lvtvr’s writing tutorials, pt 1: battling my nemesis (or, how to punctuate dialogue)
Sup, fellow kids. I’m Charlie. I write.
I’ve also translated and proofread four full-length novels, so I now suffer from the work-related condition of never being able to turn my editing glasses off. This can make reading fanfic a bitch for me. Because, let’s be real: unbeta’d amateur work easily lets a lot of mistakes slip through.
It is, however, possible to minimize those mistakes.
Is the world going to end if there are errors in your fanfic? Of course not. If you want to focus on the content of your writing more than adhering to rules of language, by all means, do that. There’s time to learn this stuff later.
But you know what? Formatting matters. If you truly want to get better at writing, then eventually you are going to have to deal with this aspect of it. And yes, it’s hard work – but I hope to help you along the way.
THE POINT OF THIS ESSAY: PUNCTUATING DIALOGUE
This seems to be the #1 formatting problem that amateur writers struggle with. However, there are boatloads of experienced fanfic writers who still seem to struggle with it, or are just so used to making mistakes that they’ve made it “their style.” And at the risk of sounding like a total bitch, it doesn’t matter how amazing or well-loved their work is otherwise: wrong is still wrong. Just because someone is consistent about always writing “your” instead of “you’re” doesn’t make it correct, and dialogue is no different.
If these kinds of persistent mistakes don’t bother you, then good for you. Your life is probably a lot more fun than mine.
But if you want to learn to do it right – if you want the great look and perfect flow that immaculate punctuation will bring your writing – then you have to rise above this.
Time for some rules.
COMMA VS. PERIOD – THE ULTIMATE SHOWDOWN
Let’s start with something simple.
“Hey,” he said.
This is a good sentence. This sentence is an upstanding member of our society. You can’t go wrong with this sentence. Got me? Okay.
Now let’s have a look at another one.
“Hello.” She said.
This sentence is a delinquent. In fact, it’s not even a sentence – it’s two sentences. And it is always, always, always wrong. Rule of thumb: never do this. Ever.
This isn’t just some elitist, snooty gatekeeping crap, either. There’s a purely functional reason why it’s incorrect.
By putting a period after your dialogue, you are cutting it off from whatever comes next. Whatever follows dialogue that ends with a period has to be an independent sentence. This distinction is used to regulate the rhythm and flow of the writing.
Now, “said” is a transitive verb, meaning it needs to take an object. While you can sigh, yawn, or laugh independently of anything else, “saying” isn’t possible unless you are saying SOMETHING. (I.e., “She laughed” is a complete sentence on its own; “He said” isn’t.) Same goes for synonyms of “say,” such as whisper, repeat, and exclaim. They almost always get lonely without some dialogue attached to them with a comma.
Let’s look at some examples.
“I’m fine.” He said.
“I’m fine,” he said.
The first example IS NEVER CORRECT. NOT EVER. It should ALWAYS be the latter. ALWAYS.
“I’m fine,” he laughed.
“I’m fine.” He laughed.
These examples are BOTH CORRECT, but convey different nuances. In the first example, he laughs the words. In the second, he says the words first, and laughs afterward. These are separate things, not two different ways to express the same idea. No matter how much fic you’ve read where they’re treated as synonymous, they are not. They are not. They are not.
GETTING FUNKY WITH “?” AND “!”
When a sentence in dialogue ends with a question mark or exclamation point, you always keep that punctuation – you never replace it with a comma. This is where we use the above rule to make sure things don’t get ambiguous.
“What’s up?” they yawned.
“What’s up?” They yawned.
Again, these examples are BOTH CORRECT. In the first, they are yawning the words. In the second, they yawn after speaking. By capitalizing “they,” you are indicating that the question mark is behaving like a period. You are thereby orphaning the sentence that follows the dialogue. In this case, since the sentence can stand alone, that’s perfectly fine.
“I’m okay!” the boy repeated.
“I’m okay!” The boy repeated.
Here, the first example is CORRECT. The second is ALWAYS WRONG. Remember, capitalizing “the” means you are drawing a line between the dialogue and the following sentence. “Repeated” needs an object, but now, because the exclamation point is behaving like a period, “The boy repeated” stands alone. That’s an ungrammatical sentence, and without the implied attachment to the preceding dialogue, it drifts alone in the void.
And, well, that’s not good.
Special section to address this other weird shit I’ve seen:
“I’m fine.” He murmured, pouring himself another cup of coffee, “I promise.”
This is a big WTF that has basically just reversed the correct order of things. It should be:
“I’m fine,” he murmured, pouring himself another cup of coffee. “I promise.”
“That’s pretty cool.” The doctor laughed, turning to her girlfriend, “You should try it.”
We have two options to fix this, depending on if we want her to laugh the words or not.
“That’s pretty cool,” the doctor laughed, turning to her girlfriend. “You should try it.” (laughing as she speaks)
“That’s pretty cool.” The doctor laughed, turning to her girlfriend. “You should try it.” (laughing after speaking)
Sometimes, especially when you start working with more complex sentences, things can get confusing, and your options can increase. Feel free to shoot me a message if you’re not sure. However, the rules above are the basic ones to keep in mind.
Okay, you made it to the end! If it feels like a lot, that’s because it is. Yes, it’s plenty to remember, because writing is hard. Try to think about these rules when you’re reading published books (not fanfic, you can’t trust fanfic), and eventually you’ll get the hang of it.
Believe in the me that believes in you.