Ask Giff: Dialogue Tags, A Punctuation Primer

Last week I got an e-mail from a reader about punctuating dialogue. I was glad to get the question, because it’s also a pet peeve of mine. Here’s her question:

I’ve been reading a lot lately, and I also do beta-reading for some of my writer friends. My problem: it seems like everyone has a different way of punctuating dialogue, and I’m at a loss to figure out what’s right. I’ve read up on the subject but I’m still kind of confused. Is there a simple explanation you can give me?

Answer: There is a simple explanation, but it’s not a short one.

design desk display eyewear

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One of the modern style choices we have is substituting character actions for dialogue tags. This can be quite effective in making a sentence or scene more active. However, the punctuation needed in each case is different, and bad punctuation is one way to appear as a novice writer (as well as annoying any grammar nerds among your readers).

So, what makes a dialogue tag? There are two criteria: it must identify the speaker and describe the dialogue, though it doesn’t always have to be in that particular order. He asked, she said, John murmured or whispered, Stacey shouted or screamedthese are all dialogue tags.

Examples:

I’ll walk you back to your ship,” she (identity) said (description).

I need to take a nap,” he (identity) mumbled (description).

Do you want to go out tonight?” John (identity) asked (description).

I don’t know who did it!” shouted (description) Stacey (identity).

The proper punctuation of the first two sentences shows the comma inside the closing quotes, followed by the dialogue tag. In the third & fourth sentences, the question mark or exclamation mark takes the place of the comma, again inside the quotes. If the first word after the dialogue is not a proper noun (such as John or Stacey), that word is not capitalized.

So the first thing to remember is that whatever punctuation you use for the spoken words, whether it’s a comma or ellipses, question mark or em-dash, it’s ALWAYS going to come inside the close quotes.

And what happens when you want to include a character action after the dialogue tag?

“I’ll walk you back to your ship,” she said, falling into step beside him.

You identify the speaker, describe the dialogue, then follow the dialogue tag with the additional information. The rules for punctuation stay the same.

But what about that substitution we talked about earlier, where you want to replace the dialogue tag with a character action? That’s where it all goes sideways. The wrong way is to follow the dialogue tag rules, like this:

“I’ll walk you back to your ship,” she fell into step beside him.

Because while “she fell into step” gives you the identity of the speaker (“she”), it does not describe the dialogue, so it doesn’t meet the criteria for a dialogue tag. Therefore, that phrase needs to become its own sentence.

“I’ll walk you back to your ship.” She fell into step beside him.

The dialogue ends with a period within the closed quotes, and the pronoun “she” becomes the first word in a new sentence, so it must be capitalized.

More examples:

I need to take a nap,” he mumbled wearily.
“I need to take a nap.” He could feel his whole body drooping.

Do you want to go out tonight?” John asked with a grin.
“Do you want to go out tonight?” John gave her a suggestive grin.

I don’t know who did it!” shouted Stacey, then stalked away.
“I don’t know who did it!” With a final angry look, Stacey stalked away.

So, simply put: if your phrase identifies and describes the dialogue, it’s a dialogue tag (even if you add additional elements to it). If it describes a character’s action rather than the character’s words, it’s not a dialogue tag and needs to become a new sentence.

Now, who’s got another grammar/punctuation peeve?

“Ask Giff” gives you real answers to real sentence construction problems. Whether you have a general question or a specific sentence that needs help, feel free to submit it on the contact form with the subject line “Ask Giff”.

3 Simple Ways To Reduce Your Word Count

If you’re like me, when you get to the end of a manuscript, you’re a few thousand (or maybe ten thousand) words over the optimal word count for your genre.

A lot of common editing advice can make a difference in MS length. Directives like “find stronger verbs” will eliminate some adverbs, while “make sentences tighter” can increase tension while removing excess verbiage. Condensing descriptions is also a good way get your word count down.

I’m going to assume you’ve done all that and your numbers are still not under control. What more can you do?

Here are three more ideas that can help bring your word count:

A. Contract “not”, especially in dialogue. Use “didn’t”, “couldn’t”, “wouldn’t”, etc. instead of “did not” “could not”, “would not” et al. Since “did not” counts as two words and “didn’t” as one, it adds up quickly. I eliminated almost 2000 words in a 108k manuscript with this single trick.

Word of caution: I tried doing a “search & replace” for “not” with a universal change to “n’t”, and got sentences that looked like this:

I willn’t go to the party on Saturday.

I told hern’t to spend more than twenty dollars.

