Accurately representing dialogue in fiction can be tricky business for both authors and editors. In its most basic form, words spoken aloud by a character, you can’t go wrong with the good old journalistic style of “comma quote name said”: “Just do it this way,” Amy said. But there are so many more ways that characters express themselves, and the editor’s job is to help such expression be true to the character while being understandable to the reader. In this article we’ll touch on the two most common issues I see.
Issue 1: A Tag or a Beat?
The first issue involves the difference between dialogue tags and action beats. Dialogue tags identify what was said and who said it. Action beats describe what someone was doing. Authors frequently (and erroneously) try to make action beats work like dialogue tags. Here’s an example:
[wrong] “I don’t know what to tell you,” she shrugged.
Can you see the problem? A person can’t shrug words. You can say them, or shout them, or even grunt or mumble them. But shrug is not what we call a verb of saying or verb of utterance. There are two ways to fix this (and which one you choose will depend on context):
(a) “I don’t know what to tell you,” she replied. (Change the verb to a verb of utterance.)
(b) “I don’t know what to tell you.” She shrugged. (Make the action beat its own sentence.)
Issue 2: Action Interruption and Punctuation
The second bit of tricky business is how to punctuate speech that’s interrupted by an action that is concurrent with the speech. That is, there isn’t (necessarily) a pause in the speech itself, but the author interjects the simultaneous action in the middle of the speech. This is usually done with two sets of quotation marks, with em dashes marking the break. But the question is, where does all that punctuation go? CMOS 17, section 6.87, gives the answer that my big publisher clients prefer:
“I could tell you”—he pinned me with his steely gaze—“but then I’d have to kill you.”
If you think about it, this makes perfect sense because the em dashes set off the action, rather than indicating a break in the speech, so logically they would go outside the quotation marks.
Join Copyediting on March 15 for the Master Class “Talking Points: Copyediting Dialogue in Fiction” with Amy Schneider for more discussion on the nuances and mechanics of editing many types of dialogue. Registration closes March 14, 2018, at 8 pm ET.