a little bit of grammar rant, a little bit of irony in dialogue

Is it a “thing” now to treat dialogue tags as interchangeable with characters’ actions (punctuating them the same way, etc.), and if so, when did this happen?  Why did it happen?  Whom do I need to thwap upside the head with a metaphorical cyber-fish to make it stop?


Something like this:  “Hi,” he walked into the room, grinning like a fool, “You look like you’re about ready to quit,” he looked around at the rest of the people gathered with me, “this is against the rules, bringing friends to help, you know that, why are you trying to cheat?”

I’ve been reading a sci-fi novel that’s interesting in terms of plot and characters and setting, and the writing is reasonably good for the most part, but this one problem has become more and more frequent as I read further (as if the early chapters were edited more diligently than the later ones), and it is getting on my last nerve.  If the writing wasn’t generally done well, I’d chalk it up to the author being unskilled in the grammar-and-punctuation department, but when this particular type of wonky punctuation happens again and again and again, and it’s the only frequently recurring glitch in the writing, I have to assume it was done by choice… And I want it to stop.

It’s like hearing someone speak when all their pronunciations and inflections are off; the words mean something, but it’s more work than it ought to be to figure out what that meaning is.

Admit it:  you’d worry if I didn’t go on at least a small rant about editing-related issues from time to time.  🙂  It has been two full weeks since the previous one, so I figured there was another due.

Just because I feel like sharing it, here’s another fragment of dialogue from a story I’ve been trying to write lately.  If there are any plot spoilers, they are small enough not to matter.  Besides, “that novel” won’t be published at least until after The Madness Engine, and possibly not until after Project Brimstone, too; the concept of both “up” and “sideways” being metaphorical directions characters may travel won’t be a surprise to our readers by then.

“Hardly,” he said, and sighed. “I’m better off being a nobody, though.  Not worth bothering with, just the sidekick, no need to kill or interrogate me, I know nothing.  Well, okay, I know where Jon lives –“

“You’ve been there. You don’t know how to get there.  Big difference.”

“Someone could pry that information out of my cold, dead brain…”

“You read too much science fiction.”

“Says the man who just spent half a year on another planet — in another universe.”

The first speaker in this snippet, he should enjoy being a nobody while he can.  (Dramatic irony is fun — for authors and readers, anyway.  I’m sure characters hate it.)  This part of the story is an interlude between one narrowly averted apocalypse and another, and he’s going to be right in the middle of things in the aftermath of the next one.

I’ve noticed that when writing first drafts/notes, I tend to focus on either dialogue or narration rather than mixing the two.  The earlier part of this scene was almost all narration; after a few (long) paragraphs, I switched to dialogue with minimal tags/actions and no description at all.  (This is because I, non-linear-thinking person that I am, just write what I have, when I have it, and sometimes all I hear is the characters talking, while at other times I see the locations and the actions of the characters more.)

Questions for fellow writers:  Do you do this, too?  Or do you try to include a mix of both dialogue and narration even in first drafts?

About Thomas Weaver

For several years, I’ve been putting my uncanny knack for grammar and punctuation, along with an eclectic mental collection of facts, to good use as a Wielder of the Red Pen of Doom (editor). I'm physically disabled, and I currently live with my smugly good-looking twin Paul, who writes military science fiction and refuses to talk about his military service because he can’t. Sometimes Paul and I collaborate on stories, and sometimes I just edit whatever he writes. It's worked out rather well so far. My list of non-writing-related jobs from the past includes librarian, art model, high school teacher, science lab gofer… Although I have no spouse or offspring to tell you about, I do have eight cats. I currently spend my time blogging, reading, editing, and fending off cats who like my desk better than my twin’s.
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6 Responses to a little bit of grammar rant, a little bit of irony in dialogue

  1. svrtnsse says:

    I’m a little bit concerned now – after reading that first paragraph about dialogues and tags – and want to check I’m understanding things right. Is it that the words the character says are followed by a comma, which is followed by a beat, which ends by a comma and which is followed by some more words the character says – or is there something else?

    I’m wondering as I’m using a lot of beats to put in actions, emotions and internal monologue in my dialogues. If you don’t mind, checking, is the following correctly punctuated or am I doing it wrong:

    “So…” Enar swallowed. He hoped this wouldn’t be too personal. “If you don’t mind me asking – what’s with the hair?” There. That wasn’t offensive, right?
    “What about my hair?” Amanda took off the cap and shook her hair around; a short, red, mess.
    “Well… At the risk of sounding a bit old-fashioned, you look… I couldn’t picture…”
    “You mean I look like a reject from a failed punk band and not a business manager.”
    “Err… yes, sorry. I don’t mean to, but…” Cheeks burning he grasped for the right words. “Well, yes, you do.”
    “Good. That’s the point.”Amanda smiled and crossed her arms, very pointedly.

    Liked by 1 person

    • We use different terms for the same thing, but what I usually refer to as associated action is what you call beats. (Both terms are correct.) Tags are just the “he/she said” parts attached to actual dialogue; they indicate who is speaking, but don’t describe any action taken in association with the dialogue.

      Your use of beats is perfect in your sample.

      (Two minor suggestions: I’d use a colon instead of a semicolon before “a short, red mess” and leave out the comma after “red”. I’d also add a comma after “Cheeks burning”.)

      I like your repeat of “That’s the point” and “pointedly” in the last paragraph — good emphasis.

      In my (made-up, not from the novel I’m reading) example, it should have been this: “Hi.” He walked into the room, grinning like a fool. “You look like you’re about ready to quit.” He looked around at the rest of the people gathered with me. “This is against the rules, bringing friends to help, you know that. Why are you trying to cheat?” — All I did to correct it was change the commas to periods so the beats don’t look like tags.

      Liked by 1 person

      • svrtnsse says:

        Thanks for the clarification. That settled my worries for the time being. 🙂

        I noticed the missing comma after “Cheeks burning” when I read through the post after posting it. I’ll fix it once it becomes time to edit the thing.

        I’m going to have to brush up on my usage of colons and semicolons though, but that too will have to wait a bit. I’ll try and get the first draft done first.

        …and I completely missed the point-pointedly repetition when…

        Liked by 1 person

  2. nancyrae4 says:

    Love your grammar rants:)
    In first draft I use both dialogue and narration. I find it keeps the pace steady and limits my temptation to venture into infodump/backstory land. Once in revision I feel more comfortable adding description and sub-plot details.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. svrtnsse says:

    Oh, right, forgot that question.
    I’m doing a lot of outlining. Once it’s time to start on a scene I first write down the events that take place, in the order they occur. If there’s only very little conversation I’ll leave it at that and just start on the scene, adding in the conversation as I go.
    If there’s a lot of conversation I first write out dialogue itself, without any beats or tags, but perhaps with notes about emotions/actions. Then once I have that done I fill in the tags and beats and other things between the lines.
    If the conversation is going to be very long I will make a list of topics discussed and a few comments about how I imagine the conversation will flow. This I do before writing the words of it.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Pingback: mid-what?? | North of Andover

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