Mechanics of Dialogue: Part 2, Tags and Beats

A tag can comprise as few as two words. He said is a tag. So is she screamed. So is they chorused.

Now, some folks will tell you to never, EVER use any word other than said as a tag. They’re entitled to their opinion, of course. I happen not to share it. A well-placed he muttered, especially in books aimed at younger readers, says far more than he said. My opinion is that tags work better for less-practiced readers, and that “tagless” dialogue is a method better used with adult audiences who are (one hopes) more sophisticated, more used to extracting information from the dialogue itself. A middle-grade reader might be able to do that, sure. But one can’t count on all middle-graders to be that advanced. The reverse is also true: Not all adult readers are well versed in gleaning information from surrounding text, and indeed might prefer to be explicitly told how someone is saying something.

There are no rules, and the guidelines are awfully flexible. You’ll need to feel your way through and find your own best answers.

What follows here, then, is mostly my personal philosophy about tags and beats. Of course there are a few guidelines that aren’t mine, such as “don’t use a tag after every line of dialogue.” That’s what some would call common sense. Cluttering up the page with he said and she replied (OH MY GOD SHE DIDN’T USE SAID! Shaddup, you) is stealing thunder from your dialogue and insulting to the reader. You don’t need a beat after every line, either. Use them when you need them. Use them instead of tags to help the reader see and hear your characters. Let’s explore this a bit.

The Tag

“Hello, Charlie,” she said.

There. That’s a line of dialogue with a tag. (Tags are also called “attributions.” They attribute dialogue to a specific speaker.) As I discussed yesterday, the dialogue is enclosed in double quotation marks, and there’s a comma before the closing quote. Her statement would normally end with a period, but it’s dialogue so it ends with a comma; the period at the end, after said, is the terminal punctuation for the entire sentence.

If you’re really good at dialogue, you might be able to write an entire section (not necessarily a chapter, but a good-sized chunk of text) without using a single tag or beat. I’ve seen it done. Not often, mind you, but I’ve seen it. That comes with practice and not a little talent. I don’t recommend it for beginners.

Now consider this:

“Hello, Charlie,” she whispered.

That’s different from said. I can hear the difference in the words because the tag indicates to me that she’s whispering, not merely speaking. Beats can do this, too, but I don’t want to discuss those just yet. There’s more you need to know about tags.

Tags can appear at the beginning, in the middle, or at the end of dialogue. So far I’ve shown them at the end.

She said, “Hello, Charlie.”

Place a comma after the verb in the attribution, and enclose the dialogue in quotes like normal using appropriate terminal punctuation placed inside the closing quotation marks.

“What I want to know,” she said as she picked up her coffee cup, “is how you got out without help.”

There it’s in the middle, interrupting the direct speech. The first clause is punctuated with a comma, because there’s more coming after the attribution. The attribution itself is punctuated with a comma (after cup in this case) because there’s more speech coming; the sentence isn’t done, yet. In this example she’s making a statement, so the terminal punctuation is a period before the closing quotation marks.

“But Karen, why isn’t it a question mark? She’s asking a question, right?” Wrong.

She says she wants to know how he got out. She’s stating that. She’s not asking. If she were asking, she might say the following (take note of the change in punctuation):

“So tell me, Charlie,” she said as she picked up her coffee cup, “how did you get out without help?”

Now she’s asking a question. The attribution still interrupts her speech, so the first part ends with a comma (after “Charlie”), and we still use a comma after cup because there’s more speech coming, but now the sentence ends with a question mark just as it would if it wasn’t speech. It’s a question. Put a question mark before the closing quotation marks.

There are other ways of punctuating interrupted speech, but I’m saving those for the next part of this series. Right now I want to stick with the basics of commas and quotation marks.

The Beat

If you have too many tags, you can swap some of them out for beats. A beat is, simply put, an action performed by the speaker. It might help us hear how the speaker says the dialogue. It might provide us with some additional information about the speaker’s mental state. It might just tell us what the speaker’s doing while talking.

