Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Writing Wednesday: Black Aggie and Grammar Mistakes

One thing that I’ve noticed recently while having my writing critiqued by many people is several of them don’t understand how paragraphs work in dialog. The grammatical rule is the end quote is placed where the speaker stops speaking. So if the same speaker talks over multiple paragraphs the end quote isn’t placed until they are finished.

I pity the people that don’t understand this if they try and read some of Harry Harrison’s books. In A STAINLESS STEEL RAT IS BORN, Jim and the Bishop sometimes talked for over ten pages and the only way to know that the speaker changed was by paying attention to the end quotes. A Jim said or the Bishop said would have been really nice somewhere in there.

If it were just one or two people who had a problem with this it wouldn’t matter but I’m seeing it a lot. Being right doesn’t help if the reader can’t understand it, so it is becoming important to avoid having characters talk over multiple paragraphs.

There are three ways to do this. First ignore paragraphs in dialog, which can work when you have two short paragraphs, but if it is longer it gets confusing.

Second, throw a he said, she said into each paragraph. I personally find that annoying.

Finally, have more interaction in the dialog, which is harder for the author and a little unnatural but much more rewarding for the reader. Here’s a sample from THE PIZZA DIARIES where I had the Main Character, Brian, telling the curse of Black Aggie with one of my little twists. Having Amanda interact with him during his explanation takes care of the multiple paragraph problem and I think it makes the story he’s telling more interesting.


They walked into the park and saw a small group of teenage girls gathered around a statue that was under a tree, giggling nervously.

“What are they doing?” Amanda asked.

“Legend has it that around the turn of the century a nurse named Aggie worked in the children’s ward of the local hospital.” Brian told her, “For a while all the children under her care died of asphyxiation. Rumors started that she was smothering the children and one night a group of parents got together and formed a lynch mob and hanged her under that tree.”

“You’d think that would be better handled by a medical review board.” Amanda said.

“It was the early nineteen hundreds, they were a little more impatient at that time. She didn’t really help by claiming her innocence and at the same time threatening to place a curse on who ever walked passed that spot. It was an interesting defense to say the least.” Brian continued, “Later that week it was found that the town was in the mist of one of the worst whooping chough outbreaks in history and it was the doctor’s fault for not recognizing the fact.”

“So the townspeople hanged an innocent woman?” Amanda asked.

“They sure did,” Brian told her, “To make up for it the town put up that statue as a kind of postmortem apology to Aggie.”

“Okay, but what are the girls doing over there?” Amanda asked.

“Aggie’s curse is that any woman who walked under the spot where she was hanged will suffer a miscarriage.” Brian explained, “At the turn of the century it was a bad curse, today not so much. It has become a sort of tradition that any time a condom breaks, or if a girl has unprotected sex, they make a quick stop by here as a sort of morning after curse. It causes a parking problem the night after Prom.”

“I can see that. It would have saved me a lot worry if I had known about this place after my graduation party for my Masters.” Amanda said and then spotted what she was looking for, “That way.”


What tricks do you use to avoid having dialog going over multiple paragraphs?

By Darrell B. Nelson author of Invasive Thoughts

1 comment:

Stephanie Barr said...


In real life people, other than politicians, rarely talk in paragraphs. And, when they do, it's just as boring as it is in a book with page after page of one person's talking.

I do know (and use) the grammar rule you cited and have had occasion to use it, but, in four books, I can count the number of times I needed it on one hand. If I have someone talking too long, I make sure I add some comment by someone else or some action, otherwise I'll be as bored as the reader.

BTW, my son had whooping cough last year (and, yes, he was vaccinated). No way you could miss it, not if we're talking several children. Maybe you'd be better off with something like polio which can cause the nerves to stop working muscles. If you didn't know better, you might think someone was suffocated when they really just couldn't breathe.