Time and again I see authors who are still navigating their understanding of sentence structure make the two following errors when it comes to breaking up their dialogue:
1. They shove a he/she said in the middle of sentence to create both a pause and to give early attribution for clarity.
e.g. “We’ll go tomorrow,” Sammy said, “then we’ll get everything straightened out.”
“We’ll go tomorrow,” Sammy said. “Then we’ll get everything straightened out.”
Technically speaking, the first example with the comma after “said” is the right way to punctuate a true break like this.
Now, it’s okay to interject a dialogue tag like this sometimes when you’re writing, but don’t get in the habit of it. It becomes one of those “crutch” devices like using the word “was” a lot or any other favourite word.
More often than not, publishers don’t prefer this use of the dialogue tag. If it happens once a chapter, no big deal (less is better). But if you’ve integrated this kind of tagging into your “personal writing style” then it becomes a red flag indicator that you’re a newbie and might fight them on this simple issue – a headache most publishers will try to avoid.
Remember, if it isn’t clear who is speaking then you might need to tweak your dialogue chain rather than add in a bunch of tag splices.
2. They incorrectly punctuate an inserted piece of action into the middle of a sentence.
e.g. “Come on, Christy,” Jay spun her around, “we need to get out of here!”
“Come on, Christy!” Jay spun her around. “We need to get out of here.”
In actuality, when you break up dialogue to insert a segment of action, you need to give it different punctuation than you would a dialogue tag. It should look like this:
“Come on, Christy”–Jay spun her around–“we need to get out of here!”
Notice the dashes. They are , used without any spacing to either side. These indicate to the reader that the action is happening simultaneously to the dialogue. Also note, there is no punctuation before the end quote or start quote on either side of the em-dashes. Tricky little things to remember, but important.
A good editor will catch these moments for you, but if you want to understand why these changes are happening in your work and not get into an argument over stylistic intent, then it’s good to know this ahead of time. Alternately, if you’re at the stage where you want to catch more of this sentence structure stuff on your own, these two “breaks” are the ones most often abused and should be watched for 😉
The last think you want is for an agent or publisher to say no on a technicality – break up with your old habits and start fresh! You want your story to speak volumes, not your formatting.
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