“What I want to know, Charlie, is how you got out without help.” She took an elaborately etched vintage Zippo from her Coach clutch, opened it with a flick of her wrist, and lit an unfiltered Camel. “How about you tell me that, okay?”

I don’t know about you, but I think that gal means business. And she either has money or knows what resale shops carry high-end leather goods.

“How I got . . . well . . . actually, I did have help.” Charlie was studying her so closely he nearly missed the table with his tumbler. His right foot tap-danced against the table leg.

Nervous fellow, isn’t he? I could have used a tag like Charlie said nervously, but this is much more useful to the reader.

Recap

Tags, or attributions, are (usually) two or three-word clauses that tell us who spoke. She said. Charlie replied. They cheered. Tags are fine, but beware of using too many of them. If there are only two speakers, you don’t need a tag after every line of dialogue. Each change of speaker begins on a new line; let that guide the reader, rather than explicitly stating he said and she said (or whatever words are appropriate, of course).

Beats are actions performed by the speaker. The gal up there a few paragraphs smokes unfiltered Camels and owns a pretty pricey handbag, as we see from the beat. Charlie’s the proverbial long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs as he’s talking with her, nearly missing the table when he sets his glass down. Those actions, those beats, help the reader form a more complete mental image.

In the next part of this series I’ll talk in depth about interrupted dialogue and the ways you can choose to punctuate it. I’ll show you how to use em dashes to insert beats. Additionally, I’ll cover single-speaker dialogue that spans paragraphs. (That’s not really interrupted, but it’s confusing for a lot of people.) It’ll be fun. Promise.

 

The Mechanics of Dialogue: Part 1, Quotation Marks

Why write yet another series of posts about dialogue, when there are myriads out there already for the reading (if one bothers to search)?

Because a) many folks don’t bother to search, and b) I always have a slightly different take on subjects, a take that many people seem to appreciate. So, I’m tackling this subject from the chair of a freelance editor who sees things. Terrible things.

(All right, not always terrible things. Sometimes I see amazing things, uplifting things. But there’s plenty of terrible to go around.)

Let’s get down to business.

I’m breaking this into a series because, let’s face it, there’s just too much to cram into a single entry. There are too many variables, too many options, too many ways to correctly punctuate depending on other active factors. And I’m still deciding, as I write, just how to tackle this in the most meaningful, useful manner. Bear with me; we’ll get there.

I think I’ll begin with the most obvious punctuation for dialogue: quotation marks. I’m a US editor, and while I have experience with UK style, I am writing from a US perspective and using US rules and guidelines. If you need UK rules, you can find them with an Internet search or in any number of style guides readily available at libraries and online. (Tip: They’re not as different as many people seem to think they are. Most of what I have to say here will apply equally to both sides of the pond.)

Part 1: Quotation Marks

“But Karen, we already know this part!” If that were true, I’d not be seeing errors in manuscripts.

Quotation marks enclose direct speech. In the first sentence of this part, I used them to enclose what I hear my thousands of followers saying, as if they were actually saying it. (As if my thousands of followers actually care what I say.) Notice that the terminal punctuation, in this case an exclamation point, goes inside the closing quotation marks. Notice also that there is no additional terminal punctuation outside the closing marks. That exclamation point punctuates the sentence.

Here are a few examples with different kinds of punctuation: some incorporate beats, some use tags. I did not create any examples of interrupted speech. I’ll be covering beats/tags and interruptions in detail in their own dedicated parts.

“I don’t know what the hell you think you’re doing,” Mary said.

(Mary’s statement is a declarative sentence that would normally end with a period. Because it’s in dialogue, and because there’s a tag [Mary said], the period becomes a comma. The terminal punctuation for the entire sentence is the period following “said.”)

“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” Mary snorted and shot him a dirty look.

(Here I’ve used a beat—an action—rather than a tag. It’s an issue of personal preference for me. Saying “asked” when there’s a question mark already letting us know someone is asking something is redundant, if you think about it. Why not tell us what the speaker does after she speaks? In this case, Mary’s pretty ticked off about whatever her companion is doing, so she snorts at him and gives him a nasty look. The question mark serves as terminal punctuation for the dialogue, which is contained in quotes as usual. The beat gets its own terminal punctuation in the form of the period at the end.)

