Quoting dialog in a story should be an easy task. Put quotation marks around a spoken sentence and bam! “Hi there.” Done. It turns out that there are several accepted methods for integrating quotes. Each approach has benefits and I’ve learned there is no correct method.
Hold on, there is a correct method and everybody agrees on it. This “correct method” is widely documented in many books like The Chicago Manual of Style, Garner's Modern English Usage, The Copyeditor's Handbook, Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace. Yeah, not so much. All these “golden standards” mostly agree on the grammar rules and then an author may adapt the rules to their personal taste.
As I bumbled along my writing journey, I settled on a quote integration method that I like. I feel this compromise on all the quoting options reduces and streamlines the editing process. Let’s explore some methods of incorporating dialog:
Method 1 (no quotation marks) James walked up to Bob. I will be late tonight. That’s fine. James walked away. For me, this dialog integration is difficult to follow. Is somebody speaking? Who are they speaking to and when did they stop speaking?
Method 1a (Improved no quotation marks). James walked up to Bob and spoke. I will be late tonight. That’s fine. James walked away. A better method, but the reader still gets confused.
Method 1b (No quotation marks with after thoughts). Bob walked up. I will be late tonight, said James. That’s fine, and he walked away. That is certainly compact and clean. However, this method still leaves the reader confused.
Method 2 (Quotes stuck in) James walked up to Bob. “I will be late tonight.” “That’s fine.” James walked away. This is better than method 1, but the reader cannot tell who is speaking. The reader must make the leap to understand the sentence began with James’s spoken words.
Method 3 (forward hints) James walked up to Bob and said, “I will be late tonight.” James replied, “That’s fine.” James walked away.
Method 3a (forward hints with breaks) James walked up to Bob and said, “I will be late tonight.”
“I need to see my sister.” James walked away. This is the same as 3, but line breaks are added to distinguish between speakers. This is the method I settled on. I feel this is the most straightforward method and readers can easily understand who is talking to who. Before speaking, the reader knows the subject person and the target person. I feel it is the best compromise between all the options. However, it loads the document up with lots of “said,” Of course, I mix it up with: “answered,” “asked,” “continued,” “yelled,” “whispered,” etc.
Method 4 (The afterthought) James walked up to Bob, “I will be late tonight.” Said, James. “That’s fine.” Replied Bob as James walked away. Many people feel this method is the golden standard, looks the most professional and most books use this method. The issue I have with this method is that the reader does not get to learn who is speaking until the end of the sentence. I feel this method trips up the reader and disrupts the flow.
Method 4a (Integrated afterthoughts) James walked up to Bob. “I will be late tonight.” Said, James. “I need to see my sister.” “That’s fine.” Replied Bob. “Go see her first.” James walked away. This method is a combination between 3 and 4. Right after or during the first sentence of dialog, the reader is informed who is speaking. Overall, this method reads well, but it falls apart during snappy short sentence dialog.
Method 5 (separate) James walked up to Bob.
“I will be late tonight.”
“I need to see my sister.”
James walked away. In this method, the dialog is separated from the description and this leaves the reader unsure who is speaking.
To make matters more complex, the rules for double quotes and single quotes aren’t set in stone. I settled on a single clear rule. Single quotes go inside double quotes. “What’s going on Bob?” “Kelly told me to ‘Pick up dinner on my way home.’ Sound good?” This seems straightforward but there is a rule for single words in single quotes. Bob said, ‘Hello.’ I like the way this reads, but I ignore this rule and use double quotes.
Quoting get interesting when a character is thinking about something. An author cannot use the word “said” and they need to replace it with the word “thought.” For example. Bob thought, “I bet she is mad because I forgot dinner.”
Writers have an additional trick they can use. We can put thoughts into italics. Unfortunately, this blog format does not allow me to write in italics. Thus, I must improvise. Kelly walked in and stared at Bob. (Italics begin) I bet she is mad because I forgot to get dinner. (Italics end) We can also do a combination. Kelly walked in and thought, (Italics begin) I bet she is mad because I forgot to get dinner. (Italics end) I have since learned this latter method does not read well.
My upcoming book, Pushed To the Edge of Survival, I have introduced a new technique to allow telepathic characters to interact. I replaced “quotation marks” with <greater than and less than symbols.> Bob thought to Kelly, <Oops, I forgot dinner.> <You certainly did.> I think this method reads well and adds a new dimension.
This simple topic should be straight forward. Humans have been speaking and writing English for a long while. One would think this basic topic would have established rules and be universally accepted. For my part, I will do my best to write up great dialog and hopefully, readers can follow some of the dialog.
You’re the best -Bill
June 19 2019
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