08 December 2013

Professional Tips: Speech! Speech!

by Leigh Lundin

I’ve been tutoring new writers in the basics. Realistic dialogue is difficult enough, not to mention outside the purview of my lessons, but I’m amazed how many writers haven’t mastered the ‘mechanics’, the essential punctuation required to make dialogue readable.

Punctilious Punctuation

The most obvious indicators of dialogue are the quotation marks that wrap the spoken words themselves. That seems simple enough, but situations arise that flummox many students, including the simplest declarative statement plus a speech tag identifying who spoke. It’s not uncommon to see:
“Beware the Jabberwock, my son.” he said.
The fullstop (period) confuses writers when adding a speech tag naming the speaker. If the phrase ended with a question mark or exclamation mark, then all would be well:
“And has thou slain the Jabberwock?” he said.
Recognizing the end of a declarative sentence, many students want to simply add He said or he said, rather than the correct form, a comma:
“Beware the Jabberwock, my son,” he said.
Is this the party to whom I am speaking?

Roughly half of students omit commas setting off the person being addressed. This can confuse the reader and can change the meaning of the sentence:
“Beware the Jabberwock my son.”
Is the speaker implying he fathered the Jabberwocky? Consider:
“Would you like to eat Mary?”
This works only if Mary is the victim, not the listener. What about the following? Is the speaker referring to a former king?
“Edward I swam the English Channel.”
Always set off the person addressed with commas:
“Yes, sir, I will.”
Beyond a Single Paragraph

What happens when a speaker’s dialogue breaks into uninterrupted paragraphs? The correct response is to place a quotation mark at the beginning of each paragraph, but place a closing quotation mark only after the final sentence of the last paragraph.
“Has thou slain the Jabberwock?
“Come to my arms, my beamish boy!
“O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!”
Momentarily stepping outside the realm of dialogue, we often wish to enclose words or phrases within quote marks as I did in the first paragraph above. When a comma or period is required, many authors simply write in this form, the ‘always inside’ rule:
(open quote) word/phrase (comma/fullstop)(close quote)
Other writers such as James Lincoln Warren argue that where you put the terminating punctuation depends on context and meaning, and I agree. (JLW also writes convincingly in support of the ‘Oxford comma’ indicating that its exclusion can alter the meaning of a list.)

The Stratemeyer Stain

“Everything I learned about writing, I learned from Edward Stratemeyer,” or so it seems from new writers some days.

Edward Stratemeyer has a lot to answer for. From the late 1800s through the first half of the twentieth century, the Stratemeyer Syndicate dominated the field of youth literature with more than 100 series and 1300 titles, books you’ve probably read: Nancy Drew (1930), The Hardy Boys (1927), Tom Swift (1910), The Bobbsey Twins (1904), The Rover Boys (1899), etc.

While you can find varied speech tags in Dickens and Doyle, Stratemeyer grew notorious for using any verb other than ‘said’. To wit:
Tom acquiesced, added, admitted, advanced, advised, affirmed, articulated, asserted, boasted, bragged, confirmed, demanded, demurred, frowned, grinned, gurgled, injected, murmured, queried, responded, shouted, smiled, snapped, snorted, whimpered, whined, whispered, “Stop the madness!”
When asked why writers shouldn’t use a full, glorious array of verbs, teachers find themselves unarmed. They say “You can’t frown words, you can’t smile an answer,” and hurriedly move on to the next topic.

Intrusion Alert

But there’s a better reason. Many editors and authors consider anything other than ‘said’ and perhaps ‘asked’ to be author intrusion. Instead of letting the words speak for themselves, the author inserts himself into the story to tell the reader how to interpret it. Rob Lopresti brilliantly identifies these as superfluous 'stage directions'. Many professional writers suggest readers don't 'hear' the verb 'said', that it's invisible to the eye and ear.

So it happens many students come prepared with thesauri-enhanced speech tags and they can’t believe it when instructed to slash them from their epics. “This can’t be right to replace our colorful, masterful, steroidal verbs with dull grey ‘said’?

More than one will decline, arguing “It’s just my style. I can’t change my style.” Fair enough, but don’t be surprised if your style might not be your publisher’s.

