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Spellcheck Cannot Save You! Dialogue Tags, Beats & Single Quotes

Welcome back! Last time, I talked about the basics of dialogue: when and how to use quotation marks, and how to show indirect dialogue and internal dialogue (what Benjamin Dreyer of Random House calls “articulated rumination,” a term I have adopted myself). Now it’s time to look at how to use single quotation marks, dialogue… [Read More]

Dialogue tags, beats and single quotes by Karen Conlin for BookWorks.com

Welcome back! Last time, I talked about the basics of dialogue: when and how to use quotation marks, and how to show indirect dialogue and internal dialogue (what Benjamin Dreyer of Random House calls “articulated rumination,” a term I have adopted myself). Now it’s time to look at how to use single quotation marks, dialogue tags and beats. What’s that? Read on.

“I was sitting there minding my own business when Mom came in and said, ‘Why haven’t you done the dishes?’ I mean, I had just sat down after dinner! Can’t I have a little downtime?”

See those single quotes around “Why haven’t you done the dishes?” Those indicate that the speaker, whose actual words are enclosed in double quotation marks, is directly quoting another person. That person’s words (Mom’s, in this case) go inside single quotation marks.Dialogue tags, beats and single quotes by Karen Conlin for BookWorks.com

Now, time was we were taught that in British English mechanics they do the opposite. Like this:

‘I was sitting there minding my own business when Mum came in and said, “Why haven’t you done the washing up?” I mean, I had just sat down after dinner! Can’t I have a little downtime?’

(“Mum” and “washing up” are British English for “Mom” and “the dishes” as in “washed the dishes.” Flavor is nice, don’t you think?)

However, and this is a big however: this is not always the case. There’s been a shift in British publishing toward American-style mechanics where dialogue is concerned. Every one of my English clients used American-style quotation marks (double for the main speaker, single for the nested quoted material). When I asked about it, they essentially shrugged. The way I decided to handle it is to let the client take the lead. If they’re using British conventions, I leave them. If they’re using American conventions, I leave them. Since my clients are all self-publishers anyway, it’s their call. I went so far as to ask Jeremy Butterfield, editor of Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage (4th ed.), what I should do. His answer was pretty much what I said back there. “Just leave it. It’s all changing anyway.”

Dialogue tags, beats and single quotes by Karen Conlin for BookWorks.com(That’s one reason I love Twitter. We connected there, and it’s a delight to be able to ask an authority on such matters rather than shotgun the question to the general public. But I digress.)

It might be worth noting that, in general, in British publishing, the American mechanics tend to be used in fiction, and the British style in nonfiction (especially academic work). I work with fiction.

I’ll also note that even with nested dialogue, the terminal mechanics function the same as with normal dialogue. Terminal punctuation goes inside the quotes in American English, as do commas.

What happens if you have to end the sentence with both a single and a double quote? My first instinct is the tried-and-true “recast the sentence so you don’t have to do that.” However, that’s not always possible. In such a situation, it’s nice to leave a note for the formatter (whoever that might be) to add a thin space (not a full letter space) between the closing single quote and the closing double quote, to aid readability.

“What did he mean when he called me ‘a right wanker?’”

It’s not impossible to read, but a thin space between those final closing quotes would make it better.

That about does it for quotation marks. As always, feel free to ask questions in the comments. I’ll do my best to answer.

Now, let’s talk tags and beats. They have similar functions, but they’re not the same thing. A beat can’t be used as a tag, although writers try. Here, have a look.

The Beat Goes On

“Open the door!” she coughed.

Now you try coughing and talking at the same time.  It doesn’t work. “She coughed” isn’t a tag; it’s a beat, an action she takes after speaking. The best you can do to talk and cough at the same time gets you broken speech, not a cohesive statement. (I’ll talk about interrupted speech in the next installment of this series. Please be patient.)Dialogue tags, beats and single quotes by Karen Conlin for BookWorks.com

The easiest fix for the problem above is to capitalize “She.”

“Open the door!” She coughed.

It’s a little dry, though, so I’d probably suggest spicing it up a bit.

