He said, she said… Writing dialogue.

He said, she said… Writing dialogue.

Alas, I have no new chapter of Here Lies a Soldier to post. I am moving the story back in time to the years leading up to The Great War. And if you’ve been paying attention you know how involved in the research I’ve become. Well, the trouble is that the extensive research means I’ve done little actual story writing! So in the meantime, I’ve found a post that I contributed to another blog site many months ago that I don’t think I ever posted here. I hope its helpful to the newer writers out there. Enjoy! – Meg

In this post, I decided to cover a grammar topic that I had to brush up on when I began this writing journey. The stories I write tend to be filled with conversation and there are rules to follow closely and rules you can break with impunity. That’s the interesting thing about writing dialogue; it’s the one time it’s permissible to use bad grammar!

“What?!?” you ask, outraged. “How can this be?”

Well, let me explain.

You are aware, I’m sure, that in casual conversation, many of the rules of grammar are regularly thrown out the window. For example, your characters might use regional terminology, slang and/or colloquialisms. If you’re in South Philadelphia, meeting your friends at the baseball park, one of them might say in greeting, “Yo! How you doin’?” Translation: “Hello, how are you doing?” But you’d never write it that way. In Philadelphia you don’t “go to the beach” you “go down the shore,” and there are more.

Another situation is in the the use of “who” and “whom.” Unless you are an English professor its likely that you would ask the friends headed to the beach: “who are you going with?” rather than the proper, “with whom are you going?” because really, who talks like that? (Sorry English professors.)

Those brief examples demonstrate how it’s perfectly acceptable to let your characters use bad grammar within their conversations. However, while the dialogue itself may venture outside the rules, the way you write the speech demands the use of proper punctation, especially when it involves quotation marks.  Let’s look at a few common rules to follow:

1. Periods, commas, question marks and exclamation points all go inside the quotation marks. The sentence doesn’t end with the speech if you add “he said, she said, they said,” or something like that to describe who is speaking. Here’s what I mean:

“Joni, you look beautiful tonight,” he said. OR “Joni, you look beautiful tonight.”

-In the first sentence, ‘he’ is not capitalized and a comma was used at the end of his speech instead of a period. That’s because the sentence didn’t end until after ‘said.’ In the second sentence, the writer assumes the reader knows who is talking so they don’t use ‘he said.’ In that case the speech ends with a period.

-Now this might seem weird, but if the speech ends with either an exclamation point or a question mark, and you use ‘he/she/they said’ or ‘he/she/they asked,’ it still doesn’t end the sentence and he or she should not be capitalized. Like this:

“Joni, is that you?” he asked.
“Of course, it’s me!” she said.

2. When a speaker says multiple sentences, quotation marks go at the end of the speech, not each sentence. If you break up a speech with another sentence, not spoken, then begin the second part of the speech with new quotes. Here’s an example:

“Graham, I don’t want to fight anymore. Can’t we just discuss this like civilized people?” Joni asked.

“Graham, I don’t want to fight anymore.” Joni sighed and rubbed her eyes. “Can’t we just discuss this like civilized people?”

3. Every time you change speakers, indent and start a new paragraph, even if the speech is only one word. This allows the reader to follow who is speaking to whom. Here’s how that would read:

“Joni, are you listening to me?”
“Yes.”
“Well, say something, will you?”
“I think you’re wrong, Graham.”

-Notice how even without ‘he said’ or ‘she said’ you still know who is speaking. Quick, back-and-forth dialogue can be bogged down with too many descriptors. You don’t always need them as long as you start new paragraphs whenever you change speakers.

There are more rules about the use of quotation marks, ones that have less to do with speech and more to do with offsetting titles of books and such. I decided to exclude those here, although that might be material for another post.

I hope this was helpful and I wish you all a wonderful weekend!

Subterranean

Subterranean

The sky opens, bestowing on the parched earth, rain
Face toward heaven, stretch arms wide and spin
Quenching such a desperate thirst for happiness
But the splashing soon turns to stirring up dust
When the water evaporates
Beneath the heat of your disdain
The dragnet drags through the ash
And frisson dissolves
In a whirlpool of despair
Those highs are so heavenly
But the lows are positively subterranean
Go ahead give me a little shove
I’m already on the precipice
I did the math:
Seven seconds of absolute euphoria
Then nothing
There’s no Wonderland
At the bottom of the hole

The Dread Zeppelin

The Dread Zeppelin

World War One saw both the introduction of, or the unprecedented use of a host of new deadly weapons. The submarine, for example, had been first used during the American Civil War. However, the First World War would see it become the great predator of the sea. Chemical weapons like chlorine and phosgene gas were deployed on a mass scale. The armored tank replaced the horse in the armies’ cavalries. And air warfare became a threat for the first time in history, bringing death and destruction to the doorsteps of the civilian population. No one was exempt from the ‘total war.’