“Get out, now!” he shouted as he ran down the stairs.

(The dialogue is punctuated with the exclamation point inside the quotation marks. “He shouted” is a tag, and it’s followed by a modifier in the form of two prepositional phrases [as he ran and down the stairs]. Notice that there is NO COMMA following “shouted” in this construction. There’s no requirement for one, and if I see one there, I will delete it. Now you know. However, look at the next one:)

“Get out, now!” he shouted, running down the stairs.

(The dialogue is exactly the same, but the tag is different. This time, “shouted” is followed by a different kind of modifier—the participle running. The rules require a comma after “shouted” in this construction, and if I don’t see one, I will insert one. Again, now you know.)

What about nested dialogue? You know, as in when someone’s reporting exactly what someone else said? It’s not all that difficult, either. Look at this.

“That’s when he said, ‘Mary, I could throw you off this cliff if I really wanted to.’”

(Mary’s telling someone exactly what was said to her. Therefore, that speech needs to be enclosed in quotation marks as well. We use single quotes for this purpose. In typesetting the final version, it’s often suggested that a thin space be inserted between the final single and double quotes to improve readability. Notice, too, that there’s a comma after “said” and before the opening single quotation mark just as there would be if this were not nested dialogue. The rules don’t change.)

However, sometimes the speech is paraphrased or indirect. Then it looks like this:

“That’s when he said that he could throw me off this cliff if he really wanted to,” sobbed Mary.

(I assume she might well be sobbing, given the threat in the reported speech. Again, as with the first example, Mary’s speech is a declarative statement so the period that would otherwise be there becomes a comma before the closing quotation marks, and the period at the end punctuates the entire sentence. It’s the same concept we use for reported speech outside of dialogue. John said that he’d throw Mary off the cliff. No quotation marks at all, see? Cool.)

All right. This entry focused on quotation marks and terminal punctuation. Enclose direct speech within quotation marks. If direct speech contains quoted direct speech from another character, enclose the speaker’s words in double quotes and the quoted speech in single quotes. If the direct speech is a declarative statement and you’re using a tag after the speech, put a comma before the closing quotation marks and end the entire sentence with a period. If the direct speech is a question, put the question mark before the closing quotation marks. (And if you’re using a tag with that speech that’s a question, put a period at the end of it; that becomes the terminal punctuation for the sentence.)

Next time I’ll discuss more about tags and beats. See you then!

ESL and the pronoun

I’m editing a novel by a foreign author. His English is quite good (as one would expect from someone with a doctorate in media and communications), but still — I can tell he’s an ESL writer. The kinds of errors I find are peculiar, in my experience, to ESL speakers and writers.

Take the lowly pronoun “his.” This particular ESL writer often uses “his” to mean “belonging to the main character, the man whose point of view controls the narrative.”

The problem is, quite often “his” grammatically refers to an entirely different character, and when I dig into the sentence, that “his” needs to become “Name’s” (the name of the main character) instead to make the meaning clear. Let me see if I can construct an example. (I don’t have permission to use this author’s writing in this manner, so I’m going to create something that’s similar. Bear with me. It’s difficult for me to make this kind of error on purpose, let alone by accident. No bragging, just facts.)

They sat at the table, John and Sam. Sam could see the wound on John’s arm. John’s tunic was bloody from the cut, even though it had been stitched neatly by his sister.

This ESL writer would contend that “his sister” means “Sam’s sister,” since Sam’s the one doing the seeing. That’s not how English works, though; grammatically, the referent for “his” in this instance is “John,” since he’s the one wearing the bloody tunic. (And granted, it takes a little work to get there, too. I purposely made this a little unclear, to show you the issues as I find them in ESL writers’ work.) Even if we’ve never been told that John has a sister at all, and we know that Sam does, that doesn’t mean “his sister” always means “Sam’s sister.” For the reader to know without a doubt whose sister did the stitching, the sentence needs to read “by Sam’s sister.”