UGH! Fortunately, an immediate “undo” took care of that fiasco. To search & replace efficiently, make sure you put a space before “not” in the search box and no space before “n’t” in the replace box. Then pick through the changes individually. It’s still faster than reading through to find them all.

B. Look for “and then”. It’s not only redundant but contradictory. “And” implies “in addition to”, while “then” implies “thereafter”. Each situation should only need one of these words.

C. Create a Word Cloud. In addition to showing words you use too often, a study of it will bring a focus to words you don’t need. In a recent cloud, I found “back” was one of my highest rated words. When I looked at the MS, I found most of them attached to verbs that didn’t need it (eg: sat back down, looked back out the window). I was able to eliminate so many of them, “back” disappeared from my cloud. I use the Word It Out program because (1) it’s FREE, and (2) it can analyze an entire manuscript in just a few moments. But it’s only one of many options out there.

So now you know which words you want to look at, but doesn’t it mean going through the entire MS again to find them?

No, because there’s an easy way to identify the words you’re interested in:

1. Input a word or phrase into the “find” function of your WP software;

2. Click “Find All”;

3. Click “Highlight” before moving on to the next word.

This process will mark every usage of each word for you. If you highlight every word on your list before you start to edit, you can run through your manuscript once, and you only have to read enough of each passage to make the appropriate decision.

Now tell me, do you have any time-saving editing tricks up your sleeve? (Asking for a friend who really needs to know.)

 

#TuesdayTrivia: The Wackiest Gun In The West

Anyone who’s a fan of the Old West is familiar with the Colt .45 and the Buntline Special. Like most old & new revolvers, both of these have a rotating 6-chamber cylinder. But did you know there was also a gun with six rotating barrels?

That’s right. Ethan Allen (no relation to the Revolutionary War hero) & his partner Charles Thurber created the revolving multi-shot pistol in the 1830s and for two decades, it enjoyed much popularity. Known as the pepper-box or pepper-pot for its resemblance to a kitchen pepper grinder, these firearms came in 4, 5, and 6 barrel styles, with barrel lengths available from 3” to 6”.

 

pepperpot

 

The pepper-pot was not the world’s most reliable pistol. In his book Roughing It (1872), Mark Twain describes his experience with it:

George Bemis was our fellow traveler… He wore in his belt an old original “Allen” revolver, such as irreverent people called a “pepper-box”. Simply drawing the trigger back, cocked and fired the pistol. As the trigger came back, the hammer would begin to rise and the barrel to turn over, and presently down would drop the hammer, and away would speed the ball. To aim along the turning barrel and hit the thing aimed at was a feat which was probably never done with an “Allen” in the world. But George’s was a reliable weapon, nevertheless, because, as one of the stage-drivers afterward said, “If she didn’t get what she went after, she would fetch something else.” And so she did. She went after a deuce of spades nailed against a tree, once, and fetched a mule standing about thirty yards to the left of it. Bemis did not want the mule; but the owner came out with a double-barreled shotgun, and persuaded him to buy it, anyhow. It was a cheerful weapon―the “Allen”. Sometimes all its six barrels would go off at once, and then there was no safe place in all the region round about, but behind it.

It’s really no wonder the pepper-pot pistol was known as “the gun that won the East.”

7 Great Authors Take on the “RULES OF WRITING”

We’ve all heard about the RULES we need to follow in order to be “good” writers. No adverbs, no passive voice, no split infinitives, show don’t tell, limit dialogue tags to “said” & “asked”, use only one POV per chapter―these are just a few of the absolutes we’re faced with every day.

I’ve heard some RULES that are downright silly, such as: only one comma per sentence; no more than 4 sentences per paragraph; no conjunctions. The latest one to make the make the rounds is “no gerunds”, where most proponents of the RULE think a gerund is any word ending in “ing”. (It’s not. In fact, the only two gerunds in this article are “writing” and “painting”. For more info, read this post.)

The problem, it seems to me, is taking the style choice an author has made and proclaiming it a universal RULE.

Yes, I said “style choice”. You can decide that adverbs are not for you, that you always want to show and not tell, or to use no dialogue tags at all. A thriller writer may make some choices that a literary writer might denounce. But imagine if everyone took their favorite style choice and pronounced it a RULE for all to follow. That would almost surely lead to a cookie-cutter approach to writing, and individual creativity would suffer.