German zeppelins were capable of traveling at speeds of 85 miles per hour and carrying up to 2 tons of payload. From the early days of the war, these new weapons of mass destruction were deployed in bombing raids on Liege, Antwerp and Paris. In January of 1915, the massive hydrogen filled war machines brought their deadly cargo to the shores of Great Britain, striking the coastal towns of Great Yarmouth and King’s Lynn.

German Zeppelin corps commander, Peter Strasser was quoted as saying, “Nowadays, there is no such thing as a noncombatant. Modern warfare is total warfare.” The German aim in targeting civilian populations was to frighten the British into leaving the war. They upped their game in May, 1915.

As if it were straight out of an H.G. Wells’ science fiction novel, a massive airship darkened the starlit night over London on May 31, 1915. The 650-foot-long zeppelin, the largest ever constructed to date, glided toward the British capital, using the light reflecting off the Thames River as its guide. From the trap doors beneath the gondola of the craft, German troops dropped 90 incendiary bombs and 30 grenades onto the homes of the sleeping citizens below. The break of dawn brought with it the reports of seven deaths and the injury of thirty-five. But more than that, fear gripped the city.

Early on, the zeppelin was nearly unstoppable. It flew higher than artillery could fire, even higher than the airplanes of the day could fly. The planes couldn’t even get close enough to use their machine guns to bring them down. And not wanting to panic the citizenry with robust air raid warnings, the civil authorities’ only action in the face of imminent attack, was to send policemen with whistles out into the streets on bicycles with the cry of “take cover.”

The worst air attack came on September 8, 1915 when a zeppelin targeted London’s financial center. The three ton bomb –the largest deployed so far– caused heavy damage and killed 22 people, including 6 children. Public outcry was enormous, the zeppelins were now referred to as “baby killers” and the people demanded that their government do more to protect them from the menace in the air.

In response to the uproar, anti-aircraft defenses were recalled from the front lines in France, massive searchlights were installed, blackouts were instituted and the water from the lake in St. James’ park was drained so as not to direct the airships to the gates of Buckingham Palace. Additionally, British scientists were put to work developing ways to target the zeppelins’ vulnerable areas, namely the highly flammable hydrogen cells that made the ships lighter than air.

By mid-1916, the game had finally changed. British planes were able to reach higher altitudes and explosive bullets were employed to rip through the outer fabric of the death ships to ignite the hydrogen cells within. And though the Germans tried to press on with their air raids, sailing the zeppelins at higher altitudes, the crews began to suffer from the frigid temperatures and oxygen deprivation.

When the airships were brought down they were brought down in spectacular fashion. For example on September 2, 1916, the largest fleet of zeppelins ever to target London droned toward the city. One of the silver ships was caught in the searchlights and Royal Flying Corps pilot William Leefe Robinson was sent to deal with it. Robinson took his plane over 11,000 feet and drew close enough to fire his guns with the explosive bullets, ripping open the skin and igniting the hydrogen within. The massive fireball plummeted from the sky and could be seen from over 100 miles away.

With Britain’s now superior technology, the dread zeppelin was no longer the threat it once was. By the end of the war, German airships had staged more than 50 attacks on Britain, but at a heavy price with 77 of their 115 craft either shot down or disabled. And although raids on London killed nearly 700 and seriously injured almost 2,000, Germany’s goal of breaking the will of the British people was not achieved.

Coincidence? I think not!

Coincidence? I think not!

“But while I advise you to embellish, I forbid you to depart from what is plausible. The reader has every right to feel aggrieved when he realizes that too much is being asked of him. He feels that the author is trying to deceive him, his pride suffers and he simply stops believing the moment he suspects he is being misled.” An Essay On Novels – The Marquis de Sade

Isn’t that great advice? Whether you write by the seat of your pants (pantser) or you meticulously plot out your story (plotter), you eventually will come to a point where you write yourself into a corner or your plot hits a wall. You have a couple options: scrap it and start over from the point you got yourself into that mess, or write yourself out of it. If you choose the latter, the challenge is writing a solution without taking the shortcut of using coincidences to bail yourself out. I read this advice from Emma Coates –one of Pixar’s story artists– years ago, and I never forgot it: “coincidences to get your characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it is cheating.” Not only that, like the Marquis said, it asks too much of the reader. image

Nevertheless, good storytelling depends on the element of surprise. No one wants to have the ending figured out in chapter three. The writer’s approach may be to:  1) slowly reveal clues that gradually build to a logical conclusion, or 2) misdirect us with spurious information, or 3) obfuscate the story so that at the climax, the truth is dropped like a bomb on the reader. The trick is to reveal the truth -as shocking as it may be- in a way that the reader think to himself, “of course!” because finally it all makes sense. The worst thing in the world is to leave the reader scratching his head at the end, wondering how the hell he got from there to here in 100,000 words, and regretting buying it on Amazon.

Header image via the poisoned pencil, David Tenant image via Pinterest.