“Speak!” Part One

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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.


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About Lorraine Swoboda

Author of Mrs Calcott's Army. I write about the creation of a novel. It's a complete mystery, but I've done it. I also write about the basic building blocks of writing - grammar, punctuation, and those niggling things that you know don't sound quite right but you can't work out why. Writing is 20% inspiration, 40% perspiration, and 40% staring at the screen wondering what I pressed to make it do that.

5 responses to ““Speak!” Part One”

  1. Louise Taylor says :

    Brilliant piece – and one that deserves to be pinned to the wall above the desk of every writer. By the way, I think your critiques of the shared work on the W&A website, which is where I found the link to your blog, are marvellous. I can’t think how long they must take you but they must be incredibly useful for the recipients.


    • lorraine56 says :

      Thanks for this, Louise – glad you enjoyed it! It does take a long time to do what I do on W&A, but where else are people going to get the kind of pointers they need?
      I must get on and write “Speak!” Part Two!


  2. Nicole says :

    I’m new to your blog and really like what I’ve read so far. Thank you for a wonderfully simple, common-sense, easy-to-follow guide. Punctuation is so often a neglected part of writing – particularly evident when spending long evenings marking students’ essays!


    • lorraine56 says :

      So glad you found it clear, Nicole! The idea is to show what punctuation does, not just shout about it. It’s not simply that people get it wrong – it’s that they don’t see how much use it is, and what it adds to their work. More to come soon! Lorraine


  3. Si Pearson says :

    Wonderful! Thanks for the education. No doubt it will take me some time to soak it up…”We can, but try,” Sir Arthur proffered.


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