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Up From Down Under March 2009

Take a Break – Part 3



In the first part of “Take a Break” we discussed the use of em dashes and ellipses. The versatile em dash will return for a cameo appearance in this part.


In the second part we considered audible utterances (gasps, laughs, etc) and non-vocals (such as facial expressions and gestures). More on these later, too.


You did read 1 and 2, I hope. If not, find them before continuing. I believe in approaching the topic in an ordered fashion. Part 1 and Part 2 should be read before Part 3. See the logic of it?


Authors frequently interject narrative within dialogue. Let’s make it clear: I mean narrative that breaks into a single sentence of dialogue. That means no full-stop (period) until the end of the complete sentence consisting of dialogue and interposed narrative.


The most common occurrence of narrative breaking into dialogue is the attributive phrase (speech tag), which is positioned within dialogue to identify the speaker.


For example:


“John,” Wendy said, “please go to the barn and feed the horses.”


“If I have to go,” he replied, “my dog’s coming with me.”


Notice that in both examples the speech tags could be deleted without losing the sense of the sentences. Also, the tags could have been placed at the end, rather than interposed. However, they are correct and the practice of interjecting a speech tag adds variety to passages where tags seem necessary in the context of a story.


An audible utterance may accompany an interjected speech tag, or be shown by using a descriptive verb.


For example:


“Take off that silly hat,” John said with a chuckle, “and put on a warmer sweater.”


“I won’t go with him,” she sobbed, “unless he apologises.”


In the first example the “chuckle” accompanied John’s words, and the second example indicates the woman was weeping as she spoke.


Sometimes a non-vocalised action is appended to the speech tag.


For example:


“I hate you,” Joanne said, tears streaming down her cheeks, “and I never want to see you again.”


“Would you please explain,” his father said, pointing at the smashed window, “how that came to happen.”


When the writer adds the mention of “tears” or a gesture (pointing) it ‘shows’ some action that accompanied the dialogue.  The ‘showing’ also helps to indicate the ‘tone’ or emotion present in the statement.


The above examples divided off the dialogue from the narrative by the use of commas. That was facilitated by the insertion of an attributive phrase, which enabled the dialogue to continue flowing as one sentence.


Is it always necessary to use commas and a speech tag to enable an interjection of narrative into dialogue?


The simple answer is: No.


I’m sure you’ve been waiting patiently for the cameo appearance of the em dash. Here it is—without any speech tag or commas for support, the em dash will break into a conversation:


“Take this”—he handed her a small stoppered vial—“and pour the contents into his morning coffee.”


Consider another example, quoted from page 727 of The Runes of the Earth by Stephen Donaldson:


“‘We are all ashamed, you no more than I’—he glanced at Linden—‘and neither of us more than the Chosen, who should not have been subjected to the disapproval of the masters.’”


Can the em dash really behave like that? It sure can. The use of paired em dashes indicates the action (hand movement or glance) was contemporaneous with that point in the dialogue, and didn’t interrupt the flow of speech. As long as we know the identity of the speaker we can safely avoid the clutter of a speech tag.



Until next month when I intend to take another look at the dotty old ellipsis.



Les Stephenson

Up From Down Under  - March 2009