Writer’s Craft #2 – Quotes and Context

“A misfit is what you are,” Lywulf told her. “Like the rest of us.”
(from Healer’s Sword, ETA Sept 2011, Lynda Williams)

Is the line above punctuated correctly? It got past my editor, so I’m going with “yes”. The rule is to put a period after the tag line if the preceding quote completes a sentence, then follow with a capital for the start of the next quoted sentence.

First quote example

But just a minute. Isn’t “like the rest of us” a fragment? If it is, shouldn’t the punctuation be:

Second quote example

This sort of problem made me nutty when wrestling with quotes until I had an inspiration. Don’t we all use sentence fragments now and then, for pacing or emphasis? I might, for example, have written: ‘She was a misfit. Like the rest of them.’ and not been troubled by the fact it would be more correct to run the two sentences together. The same principle applies here.

In short, I think the solution in cases like these is to ask yourself whether the speaker makes a definite pause between halves of the quotation or runs them together smoothly. And in this case I definitely envisioned a full stop as Lywulf realized the label he was slapping on his pupil, Ilse Marin, could be equally applicable to himself and the other people he trains, creating a bit of awkward irony. To me, this proves that even as mechanical a business as punctuation can be influenced by the story you are telling, and contributes, in turn, to the story. I’m not an advocate of “anything goes” by any means, but story always trumps the rule for me.

What do you think? Please share examples from your own work, or that of published authors (don’t use unpublished work of anyone but yourself without their permission!) to support my case or argue your own variation on the theme. General comments are also welcome, naturally.

E-mail your questions or suggestions for future articles to lynda@okalrel.org with CLARION in the subject line.

13 thoughts on “Writer’s Craft #2 – Quotes and Context

  1. Dialogue seems to be an exception to grammar rules, so that it sounds natural. As noted in your sample sentence, the reader “hears” the natural pause in the speaking when the sentence is broken up.

    Interestingly, the way it’s broken up can also suggest the speaker’s state of mind. Here’s an example from my new WIP:

    “Poisoning?” Shyriel’s eyes widened. “Are you sure? How do you know?”
    “Poisoning? Are you sure? How do you know?” Shyriel’s eyes widened.

    The first is someone hearing some news she may be skeptical about. The second is someone frightened or excited, where the sentences seem almost run together.

    Story is everything. Grammar rules can and should be broken when that’s what serves the story.

  2. In fiction, you can get away with breaking all sorts of grammar rules, such as sentence fragments, as long as you do it very sparingly. Dialogue is looser in general than prose, so a sentence fragment in someone’s speech is very acceptable. Unless the person uses extremely formal diction, in which case you should probably not use a sentence fragment.

      1. I do have some characters that are extremely formal, no contractions, no sentence fragments, large words used with precise meaning, etc. I’m looking for an example but I’ve been working on so many different projects I can’t find one now that I’m looking. The dialogue choice works to convey a lot of personality. We had a big discussion about writing dialect on bestsellerbound recently. Word choice and usage can convey dialect without having to use any phonetic spellings. I’ll have to post some examples for you when I find them.

        Formal versus informal – high fantasy I’m writing, the king runs a very informal court, as shown by his conversations. But in another country, the Emperor uses very formal language when court is in session. I haven’t written scenes involving the Emperor’s court yet, but I have the feeling they are coming. It could be used to show public versus private personality.

  3. Personally I like the first example better, because it fit how I imagine Lywulf actually saying the words. The problem that I usually have (and you will find out soon enough Lynda) is that I never know whether or not to use a period or a comma at the end of the first part. Why wasn’t it
    “A misfit is what you are.”Lywulf told her. “Like the rest of us.”
    is that wrong?

    1. I can actually answer this one! For whatever reason, it’s always a comma. Even if the dialogue isn’t broken up.

      “But that doesn’t make any sense,” Krysia said.

      “I don’t write the rules,” said Mishell.

    2. Chuckle. Indeed, it’s not natural is it? But … what Mishell said. Here’s one I’d welcome a “feature” from Mishell or someone else on using their own work to illustrate — when does the period go inside quotes and when does it go outside them? I think it’s a British vs. U.S. thing but it seems to be the thing I keep getting corrected by my editor. Which should mean I do it the British way and he has to fix it to the U.S. market standard. I think. I do know it always looks WRONG to me to have “. instead of .” but I’m pretty confused about it.