We had a rather lengthy discussion about POV when I edited his first novel in this series. It was difficult to persuade him that yes, English really does have rules about pronouns, and no, “his” cannot always mean “belonging to the main character whose POV controls the story.” Just because “he” is the one through whose senses we’re experiencing the events does not mean that “his” will always refer to “him.” That “him,” that is. I mean the “him” who is the main character.

See the problem?

YouTube! I am on it.

It came to my attention last night (thanks to my auto-tweets) that the link from two years ago was broken. Quelle surprise, non? Pursuant to that information, here’s an updated link. Just follow the trail if you want to see more.

Karen Conlin and David Arney, Professional Editors Podcast Ep. 101

We did eight or ten of these. I’m honestly not sure they’re still all available. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

“Feelin’ Alright”

If you’ve been following me on any platform for any length of time, you know I’ve been a staunch adversary of “alright.” I have stated as clearly as I know how that I would never reconsider that stance: “alright” would never become all right in my worldview.

You also know the saying “Never say never,” don’t you?

I’ll wait while you all recover and fetch smelling salts or whiskey or whatever you need to help you get through this. I understand entirely.

Rather than rewrite the book, so to speak, I’m providing a link to the article that changed my mind. As I tweeted earlier this morning, reading about the English language as it is actually spoken and used (descriptive grammar and linguistics, mostly) can lead to changing opinions. And I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing, at all.

My last blog post here was about how I’ve mellowed. Even I never expected to mellow this much. I’m rather curious to see where I’ll go from here. Now I have one more item for my “ask the author” list, when I start a project with a new client. Added to the usual “Do you like serial commas?” and “UK or US conventions, for the most part?” will be “Do you care about ‘alright’ and ‘all right’?”

Clarification (October 13, 2014): I am still opposed to “alright” in narrative text. This sea change is purely for dialogue, and only if it’s appropriate for the setting and the character. A 16th-century nobleman will not say “all right.” He may well say “very well” or “excellent,” though. (A 16th-century peasant won’t say “all right,” either. Perhaps just “right” works for him. “All right” is a very American phrase (not that the English don’t use it, but it smacks of American speech–“Right” sounds more English to the non-academic ear), “attested to from 1953″ according to Online Etymology (http://etymonline..com).

And if they say they like “alright,” that will be all right with me.

There’s right, and there’s right.

This is a post about grammar, and about pedantry, and about editing, and about other stuff as I think of it and can make it fit into the general theme. That general theme is: How My Outlook Has Changed With Experience and Time.

Once I’d have been proud to be labeled a pedant. A grammar nazi. A Miss Thistlebottom. I couldn’t imagine not knowing when to use “who” and when it should be “whom.” My verbs were always properly conjugated and spelled, and the tense always fit the time. Those who confused direct and indirect objects crawled to me over broken glass for my aid.

Well, okay, not really. But close. Most of my classmates from junior high (now it’s “middle school,” you know) on came to me for help with grammar and spelling. I just knew that stuff. It was easy for me.

It still is easy for me. My verbs are still properly conjugated and spelled, and I still know how to use the proper tense. I have very little trouble with spelling (even with unfamiliar words), and I can identify compound-complex sentences without breaking a sweat.

Over the years, though, I’ve come to a much softer outlook. Yes, I still correct errors when I’m asked or when I’m being paid to, and perhaps even as a good-natured gibe (with a G, not a J) if I know the person very well. What I do not do, and in fact have never done, is leap into conversations with red pen in hand, lashing about correcting all the misspellings and grammar errors and nonstandard usages. It’s RUDE. I’ve always felt that way, and I still do.

If the only thing I can contribute to an online conversation is “You mean GIBE, not JIBE,” I should shut up and walk away. NO ONE CARES. Seriously. No one.

No one, that is, save for the rude people who gain some degree of self-importance and ego-boo by pointing out other people’s shortcomings.

