Mechanics of Dialogue, Part 4: Some Finer Points

The first three posts in this series are from 2014, and it’s a delight to know that they’re still being visited and commented on six years later. Here’s the first one. But I didn’t cover everything. What if your dialogue doesn’t fit neatly into any of those examples? What if it’s different, but still interrupted? I have a few ideas on that.

If one person begins talking and stops, perhaps to think about what word they want to use next, I suggest this. Write the direct speech, and put an em dash after the last word before the closing quotation marks. There’s no need to tell readers “they paused” because the em dash does that for you. But what comes next?

Maybe there’s an actual beat, an action like “rubbed their forehead” or “fiddled with a teacup.” That’s fine; write it, and put a period at the end. Then begin the speech again, picking up where you left off, with an em dash after the opening quotation marks and a lower-case letter on the first word. The reasoning here is that the speech is continuing, probably in the middle of a sentence, so you don’t want to make it look like a brand-new statement. It’s a continuation. Like this:

“I really don’t want to get into any kind of—” Mags looked toward the door as if expecting someone and took a deep breath as she considered her next words. “—of argument over this.”

It’s not the same as a line of speech that flows as the character does something like pick up a pencil. There’s a break, an actual, audible (and visual) pause, while something happens. That something might merely be the character thinking. Then the speech continues with whatever the character says. The main thing to remember is not to tell readers “they paused.” Let the punctuation do that for you.

In the example above, I chose to have Mags repeat the last word she said. I know I do it often enough when I’m taking time to select the right words. And remember, there’s no reason for a capital letter on that “of.” She paused, and she picked up where she left off in the middle of her speech. Let the typography and punctuation do their jobs and show the reader what’s happening.

What if one character is talking, and another picks up the thread and continues? For that, I suggest an em at the end of the first speaker’s line, before the closing quotes. Then a line break, and begin the new speaker’s speech with opening quotes and a capital letter, without an em. Why? Because it’s the first person who was interrupted (hence the em dash), and the second is jumping in fresh (so you don’t need the em, but you do need the capital letter). It looks like this:

Roger shook his head. “That’s not how it happened. When Jasper took the bracelet—”

“Stole the bracelet, you mean,” snapped Celia.

Or this:

“When she stayed out after curfew—”

“Broke the law is what you mean. Say it.”

Or even this:

Magnus fretted with his watch chain. “I don’t know what to call this, this sense of—”

“Forboding? Doom? Or are those too dark for your liking?” Henrietta sneered and turned her back.

The trick is to think about what the em dashes belong to. Do they denote an actual break in the speech? Then they go inside the quotation marks. Do they set off an action happening as the character is speaking? Then they go with the intrusion and belong outside the quotation marks. In any case, there is no space before or after an em dash in Chicago (book) style.

There are editors, and then …

… there are editors.

My initial idea for this post was quite different from what it is actually about. You see, I was surfing the internet (what else is there to do when self-isolating, aside from bingeing* shows on Netflix or some other streaming platform?) when I saw an editor say something that stopped me dead in my tracks. I won’t quote it here; I not only do not have permission, but I would not ask for it. It’s not a very flattering reason to be quoted. It was a gaffe I almost immediately attributed to the difference between a copy editor and a developmental one. The copy editor needs a grounding in grammar. The developmental one does not. In fact, it can be a hindrance; it’s much easier to do the deep reading for developmental work without the distractions of misplaced modifiers and errant commas.

I had thought I’d write about the problem in the statement, which meant a lot of deep grammar stuff that even some long-time copy editors don’t necessarily know. It’s one thing to know that something is wrong; it’s another to know precisely why, and to be able to explain why in clear, concise, and above all correct terms.

This was … not correct.

And unless the writer knows grammar, they won’t know it’s not correct.

And for me, that’s a problem.

But backing up a step: The gist of the comment was right. The wrong thing was being emphasized. The details were wrong, though. And that bothered me. It still bothers me, hours later. But I realized, as I sat being bothered, that the bigger issue is that “editing” is a very large tent, encompassing several styles, and while there is often some overlap in skills, there isn’t necessarily any. It’s a happy coincidence when there is, in my experience.

And it’s far from my place to call someone out on having spoken erroneously when they’re essentially talking to a specific person, as it was in this case, rather than to a group at large. Not my business, honestly.

I know some of you must be wondering what the error was that got under my skin. Pretty basic stuff, really, about the grammatical subject of a sentence. Except there was a predicate complement involving a subordinating preposition followed by a rather intricate clause, and that got mixed up with the grammatical subject, and it was a right mess.

The developmental editor had a good point, but they made it with utterly incorrect information. That’s what bothered me. The sentence in question needed rewriting to tighten the focus, yes. But the prepositional object was not the grammatical subject of the sentence. Nope, sorry. (And it didn’t help that the prepositions were understood/implied rather than present, but if you diagrammed the sentence you’d know they were there. English grammar, man, it’ll get you in the ass every time.)

Can the recipient of the suggestion use the information they got and improve their writing? Probably. Especially if they go to the editor and ask for clarification. Even one who doesn’t know all the grammatical terms can still explain a problem like this one in ways that a writer can take to heart and use in a later draft. Know that I’m saying that as both a copy editor who knows her grammar and as a developmental editor who learned that DEs don’t need to focus on the technical issues, but rather on the Big Picture or “30,000 feet” problems. “Put the focus on [this word] instead of [that word].” That was the heart of the statement. And it was appropriate for the situation.

But the subject wasn’t the object of the preposition.

 

*”Bingeing” is the preferred spelling given by Merriam-Webster. The E differentiates it from “binging,” as in “The computer was binging for at least 15 minutes while her cousin tried to get her attention.”

Yep, it breaks the “rule” for dropping the terminal E when adding -ing to a verb. Too fucking bad.

Actions and words: what’s louder?

I have written and tweeted about this particular issue before, but I’ve just encountered it in a trad-pub book so I’m saying it again. (No, I won’t say which publisher or which title. That doesn’t matter one bit.)

Character A says a thing.

In the next paragraph, Character B reacts to it with an action. Character A reacts. Character B takes another action. There there’s a line of dialogue at the end of the paragraph.

Who said it?

Imagine it’s this bit of text.

“Stop it!” Dave said from inside the room.

Harry banged on the door hard enough for Dave to recoil in fear of it shattering inward. More banging and kicking, and one foot broke through at the bottom of the frame. “Why are you like this?”

Who spoke just then? Was it Dave, in reaction to Harry’s violence? Or was it Harry, in reaction to Dave’s locking himself in the room?

It’s not clear. We can take a guess, but what if we’re wrong? We shouldn’t have to read the next line to find out if we were right. If the next line is something like “I’m like this because you locked yourself in,” we know it was Dave who asked the question at the end of that paragraph. If it’s something like “Because you’re scaring the shit out of me,” we know it was Harry.

We shouldn’t have to guess. The uncertainty has intruded on our reading enjoyment, broken our flow. Clarity isn’t difficult. Actions might speak louder than words, and sometimes that’s a problem. 

How to address the issue, then? A little fiddling goes a long way. In the paragraph with the banging and reacting and kicking, we could recast like this: 

Harry banged on the door hard enough for Dave to recoil from fear of it shattering inward. When he saw a foot break through at the bottom of the frame, he dove behind the chair. “Why are you like this?” His breath came in great ragged gasps.

Now, there’s no question about who’s speaking. It’s not always required that dialogue go on a new line; in cases like this, it makes sense for it to flow directly after the narrative and be followed by a bit of description that clearly identifies the speaker (much more useful than “he said”).