If you don’t have Obama offering commission on his next memoir, you’re not likely to see much, if anything, for your work.

4. What is bad about Black Wyrm Publishing’s contract?

Not having any experience with Black Wyrm myself, I turned to Preditors and Editors and Absolute Write Water Cooler to see what other authors have to say (both good sites to look at when you’re looking at publishing with someone who isn’t a “big  name”). Preditors and Editors states “Poor Contract. Not recommended.” and Absolute Write Water Cooler has little about them in general. Their name pops up a few more places as not recommended, but I can not find much other than the fact that something seems to be off about their contracts. Their site, however, does state, “Our typical contract stipulates that BlackWyrm provides the editing, cover design, money for printing, promotion, and ebook conversion. BlackWyrm keeps the revenue until the book breaks even, then splits the money evenly with the author thereafter.” While this sometimes happens in the event of an advance (where the publisher pays X amount of dollars as a down payment to the author to then be made up in royalties) it is not common/accepted if there is no advance to an author. It is the publisher’s duty, as a publisher, to put up money for all they have stated/pay for it out of their share of the royalties. If they have not already given any money, it’s a poor contract to allow them to take all money made from the book until they “break even” (a term that sounds very easy to exploit). I imagine this is the clause to which Preditors and Editors is referring.

5. Is SBPRA (Strategic Book Publishing and Rights Agency) a scam?

Taking a look at Preditors and Editors once again we find “Poor contract. Strongly not recommended.” along with  “Currently being sued by Florida State Attorney General.” for fraud including showing books which they have not actually published as their “success stories”. So, at best, they are a vanity press (one that charges you to publish your book: read more about those here) and, at worse, a scam. I would recommend staying far away.

6. Why is the Time Turner a plot hole in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban?

Time travel is a wishy-washy, trip yourself up sort of thing. While it can be done well, and is rather popular for the time being, it also leaves you open to a bunch of possible plot holes along the lines of, “If X happened, then Y happens, but Z happened…so how did X happen?” For Harry Potter specifically, the main plot hole which the Time Turner introduces is, if time travel is readily accessible for the wizards in the Harry Potter universe, why didn’t anyone just go back in time and stop Voldemort at any point along the way? And why do they never use it again after Prisoner? It could come in handy, no doubt.  Good as a plot device for the events in the third book, it opens up a can of worms for the integrity for the rest of the novels.