“Speak!” Part Two

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When people talk, they don’t always finish their sentences. They can be interrupted, or they may tail off into uncertainty; they may speak for ages, or in short bursts. We’ve seen how punctuation can change the sound of a piece of dialogue, so now let’s have a look at other ways to use it to good effect.

Pauses and Interruptions

“What if…”
“What if what?”
“What if I can’t think what to say next?”
“Then use an ellipsis.”
“What’s one of those?”
“It’s a sequence of three dots – no more, no less – to show that you’ve trailed off.”
“Why not use a dash?”
“Because a dash is used to show that you’ve been interrupted. If I were to start speaking and—“
“—and I jumped in, just like that?”
“Exactly. That would require a dash.”

The difference between an ellipsis and a dash is clear: one sentence fades, while the other breaks off.

I could have the interrupter opening with a capital and no dash: “And I jumped in, just like that?” It would be perfectly correct; but I’ve written it to show the speaker finishing the other’s sentence for him. If he were saying something different, he would need a capital.

“Because a dash is used to show that you’ve been interrupted. If I were to start speaking and—“
“Oh, for goodness’ sake, get on with it!”

That’s a new sentence, not a direct extension of the previous speaker’s words, so takes a capital.

Long-winded speakers

If you have a character making an extended speech, one long chunk of text is off-putting; you need to break it up, but the punctuation has to show that it’s all in the one person’s words.

“The answer is that you have no closing inverted commas at the end of a paragraph, but you do use openers at the start of each new one, as shown here.

“That way it’s clear that the person is still speaking, simply because the reader hasn’t been told that she has stopped. The second opening set of inverted commas denotes continuation. 

“The only time you close inverted commas is when she finishes speaking.” She pauses to take a sip of tea. “That’s a case in point. She’s still speaking now; but for a moment there she shuts up.”

Naming names

I read a short story recently, which consisted of a conversation between two people. No-one else entered the scene at all. It was completely unnecessary, therefore, for the writer to go to great lengths to tell me every single time who was speaking. ‘Amy said, Dora nodded, Amy sighed, Dora twitched, Amy laughed, Dora fiddled with her cup…’ Why?

In a short story you have a limited number of words, and every one is precious. The author could have written an entire extra paragraph with what was saved by deleting all these pointless directions.

If you have two people talking, the sequence – if you have used your line spacing correctly – will be enough to tell who is speaking. If Amy has line one, and Dora has line two, then Amy has line three, and so on, unless something happens to change that. In that case you tell the reader what he needs to know, and go on as before. Don’t use movements as an excuse, either – it’s the same thing in disguise. If your character needs to scratch, fine; just don’t employ it as a desperate alternative to ‘she said’.

One last point:

All punctuation relating to the speech itself goes inside the inverted commas.

“If I write a line of dialogue”, she said, “surely the full stop refers to the whole sentence including the insertion, so it should go outside the speech marks”. Wrong – both meaning and punctuation. It should be as follows:

“If I write a line of dialogue,” she said, “surely the full stop refers to the whole sentence including the insertion, so it should go after the speech marks.”  Meaning still wrong, but correctly punctuated.

The comma after ‘dialogue’ marks a pause in the speech, and so belongs to it, not to ‘she said’: it goes inside the inverted commas.

The inserted words ‘she said’ have their moment of glory with their own comma; they don’t get the full stop too. If I were to leave out ‘she said’ the speech would read as a single sentence, complete with its full stop, all inside the marks that point out that it is in fact dialogue.

It’s all quite logical really. Honest…


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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.

3 responses to ““Speak!” Part Two”

  1. Liz Young says :

    You make it all sound so easy, Lorraine. Most of the time I do it right, by the looks of things, which is encouraging!


  2. Susan Eames says :

    Hi, Lorraine. I’m just finding my way around peoples’ blogs and yours looks like it’s going to be very useful for my writing!


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