Low Marks

Here’s a little puzzle from ESLCarissa passed on from Post Secret. Jot your solution in the comments section!

I don't know how to punctuate.


  1. Your blog brought to mind EATS, SHOOTS AND LEAVES -- Lynne Truss's delightful defense of standard punctuation.

  2. I just spotted in a catalog a T shirt I'd been told about recently:
    Let's eat, Grandma
    Lets eat Grandma
    Commas save lives!

  3. I must confess the puzzle is completely beyond me!

  4. Cute puzzle, Leigh! For those who didn't "get" it, substitute letters for the punctuation marks.

    Fran, I also enjoyed Eats, Shoots and Leaves.

  5. Thank you, Fran!

    Dead right, Liz.

    Janice, John's got it! The trickiest part to work out was the letter 'n', but if you solve the rest, it falls into place.

  6. Interesting. I find i disagree with you on one point. I would write "Yes, sir." But in your example I would either say “Yes, sir. I will,”
    or “Yes sir, I will.” Too many commas, and besides, I think "yes sir" is almost an idiom.

  7. I was going to solve the puzzle but John beat me to it.

    Okay, I'm lying, I couldn't solve it.

    Yes, there just might be one too many commas in the above sentence.

    I like the column.

  8. \/\/ # @ (- @ # ( ) ( ) (-

    I can and do when writing formally, but not in casual correspondence.

  9. I'm a great believer in commas, and usually add way too many...and in the wrong places. But my favorite punctuation is...those three little dots...I love those.

  10. Louis (laughing), that's funny!

    Rob, my friend and friendly editor Sharon doesn't let me get away with much. She's old school except for the ruler.

    Jan, the Mac has a key for the ellipsis that comes in handy (opt :).

    ABA, how did I know you'd solve the little puzzle? I was willing to bet you would!

  11. A good attempt at a tutorial but I disagree with what you call speech tags. They are style and in this world when the huge monopoly publishers collapse left and write, authors are free to throw off the chains and develop their own standards. Why shouldn't I feel free to say he gurgled if I want? or he queried or he shouted or anything else? Its a different era and the publishers of today are the dinosaurs of tomorrow.

  12. I must say I agree with the advice given in today's column. I also agree that we writers should be free to write any way we like, and use or break any speech-tag "rules" we like--but I think this was a good summary of what works and what doesn't.

  13. Anonymous:

    While there are many valid speech tags beyond "said," one must be careful when using them.

    If a speech tag draws attention to itself, it draws attention AWAY from the dialog, and if a speech tag is used to prop up weak dialog, then the problem isn't the choice of an unusual speech tag, the problem is weak or poorly written dialog.

    As a writer, then, your goal should be to write dialog so good it doesn't need speech tags to prop it up.

  14. Michael, nicely said. That's the best explanation I've seen yet.

  15. I enjoyed this discussion. Dialogue tags are peculiar beasts to me because they’re likely the only verbs that are usually better in their most generic form (said, asked).

    But sometimes not. People do yell, holler, whisper, and so forth when speaking. “Go, go, go!” the squad leader screamed is different from “Go, go, go!” the squad leader said. “Of course I still love him,” she whispered is not the same as “Of course I still love him,” she said.

    We could follow up to ‘explain’ the (weak) ‘said’ verb: The squad leader’s voice was loud and frenzied; the woman spoke so softly he almost didn’t hear her (or just tack on an adverb: she said quietly). But we rarely advise that approach with other verbs: He walked across the street, his pace relaxed and lively vs. He ambled across the street.

    I’m too inexperienced a writer to make suggestions to others. But for my own stories I’m okay with tags that describe what an onlooker would actually see and hear: He hollered, she screamed, he whispered -- so long as they’re used sparingly and add meaning. I appreciate such tags as a reader, so I’m okay using them in small doses when I write.

  16. Peter, you summed up what many of us do. When I re-read my drafts, I see I may use whispered, screamed, or other verb occasionally– lightly salted, I hope, not peppered

    There's one other place I tend to use non-said verbs and that's when I'm writing under a tight word count. One right verb can save a few precious words.


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