And honestly, even when I’m being paid to fix things there are degrees of “correct” I need to think about. What’s “correct” for an academic paper is not the same as what’s “correct” for a novel is not the same as what’s “correct” for a blog post. To those who say “My job is to make it right ALL THE TIME” I have to ask: By whose standards? Did you check Fowler? Strunk and White? Garner? Chicago? AP? APA? Your high-school English teacher’s notes you’ve saved in a lock-box? By whose standards is this “right?”

My job is to make every project “right” for THAT project, for THAT audience, for THAT purpose. I think about the readers, the story (if it’s fiction), the message, the format. Does the language fit the story? Will the readers think it’s over-written or under-written? Does the usage need to be conservative? What about the vocabulary? If there’s dialogue, does it sound real? Do people talk that way in this situation in real life? (And if it’s totally fiction–fantasy, let’s say, with dragons and elves–would they really say these things if it were real?) And what about the narrative? Is it dwelling on details that don’t matter, or is it always moving the story ahead? For that matter, is the dialogue serving a purpose other than to ensure people talk? Are tags overused? Are there beats instead of tags where they make better sense?

If it’s an academic paper, are the citations properly placed and formatted? Is the language suitable, or too colloquial? Are special terms appropriately defined (either in-line or in back matter)? Is the material organized to best effect?

I walk away from online conversations much more readily than I once did, even those about editing. There are as many kinds of editing as there are editors, the way I see it. We can’t even agree on the definitions, people. How can we agree on method? I say that I perform substantive line and copy editing. For me, that means I stop short of moving entire chunks of text around (unless it’s a short-ish nonfiction piece), but I commonly rewrite sentences and rearrange them within paragraphs; I change word choice (or at least make suggestions for such changes) to better fit the mood, the speaker, the purpose, and so on; I note inconsistencies from one place to another (his name was Dan in the last chapter, but here he’s Dave); and I check the grammar, usage, and mechanics.

I love editing. I absolutely love it. But I won’t shove it down the throat of anyone who hasn’t asked me for my input. And I edit a novel with a different set of standards than I use for a white paper. And I write a blog post with a different set from either of those. And if I’m commenting somewhere on social media, I might not catch my typos. Y’know what? That’s okay. It’s social media. We all have fat fingers sometimes.

I don’t mind adverbs when used judiciously. (Like that one.)

I don’t run away from semicolons; in fact, I rather like them, if they’re used properly.

I prefer the Oxford comma, but I won’t throttle, maim, or otherwise harm someone who doesn’t care for it.

I have no aversion to splitting infinitives, but I don’t go out of my way to split them, either.

And I start sentences with coordinating conjunctions, too. (Not in a white/academic paper, though. That’s frowned upon in such a circumstance. Let the writing/editing fit the purpose.)

I use the right tools for the right jobs. Not a hammer for everything. Not everything is a nail.

 

 

I’m loath to admit I loathe most country music.

That ought to raise a few eyebrows, but at least it won’t be for poor diction. (Also: Honestly? I’m not in the least bit loath to make that admission. There. I said it.)

Loath is an adjective; it means “unwilling to do something because it’s disagreeable for some reason.” I’m loath to eat raw octopus because the texture is offensive to me.

The unabridged Merriam-Webster online dictionary indicates that (much to the frustration of many copy editors) “loathe” is an alternate spelling.

Why does that frustrate some of us? Because, you see, loathe is the verb.There is no alternate spelling for the verb. It’s loathe. That’s it. And it means “detest, abhor.” I loathe the fact that “loathe” is an alternative spelling for loath.

I may be loosening up a little more in my pragmatic grammarian stance, continuing my journey toward descriptivism, but I still loathe this particular situation.

A developing developmental editor?

Had you asked me a year ago what my focus was as an editor, I’d have said (almost without thinking) “grammar, usage, and mechanics.” I was sure I could label myself a copy editor; I was aware of all those nit-picky things that average folks either don’t see or aren’t bothered by. Not only was I bothered by them (and I still am, make no mistake), I would stop reading a book if there were too many errors (as I define “too many,” of course).

