Punctuation: your ‘little drum set’ for better dialogue

There are some things I’m just not good at – or may never be able to learn. Math. My new DSLR camera. Everyone has something like that.

But if you want to be published – or just taken seriously as a writer, or even as as a student – you need to know grammar, spelling, and punctuation.

I just read a snippet from Annie Dillard, which put in me in mind of this topic:

Learn punctuation; it is your little drum set, one of the few tools you have to signal the reader where the beats and emphases go. (If you get it wrong, any least thing, the editor will throw your manuscript out.) Punctuation is not like musical notation; it doesn’t indicate the length of pauses, but instead signifies logical relations. There are all sorts of people out there who know these things very well. You have to be among them even to begin.

I’ve never heard it put quite like this – but I love it. Because it’s true. I have little patience for people who can’t use grammar and punctuation properly, in large part because writing isn’t just about the words and sentences; it’s the punctuation that puts those words and sentences together into coherent units that convey the thought to the reader. Especially when it comes to dialogue.

Look at it this way:  you hear the voices of your characters in your head. You know their tone. You know their accents. The cadence and meter of how they speak. You may think you can’t get that across to your reader – but you can. At least, you can give it your best shot. Properly punctuated dialogue gives us those things.

Take these sentences:

“Pretty, isn’t she?”

“Yes, sir. I mean, I reckon so. Didn’t really notice. I . . .”

“Maisie’s my girl, kid. But you can have any of the others.”

In this small exchange, there’s two speakers – Nicky, my protagonist, and Bart, the bouncer at a local speakeasy. Can you hear the panic in Nicky’s voice in the second line? If so, I did good. If not, I didn’t. 🙂 Now here’s the scene with the tags attached:

Bart came over to Abby and nodded towards the closing cellar door. “Pretty, isn’t she?”

“Yes, sir. I mean, I reckon so. Didn’t really notice. I . . .”

He laughed. “Maisie’s my girl, kid. But you can have any of the others.”

I’m sure you’ve heard this a lot, but dialogue usually doesn’t need tags. If you’re doing the job right with the rest of the writing, then there’s no need for tags. Your characters’ actions should tell us how they’re speaking. Take this example from one of my urban fantasy manuscripts (Erin’s feisty, BTW!): 

When I got to the meeting room, it was buzzing; almost everyone had a copy of that damn paper, and they were all talking about it, showing off photos and pointing out things in the article. I stalked through them, up to the front of the room where Spencer was talking to someone, and slammed the paper on the table.

“Whitfield? That bloody bastard went to Whitfield Abby and got those poor monks to parade around for photographs? How? Why? Why, Spencer?” My voice rose with everyone word, until they echoed from the ceiling. Vaguely, I noticed the entire room had gone silent. I didn’t give a damn. Trembling with rage, I slammed my fist into the paper. “Explain!”

“Miss Carson, perhaps after the meeting . . .”

“No.” My jaw clenched. “Now.”

Here, I’ve kept it neat and clean – again, two speakers, Erin and Spencer – and I hope you can hear the panicked, frantic – and yes, ANGRY – note in her voice as you read this. 🙂 But what you will notice is that there isn’t one single tag anywhere. No ‘said.’ Nothing. Done right, you very rarely need them. Take a look at your own writing. If you’re typing “he said,” or “I said” after every bit of dialogue – what can you do to fix it? Think about these things:

Are you afraid your readers won’t be able to tell who’s speaking? In that case, you need to strengthen your characters’ voices and make them more distinct from each other. Also, make it clear in the dialogue who’s speaking. Here, we know Erin’s talking to Spencer, so it’s clear to the reader that it’s him in that second line.

Are you using tags other than said to convey how your character is speaking? If so, get the dialogue right – using punctuation. Take these two lines:

“Now,” I said. “I want to know what the hell your golden boy was thinking.”

He stared at me, a muscle working near his jaw. “Miss Carson, please. Sit.”

That ‘sit’ at the end is set aside as its own sentence for a reason. Read it aloud. It’s not part of that first sentence, is it? Never was meant to be. It’s an order.

But this brings up another important point:  use your actions between the dialogue! That more than anything tells us precisely what your characters are thinking. Or should, if done right. That fist slamming on the table in the example above replaces any need for tags such as screamed, yelled, exclaimed, or whatever other weak adjective I could have used. But this is strong. This gets the point across.

And the last thing I want to say here is this:  When Annie Dillard says Learn punctuation; it is your little drum set, one of the few tools you have to signal the reader where the beats and emphases go, what she really means is this:  READ YOUR WORK ALOUD. Especially the dialogue. You hear it in your head; did you get it on paper? Are your characters pausing and emphasizing where you think they should be? Better yet, have someone else read it aloud to you. Then, you’ll really hear it (though you have to be careful to get someone who actually knows how to read aloud; that’s an art in and of itself).

Dialogue is one of the most important things in your writing. Use punctuation to make it even better.


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