What's it about?

This blog has a very specific purpose: it's a place to post prompts for creative writing during the time of the lockdown. Initially it was for the use of my writing group, as we cannot for the time being meet in person - but I want to open it up to anyone who'd like to have a go at creative writing. I very strongly believe that writing is good for you: while you're writing, you're off somewhere else - you've escaped! And that can only be a good thing during lockdown.

Do sign up to be notified by email when a new prompt is posted - usually on Thursdays - and I would love to hear how you're getting on in the comments. Have fun!

Thursday, 2 April 2020

Dialogue and speech punctuation

Before everything changed, my writing group had asked me to do a session on speech punctuation, and that's what this will mainly be.

(Please note: if you just want to get on with the writing, scroll past the information about punctuation and go straight on to the tasks. The technical stuff is there because my group asked for it: PLEASE don't get stuck on it. I absolutely wouldn't want you to think you can't write unless you know every single fiddly rule about punctuation!)

But a word about content, too. People quite often say that they find writing conversation difficult. A couple of tips here. 

People don't talk as they write. Speech is a much less considered thing - we speak quickly, because we're responding to what the other person's saying; we're thinking about what we're saying, rather than how we're saying it. And we use tricks to help us speak more quickly - so for instance, we tend to use verbal contractions a lot: we are more likely to say, for example, I don't think you should do that, rather than, I do not think you should do that. So just using verbal contractions will instantly make conversations sound more natural.

Bear in mind also that we don't write down speech exactly as it is spoken. Think of all the times we say um and er when we speak; or the times when we wave our hands about or use some other gesture to help us express ourselves. If we put too many ums and ers into dialogue, it quickly becomes tedious to read - and of course we can't use gestures and expressions when we're writing: we just have words - and punctuation.

Talking of being tedious - let's just touch on dialect. This is a bit of a minefield. I think that if you try to convey dialect exactly for very long, it can be just that - tedious. You have to find a way of suggesting it, of conveying the rhythm and flavour of a particular dialect or accent, without trying to be too precise about every word. But possibly not everyone would agree with me about that!

First, please read the notes I've made below on speech punctuation. Then put it all into practice as follows. It doesn't have to be entirely dialogue, but it would be good to use a fair bit!

  • Rewrite a section (or all, if you like,) of a fairy story. Keep the dialogue lively - try to put a different slant on the story while you're at it!
  • Or, if you want to be more current - think of a situation arising from the present crisis, and write a dialogue between two people: eg in a supermarket queue, between two nurses, between a parent and small child who doesn't understand why life isn't how it normally is. (This doesn't have to be very long: as always, see how it goes.)

Speech punctuation

I know that speech punctuation causes some problems, so I’m going to attempt to create a simple guide. Here goes!

Direct speech: this is when you are writing the exact words that someone has spoken – and this is what we’re dealing with here. For example: “Don’t open the door to strangers while we’re out,” said Grumpy to Snow White.

Indirect, or reported speech: this is when you’re reporting what’s been said: eg Grumpy told Snow White not to open the door to strangers while the dwarves were out. Do you see the difference? The reader can tell what was said, but the writer isn’t using the speaker’s original words.
          What we’re going to be looking at is direct speech – you don’t need any special punctuation for indirect speech.

Inverted commas
You use inverted commas to mark out the words that are spoken. You can use either double commas – “Hi!” – or single ones – ‘Hi!’. It doesn’t matter which, provided you are consistent.

If you need to include a quote within the piece of speech, you use the other kind. Eg: “You know what they say – ‘Better be safe than sorry’,” said Bashful shyly.

Other punctuation
A piece of speech always has something to punctuate it at the end: eg a comma, a full stop, an exclamation mark, a question mark, an ellipsis (that’s when you trail off with three dots – and it is conventionally three, not more). This piece of punctuation goes inside the inverted commas. Eg: “Of course I won’t open the door to anyone!” said Snow White, laughing. “I’m not stupid! Now off you go, and stop worrying…”

NB If the piece of speech is inside another sentence, it will not end with a full stop. So, compare:
          “I hope she’ll be all right,” said Grumpy anxiously.
          Happy smiled. “I’m sure she will. And she locked the door after us, don’t forget.”
(But if we put that the other way round, it would be: “I’m sure she will,” smiled Happy. “And she locked the door after us, don’t forget.”)

We’ve often talked about this. It’s pretty simple really, and it’s all for the sake of clarity – to make it easy for the reader to follow who’s saying what.
          So: when a different person starts to speak, you start a new line – and you indent, as you do for a new paragraph. You do this even if it’s just one word, as follows.

          Snow White was curled up in a comfortable chair, reading a book of fairy stories and eating a chocolate biscuit, when she became aware of a noise. Someone was tapping on the window! Thinking one of the dwarves had forgotten something, she jumped up.
          But it wasn’t one of the dwarves. It was an old woman. Her face was in shadow because of her hat, but she looked tired as she leaned on her stick, and Snow White instantly felt sorry for her.
          “Hello,” she said.
          “Hello my dear. Could I come in for a rest, do you think? I’ve come a long way through the forest, and I’m so very tired.”
          Snow White remembered what the dwarves had said. “No, I’m sorry. I can’t let you in.”
          “Why not?”
          “Because I promised.”
          “Oh!” The old lady sounded so disappointed – and so tired – that Snow White felt guilty.
          “Well, perhaps…”

I think that covers most of it, but if anything’s not clear or if I’ve missed anything out, just ask.


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