Dialogue gets a pass because, well, it’s dialogue, and characters talk like people, and most people just, y’know, talk. They don’t worry about correctness, they worry about making a point. Being understood. Whatever that takes, that’s what they do. But narrative . . . oh, lawdy, if there were too many errors in the narrative passages within the first chapter or so? I’d close the book and that was the end. It never got another chance with me, no sirree.

Time passes. ::insert .wmv of analog clock with swiftly-moving hands::

Now, I would still call myself a copy editor, but I’m sending out tentative tendrils into the realm of developmental editing. I think some of my clients would say I am a dev-editor based solely on the types of things I mark for them. I rewrite paragraphs to improve flow. I rewrite sentences to vary structure. Sometimes, if I feel the writer is capable (not all of them are, but a good number, I think), I’ll leave comments along the lines of “too many compound sentences here. Rework for more variety.” If they don’t understand, they ask me. That’s a good thing. I want to be able to teach them how to make their own improvements. Not to put myself out of a job, but to make mine easier by improving their skills. If all I have to do is check GUM issues, I can work quicker than if I have to rewrite paragraph after paragraph.

Then there are those very few who come to me with work at which I take one look and shake my head sadly. “This isn’t ready for me,” I have to tell them, and I send them off to find a developmental editor who will be patient and thoughtful, equal parts creative writing teacher and Miss Thistlebottom. If the writing’s at high-school level–I mean average high-school, not honors/AP level–it’s not ready for me. I don’t charge nearly enough to teach grammar. If you can’t construct a complete sentence and don’t know how to organize a paragraph, you’re not ready to work with me.

I need to learn more myself about narrative structure. About the flow of the story, whether it’s a short story or a 110,000-word novel. Right now I’m not competent to critique on that level. I can say “this paragraph makes no sense here,” but I’m not able to say “this entire chapter needs to move.” Not yet, but I’m getting there. I think.

See? I don’t always sit here grousing about how the language is dying because “selfie” is now in the dictionary, or about how a misplaced modifier makes my blood boil. (More often it makes me chuckle. Not always, but damn, some of them are pretty amusing.) Sometimes I sit here thinking about how I can improve my skills. Because there is always room for that.

Even for me.

 

“Word Grenades” (via Plotnik)

I’ve said over on G+ that I’m exploring the requirements of developmental editing.

To that end, I’m also reading about the craft of writing. I know the fundamentals,so now–at least according to John Gardner–I am ready to learn the craft. If I’m going to be any kind of dev editor, I need to know how to write.

Write things other than blog posts about grammar, that is. I need to explore one of my personal bugaboos: creative writing.

Any desire I had (which was little enough in the first place) to write fiction or poetry was quashed quite thoroughly by a high-school teacher back in, oh, 1973 or so. Her critique of my work was savage and offered nothing constructive in exchange. Tear down, don’t build up. I stopped and didn’t look back. As long as it’s not fiction, I can write it. I can write the hell out of a research paper, an essay, a blog post . . .

Anyway. One of the books I’m reading is Plotnik’s The Elements of Expression: Putting Thoughts into Words. And I’m loving it. This is all stuff I’ve known to a point anyway, but I’m seeing it in his words, and finding more behind them. It makes me think that perhaps I can do this writing thing after all. Perhaps.

When I’m doing substantive editing, one of my focuses is on word choice. Is this the best word for the intention? For the audience? For the meaning? For the SOUND? Plotnik’s chapter “Elements of Force” talks about word choice. About onomatopoeia. About rhythm and music and sincerity. About strong verbs. Powerful verbs. In-your-face verbs. And wonder of wonders, about adjectives and adverbs too. He’s for using the best ones (yep, even the adverbs). The ones that pack the biggest wallop. The ones that he calls “Grade-A.” He’s for creating one-time compounds if there’s nothing extant that will do the job. I’m particularly fond of this phrase:

weapons-grade stupid

Now THAT, friends and readers, is stupid. Not your average, everyday, run-of-the-mill stupid. It’s world-changing in its stupidity. Damaging. KILLER stupid.

“Elements of Force” discusses far more than verbs and intensifiers, but I’m not about to go into those other things. Get the book. Read it yourself.

It’ll help fend off the weapons-grade stupid we encounter every day.