“Speak!” Part One
Dialogue and punctuation go together like bread and butter, cheese and toast, rhubarb and custard.
It’s not just a matter of following the rules, though they’re important; it’s what you can do with different symbols to make your characters really speak.
Each person should start their speech on a new line. This works as an unmarked form of punctuation – it’s simple demarcation. If you have two people talking, it’s clear where one stops and the other starts, so you don’t have to give each speaker’s name every time he opens his mouth. This will come as a great relief to your reader.
Speech should always be separated from the main text by the use of inverted commas. If you use double inverted commas for spoken words, use single ones for quotations. If you choose singles for speech, use doubles for quotations. Often the choice comes down to a publisher’s house style, so if you’re submitting to a magazine or a publisher, check their rules. Otherwise, make a choice and stick to it.
The reason for using dialogue is to wake up your story, and coincidentally break up chunks of text. If your characters’ words only ever appear in reported speech, you set your reader at a distance.
Davis told Burke to get out of the car and to lie on the ground, hands behind his head. We know what he said; we know what he wanted; but we’re not there. It’s not exciting, and it all seems to belong in the past.
“Get out of the car,” Davis said. “Lie down on the ground with your hands behind your head.” I’ve moved it up a notch by giving Davis’ actual words. They’re in present tense now, so much more immediate. It’s still not exactly punchy, though.
“Get out of the car. Lie down on the ground with your hands behind your head.” This sounds more like he’s giving orders, and we’ve lost the annoying insertion, ‘Davis said’, but there’s still no emotion. Now, it may be that Davis is a very cool customer, and doesn’t get excited in these situations; but what if he’s at the end of his tether?
“Get out of the car,” Davis shouted. “Lie down on the ground with your hands behind your head.” Now we know it’s urgent, but we’ve got that insertion back, and it’s slowing things down.
“Get out of the car! Lie down on the ground with your hands behind your head!” There: Davis is angry, or excited, or exhausted, without me having to spell it out. I’ve replaced ‘Davis shouted’ with an exclamation mark. The eye picks it up and the brain instantly translates it into the sound effect that I want because I’ve used the right piece of code.
Dialogue uses standard punctuation in some unusual ways, and it’s important to understand how it does it.
“Get out of the car,” Davis said, pointing his gun at Burke’s head. The part inside inverted commas is complete in itself, so why not use a full stop? This is a dialogue punctuation anomaly. ‘Davis said’ on its own doesn’t mean anything; ‘said’ has to have an object. It’s tied up with, and is completely dependent upon, what he said, so the two are linked by a comma.
“Get out of the car!” he shouted. I know ‘he shouted’ is redundant, but this demonstrates another anomaly. An exclamation mark is a value-added full stop pretty much everywhere else except in dialogue when, as in this example, it is followed by something that adds to the speech. As before, this information–who spoke the words, and how–refers directly to the part inside the inverted commas, so there is no capital letter at ‘he’; the exclamation mark has become a value-added comma.
“Get out of the car!” He gestured with the gun. Here the exclamation mark works as a full stop, because what follows is independent of it. It’s a different action, not referring the speech, and a sentence in its own right, so takes a capital. I could remove the speech altogether and the second part would still make sense.
The same anomaly applies to the question mark, another value-added full stop that can play at being a bit of a comma in this specific circumstance.
“Did you really think you’d get away?” he asked as he cuffed Burke’s hands.
“Did you really think you’d get away?” He cuffed Burke’s hands as he spoke.
Punctuation makes a huge difference, properly applied; and when it’s improperly applied, it can make a total nonsense of your dialogue, and undermine any effect you thought to convey.
Try writing your dialogue without any words outside of the speech itself, and see how you can make it work. No said, exclaimed, asked, or any other such verb: the punctuation must manage the job on its own. It won’t tell the whole story, but that’s not the point of the exercise: it’s to make you put down on paper the spoken words as you hear them inside your own head. If you punctuate, you communicate.