What would the state of literature today be if Faulkner followed Hemingway’s choices? if Fitzgerald was ruled by Cervantes? if Cain followed Chaucer’s? Cormac McCarthy consistently uses only the period and comma as punctuation. Should we all, as modern writers, follow his example?

pile of books

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Don’t be so blinded by the authority behind a RULE that the choice you make hurts instead of helping. Focus on the rhythm of your work first―do you want staccato or lyrical? are you chasing a serial killer or relating a love story? or maybe both in one novel? There is no RULE that says you can’t have it all as you craft your manuscript.

The rhythm you seek will give you the choices that best benefit your story. Then you can join the ranks of these esteemed authors who know all the RULES and when to break them:

Truman Capote: Writing has laws of perspective, of light and shade just as painting does, or music. If you are born knowing them, fine. If not, learn them. Then rearrange the RULES to suit yourself.

Henry David Thoreau: Any fool can make a RULE, And any fool will mind it.

Scott Turow: I think that you must be aware of the existing conventions. …That does not mean that you cannot reinvent them in your own way.

Anne Rice: …any RULE you hear from one writer [that] doesn’t work for you, disregard it completely.

Neil Gaiman: The main RULE of writing is that if you do it with enough assurance and confidence, you’re allowed to do whatever you like. (That may be a RULE for life as well as for writing. But it’s definitely true for writing.) So write your story as it needs to be written. Write it honestly, and tell it as best you can. I’m not sure that there are any other RULES. Not ones that matter.

G. K. Chesterton: I owe my success to having listened respectfully to the very best advice, and then going away and doing the exact opposite.

Joyce Carol Oates: Best tip for writers: not to listen to any silly tips for writers.

#TuesdayTrivia: Mark Twain

Mark Twain, whose real name was Samuel Langhorne Clemens, is an American icon. But in his time, he wasn’t the only one in his family with name recognition.

Twain’s older brother, Orion Clemens, was a newspaper publisher and had studied law under Edward Bates, who later became President Abraham Lincoln’s Attorney General. Orion was appointed the first (and only) Secretary of the Nevada Territory by Lincoln, and was second-in-command to the Territorial Governor, James Nye. A popular figure in Nevada politics Orion, acting as temporary Governor in Nye’s absence, deftly avoided the “Sagebrush War”, a boundary dispute between Nevada and California.

stagecoach

Orion was accompanied by his brother Sam as he traveled by stage from Iowa to his new post in 1861, and their journey is memorialized in the book Roughing It by Mark Twain.

LORENA, A Song of the Civil War

This song was actually written in 1857 by H. D. Webster & J. P. Webster and, for obvious reasons, became popular with the men on both sides of the Civil War, after which it became a staple of the Old West. You can hear a traditional interpretation by John Hartford with excellent banjo accompaniment here. If the melody seems familiar, but the words don’t sound quite right, you’re not going crazy. In the 1960s, a more contemporary version made the rounds, and was recorded by such country luminaries as Johnny Cash and Bobby Bare. You can hear Bobby’s version of the song here.

LORENA

The years creep slowly by, Lorena,
The snow is on the grass again.
The sun’s low down the sky, Lorena,
The frost gleams where the flow’rs have been.
But the heart throbs on as warmly now,
As when the summer days were nigh.
Oh, the sun can never dip so low
A-down affection’s cloudless sky.

A hundred months have passed, Lorena,
Since last I held that hand in mine,
And felt the pulse beat fast, Lorena,
Though mine beat faster far than thine.
A hundred months, ’twas flowery May,
When up the hilly slope we climbed,
To watch the dying of the day,
And hear the distant church bells chime.

We loved each other then, Lorena,
More than we ever dared to tell;
And what we might have been, Lorena,
Had but our lovings prospered well.
But then, ’tis past, the years are gone,
I’ll not call up their shadowy forms;
I’ll say to them, “Lost years, sleep on!
Sleep on! nor heed life’s pelting storms.”

The story of that past, Lorena,
Alas! I care not to repeat,
The hopes that could not last, Lorena,
They lived, but only lived to cheat.
I would not cause e’en one regret
To rankle in your bosom now;
For “if we try we may forget,”
Were words of thine long years ago.

Yes, these were words of thine, Lorena,
They burn within my memory yet;
They touched some tender chords, Lorena,
Which thrill and tremble with regret.
‘Twas not thy woman’s heart that spoke;
Thy heart was always true to me:
A duty, stern and pressing, broke
The tie which linked my soul with thee.

It matters little now, Lorena,
The past is in the eternal past;
Our heads will soon lie low, Lorena,
Life’s tide is ebbing out so fast.
There is a Future! O, thank God!
Of life this is so small a part!
‘Tis dust to dust beneath the sod;
But there, up there, ’tis heart to heart.