“Open the door!” She coughed, her lungs filling with smoke. (We’ll assume there’s a fire, and not that she just lit a cigarette.) Now it’s a beat and there’s more information for the reader on top of it. We’ll come back to beats in a little bit. First I’d like to explain dialogue tags and how to use them effectively.

Tag, You're It!

Dialogue tags are words like “said,” “asked,” “shouted,” “whispered,” and so on. They’re ways of speaking, not actions per se. (Speaking is an action in and of itself, yes, but there are different ways of doing it. Those words that describe ways of speaking are tags.) Some editors will rail against any tag other than “said.” I’m not one of them. Yes, the words the character speaks should be chosen so the reader can tell how they’re being said. Sometimes that can be supported with additional mechanics (we’re heading into interrupted speech again, here; I promise I’ll cover it next time). Words like “grated,” “growled,” and “hissed” are perfectly good dialogue tags.Dialogue tags, beats and single quotes by Karen Conlin for BookWorks.com

I am one of those editors who maintain that one cannot “hiss” a word unless there’s a sibilant in it. An ESS sound, or perhaps an SHHH sound. “Hiss” is onomatopoeic, in that it mimics the sound it describes. “Get out!” cannot be hissed. There are no sibilants in either word. That’s my stance and I shall not be moved from it. One can, however, say “Get out!” in a harsh whisper (just one example). That’s not a hiss, though. We can whisper all kinds of things.

Dialogue tags are best used to help the reader follow who’s speaking at any given time. If there are only two characters in a scene, it’s unlikely you’ll need a tag after each line. One of the most common edits I make in every project (bar none) is removing extraneous dialogue tags. If I get lost, I know the readers will, too. If I don’t, I can assume the readers will also be able to follow along. I suggest to clients to read like a reader, not like a writer; can they keep track of who’s speaking when? The point where they can’t is where they need to put a tag or a beat, to bring the reader in line. The more characters speaking in a scene, the more tags or beats you’ll need.

Beats Are Actions

So, back to beats. They’re actions, as I said before. Coughing. Choking. Turning. Laughing. Sitting. Picking up a glass. Actions that show what the character’s doing while they’re talking.

“Wait! Don’t leave me in here alone!” James pounded on the door as he heard the key turn in the lock.

From that, we know that James is speaking, and he’s pounding on the door. Both tags and beats can come before or after the quoted dialogue.

Let’s see what it looks like when we combine dialogue tags and beats.Dialogue tags, beats and single quotes by Karen Conlin for BookWorks.com

“W-what are you doing with that blade?” Emma’s eyes grew large as she shrank into the corner.

Newton laughed, a dark, evil sound. “Nothing just yet. Why? Does it bother you?” He set the point against the tip of his index finger and twirled it slowly.

“I’d be lying if I said no,” she whispered.Dialogue tags, beats and single quotes by Karen Conlin for BookWorks.com

He laughed again and smiled. His voice was softer as he said, “And I would know you were lying. Better to tell the truth, especially in this situation.”

All right. We have dialogue and a beat in the first line; a beat, dialogue, and another beat in the second line; a tag in the third line (only because it’s important to know she’s whispering); and a beat followed by a pre-dialogue tag in the fourth line.

Dialogue Tags are Who and Sometimes How

Dialogue tags, beats and single quotes by Karen Conlin for BookWorks.comThat’s really it. Tags tell us who’s speaking and sometimes how they’re speaking. Beats tell us what they’re doing before, while, or after they speak. It’s not necessary to overexplain to the reader when the beat is happening. In the example above, it’s possible Newton puts the blade to his finger while he’s talking. He might do it afterward. I might move the later beat to just before the quoted dialogue, if I were editing that text. I’m writing these as examples of how to effectively use tags and beats. They’re not perfectly edited, because, face it, your writing won’t be, either, as you’re working. That’s why I’m telling you what I might do if I were editing the text; I’m writing, here, not editing. Just like you.

This gets you into the right ballpark, which is the whole point.

Next up: interrupted dialogue (using ellipses and em dashes effectively and correctly)


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