  4. Aagh, Lynda, I so feel like you write just for me!! I was struggling with this just last night, and tend to struggle with it often. Here is an example (I”m including a few sentences before so you can get the gist). But again, I want to thank you- every time you step up to post something it is relevant to me.

    Jonathon felt his face flush. A firm hand was pressing into his thigh, making him aware that he was rising out of seat. Theron had dropped his hand to openly display his smug smile, which infuriated Jonathon even further. “My father doesn’t make errors!” he said with more emotion than he should have.

    Arent pushed more urgently into his thigh and hissed under his breath. Laman, however, seemed mildly curious. “Your father is a ship carpenter?”

    “Yes,” said Jonathon defiantly. “And a darn good one.”

    1. Which I’m guessing you’d experience differently in the “movie playing in your head” as you write, if you had written it …

      “Yes,” said Jonathon defiantly, “and a darn good one.”

      I agree! The way you did it is more adamant. You can imagine Jonathon clenching his jaw between the “yes” and the “and”.

  5. “Observe his body, Jess,” Ileana suggested with a smile. “Look for special signs, freckles, scars… I’m sure he comes from your mother’s Apartment, you can always look him up there!” [Comma splice]
    my version – in brackets the beta-reader comment. Another beta-reader commented on the same piece:
    “Since you asked specifically for grammar, and you do this a lot, I will explain. You have two sentences here – a statement and a question. You can’t combine them with a comma.
    “I’m going to the store, do you need anything?” is in correct. “I’m going to the store. Do you need anything?” is correct, and both read exactly the same way. In general, try not to use a comma to separate two complete sentences like this at all. If you don’t want to use a period, try a semicolon. If I’m not making any sense, let me know. ”
    I know it’s a comma splice, but does it count in dialog? I mean, I do have a clear difference between a comma and a full stop. I don’t think it was such a long pause between those two sentences to need a full stop.
    But then, I’m often guilty of comma splice, even outside of dialog… is it allowed in dialog?

  6. In — “Look for special signs, freckles, scars… I’m sure he comes from your mother’s Apartment, you can always look him up there!” — I don’t see a statement and a question, just three statements. 1) Look for signs. 2) He comes from apartment. 3) Look him up there. But it is still a comma slice. I’d say you should be able to convey the pacing and emphasis you want in dialog regardless of grammar. But maybe the comma splice isn’t the best way to get the desired effect?
    Depending on what you want, how about …

    Simple, factual
    “Look for special signs, freckles, scars. I’m sure he comes from your mother’s apartment so you can always look him up there!”

    “Look for special signs, freckles, scars … ” Ileana trailed off, and then rallied to continue in a brighter tone. “I’m sure he comes from your mother’s apartment — you can always look him up there!”

    I find I can get away with M-dashes much better than comma splices, with my own editor, for what it’s worth. But only in dialog. 🙂

  7. Lynda, I’m sorry it’s taken so long to send you another snippet, as you requested. It took awhile for me to identify something I think will do what you’re asking for. It’s a different character from the same rough WIP.

    “Oh, I’ve been here before.” Jynx smiled. “This copper sand is a perfect match for my friend Kahpur’s hair. I poured some on her head just to be sure.”
    “Oh, I’ve been here before. This copper sand is a perfect match for my friend Kahpur’s hair.” Jynx smiled. “I poured some on her head just to be sure.”

    In the first example, Jynx’s emphasis appears to be telling a story to illustrate that she has, indeed, been here before. The second is much more revealing. It shows her lost in fond memory, but it also shows that she has a close friend that she’s comfortable enough to pull such pranks on. It illustrates the closeness of that friendship. It hints that Jynx values friendships and close personal relationships. Further, it illustrates her mischievousness. This is not some prim and proper lady but someone who lives life her own way. Although the first example hints at some of this, putting the smile into the middle of her story emphasizes the character-building aspects of her statements.

    I hope this is what you were looking for.

    Marti Verlander

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