(More) dialogue punctuation questions

Discussion in 'General Writing Discussion' started by Hex, Dec 19, 2011.

  1.  
    Hex

    Hex Multi-taloned Staff Member

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    Hello -- I have some questions about dialogue punctuation. I'm still not always clear on what's okay and what isn't...

    Are these okay as they are (punctuation-wise):

    "Don't worry." His voice was very quiet, strained.

    and:

    "You need to leave!"

    "Threats will make no difference." The footsteps retreated.

    [should the footsteps be after a paragraph break? the owner of them is the person speaking, but obviously they're not.]
     
  2.  
    Anne Lyle

    Anne Lyle Fantastical historian

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    The punctuation looks fine to me.

    As for the paragraph break, I would put one in. If the dialogue and action are more or less simultaneous, then they can stay on one line, but I think that the footsteps retreating is more dramatic if there's a paragraph break.

    Try reading it out loud. As a simple rule of thumb, if the second sentence follows smoothly on from the first, leave them on the same line, but if you instinctively pause, put a paragraph break in there.

    Compare your example with:

    "You need to leave!"
    "Threats will make no difference." Her lips twisted into a cruel smile.


    It takes a moment to turn and walk away, but no time at all to turn a snark into a smile :)
     
  3.  
    Hex

    Hex Multi-taloned Staff Member

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    Thank you :)

    One day I'll get this dialogue stuff sorted. One day...
     
  4.  
    Brian Turner

    Brian Turner Brian G. Turner Staff Member

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    Those all look fine, with the following caveat on the second example:

    1. Both lines of dialogue should be different people.
    2. Any action directly following speech in a paragraph should belong to that person, unless clearly indicated otherwise through POV use.
     
  5.  
    Hex

    Hex Multi-taloned Staff Member

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    That's okay -- all those things are so.

    I do wonder how much dialogue one can mix with action in one paragraph. Is that just style/ clarity or are there rules?

    Is this okay, for example?

    "Feels wrong this. Didn't want to ask you." His voice was brusque and embarrassed, the smile I had liked so much was missing. "It's the Foxes again. Ines said you could maybe help with that – with who's done it." He scratched his head and looked at me dubiously. "Hope you've a strong stomach. There's a body round the corner."
     
  6.  
    Anne Lyle

    Anne Lyle Fantastical historian

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    I think an occasional block like that would be OK. Ultimately it's up to your editor, though there's usually room for negotiation :)
     
  7.  
    Ursa major

    Ursa major Bearly Believable Staff Member

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    Although an editor may not like the way you've joined two sentences together with a comma, Hex. ;):)
     
  8.  
    Anne Lyle

    Anne Lyle Fantastical historian

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    Ooh, yes - well spotted on the comma splice. You can get away with that sort of thing in dialogue; narrative, not so much, unless it's part of the voice and you can keep it under tight control.
     
  9.  
    Hex

    Hex Multi-taloned Staff Member

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    Gak.

    A comma splice is not vey nice (I hear that they can give you lice).

    I'm going to start. Punctuating at random. It's the only. Way I'll ever. Avoid. Them.
     
  10.  
    Toby Frost

    Toby Frost Well-Known Member

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    Why not? It works for William Shatner!
     
  11.  
    TheTomG

    TheTomG Thomas M. Grimes

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    Best laugh of the day! Thanks Toby :)
     
  12.  
    Hex

    Hex Multi-taloned Staff Member

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    I was just reading a thing by DBC Pierre in The Guardian (it's here). He was writing about dialogue and he did this:

    "By the time I left the pub," Richard lifted the blind: "I could barely see them."

    Is that okay? I had absorbed from somewhere (possibly a dream) that it was Bad to break a sentence of dialogue without using a dialogue tag. So:

    "By the time I left the pub," Richard said, lifting the blind, "I could barely see them."

    But are both okay?
     
  13.  
    Culhwch

    Culhwch Knight of the Republic Staff Member

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    I think it's fine to break the dialogue without using an attribution tag. I wouldn't have used the colon, however. It may be acceptable, but I wouldn't do it.
     
  14.  
    Jo Zebedee

    Jo Zebedee must stop trying to log in as springs...

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    On a personal level I understood the second, but I had an odd vision of Richard trying to lift someone who was blind when I read the first, so i obviously need the conventional punctuation to understand such things!
     
  15.  
    Abernovo

    Abernovo Well-Known Member

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    Pierre's usage would have given my English teacher kittens, but it's not the first time I've seen that style. I think there's a little leeway given for literary styling, SO LONG AS you can pull it off and it's understandable.

    Also, to me, I get the feeling of a pause in the speech by the way Pierre writes Richard lifting the blind. Kind of a what is not being written is as important as what is - if that makes sense to anyone other than me. Personally, I don't like the colon, but...

    Your example is also quite correct and has the merit that it would not have earned you a board rubber being cast in your direction at high speed (she was a scary woman, my English teacher;)).
     
  16.  
    Ursa major

    Ursa major Bearly Believable Staff Member

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    I too do not like the colon and would have preferred to see a comma in its place. Perhaps the author was so transfixed by his little bit of wordplay - 'blind' - 'barely see' - that he goofed on the punctuation.


    (As an aside, I'm sure there's been a thread, or part of a thread, dealing with the various ways one can punctuate a single sentence of dialogue that's... er... punctuated by almost independent narration. Not that this is what's happening here: the speech attribution clearly joins the narrative to the dialogue in this example.)
     
  17.  
    Anne Lyle

    Anne Lyle Fantastical historian

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    Ugh, no - I've never seen a colon used quite like that. AFAIK the standard punctuation is to use m-dashes (represented by double dashes for the web's sake):

    "By the time I left the pub--" Richard lifted the blind "--I could barely see them."

    I do occasionally use a colon, but only when a beat comes at the beginning, before the dialogue:

    He drew a deep breath and whispered: "Yes."

    Note that you can and should use a colon with a dialogue tag, but a full stop (period) when there's no tag.

    He drew a deep breath. "Yes."


    Your version is fine. Better than that ugly colon!
     
  18.  
    Hilarious Joke

    Hilarious Joke Fool

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    I'm a fan of the colon, but I do not like seeing it used this way!

    In terms of placement of the attribution tag, I've recently read a couple of examples of the tag coming first in a way that I find really jarring in Kevin J Anderson's Hidden Empire. Here's one:

    Does this annoy anyone else? Strangely enough, Ms Lyle's version above reads fine to me:

    I think because it works well dramatically speaking and doesn't just try to invert the normal form for the sake of it.
     
  19.  
    Anne Lyle

    Anne Lyle Fantastical historian

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    Yes, the Anderson version does seem a bit clumsy. I know it's all just convention, but I think it's best not to pull the reader out of the story by using unfamiliar constructions. I wonder if he's doing it for variety?

    I would have written:

    Admittedly I worry that I use this pattern too often!

    P.S. I would have said "decrypted" as well, not "deencrypted". If that's an accurate quote, Mr Anderson's watch commander needs to brush up on his technical jargon :)
     
  20.  
    HareBrain

    HareBrain Lagomorphing Staff Member

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    My problem with this isn't so much the colon but the comma after pub. "Richard lifted the blind" isn't a speech-tag, it's separate action. The main test of whether dialogue punctuation works is to remove the quote marks and see if the sentence makes sense. This doesn't, and is an example of an error we pick people up on here over and over again.

    That said, David Mitchell does this quite a lot in one of his books. There, I thought it was a deliberate style decision (though I couldn't see exactly why), and might be so in this case. But I still don't like it much.
     
    Last edited: Dec 27, 2011
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