Think Outside the Quotation Marks

In last week's letter about "strong" verbs, I made a few remarks about verbs of attribution--those verbs by which a  writer identifies the speaker of a piece of dialogue. As I considered the topic over the last few days, I kept coming back to a truth that I often tell my writing students: In dialogue, the words outside the quotations marks are just as important as the words inside the quotation marks. 

I have written before about the importance of inviting your reader into a scene rather than simply conveying information. Inviting a reader into a scene means allowing him to collect information through what he sees or hears or (to a lesser extent) smells, tastes, or feels. This, after all, is how we collect information in real life. In a stretch of dialogue, the words inside the quotation marks give your reader something to listen to. The words outside the quotation marks give your reader something to look at. 

As I said last week, I keep my verbs of attribution very simple (usually said or asked). I'll go further and say that I omit as many attributions as I can. I recommend that you do too.

When writing dialogue, you have ample opportunity to use vivid, interesting verbs--verbs that invite your reader into the scene. You need those verbs; you just don't need to turn them to verbs of attribution.

Consider this bit of dialogue: 

     "You are the best IRS agent in the world," Curtis smiled.

Here "smiled" is used as a verb of attribution. (That comma at the end of a quotation magically turns the next verb into a verb of attribution. A comma before the quotation does the same thing, as in "Curtis smiled, 'You are the best IRS agent in the world.'")

I have said already that you should keep your verbs of attribution simple and that you should omit as many verbs of attribution as possible. Does that mean you should get rid of that phrase, "Curtis smiled"? By no means. Watch what happens with a small change in punctuation and word order:

     Curtis smiled. "You are the best IRS agent in the world." 

"Smiled" here isn't a verb of attribution. It's just a regular verb; it gives the reader something to look at. And it identifies who is about to speak. (If you are unsure on that point, you can write, "Curtis smiled. 'You are the best IRS agent in the world,' he said." But that "he said" probably isn't necessary.)

Once you start thinking outside the quotation marks, you start asking yourself, what else the reader would see if he were in the room with Curtis and the IRS agent. Once you've changed "Curtis smiled" from a verb of attribution to a verb of action, it becomes more obvious that "Curtis smiled" is just a tad flat. So you go back and add in some more detail:


     Curtis smiled and reached out to embrace Mr. Chickering. "You are the best IRS agent in the world."
     Mr. Chickering shrank back against the filing cabinet. "Don't mention it?" he said. There was a quiver in his voice.


Dialogue is not just an exchange of utterances between characters. Dialogue is something that characters do to one another. Dialogue is action. If that is a law, here are two corollaries to that law:

  1. A great deal of that action happens outside the quotation marks.  
  2. Don't expect your verbs of attribution to carry that action. That's what regular verbs are for.


An couple of exceptions to the rule
It's not quite true that I always keep my verbs of attribution boring. I occasionally use a verb of attribution that is more interesting than said, asked, replied, etc., but only if it helps the reader envision (or hear) the way a character is speaking. In other words, I might say that a character snorted or screeched or ululated or harrumphed or rasped, but I probably wouldn't say she apologized or explained or asserted or denied. As always, it's about inviting a reader into a scene, appealing to his senses. (And having said that, I would still make sure I had a good reason for not using "said" or "asked.")

Also, in academic writing, which is more cerebral than sensory, it is often helpful to your reader to say that a person you are quoting argues or asserts or contradicts or denies.

A few technicalities
I will close with a few dialogue-related technicalities that you might find helpful.

  • When you use a verb of attribution after a quotation, use a comma to separate the attribution from the utterance.

               Wendell said, "This book changed my life."
               "You've got to be kidding," Martha said.

  • The exception is when the utterance ends in a question mark or exclamation mark and the attribution comes after the utterance. Note, however, that you don't capitalize the attribution:

               "Is this the right address?" the mailman asked.

  • When you aren't using a verb of attribution, the utterance is its own sentence (or sentences) with its own end-punctuation. 

               "This book changed my life." Wendell stroked the cover lovingly.
               The mailman leaned out of his truck. "Is this the right address?"

  • The punctuation at the end of an utterance, whether it's a comma or end-punctuation, always goes inside the quotation marks.
  • When the speaker changes in a dialogue, insert a line break. This helps your reader keep up with who is speaking and often makes attribution less necessary.

One of these weeks I'll write about what needs to happen inside the quotation marks, but for now, pay attention to what's happening outside the quotation marks and see how your dialogue comes to life.