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GRAMMAR DIALOGUE

on July 26, 2012

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How to Write Dialogue

Suppose I’m writing a scene in which Aardvark gives Squiggly a present. I write:

“You shouldn’t have!” said Squiggly, and grabbed the box of chocolates.

Or wait—instead of that, maybe I should write

“You shouldn’t have!” said Squiggly, and HE grabbed the box of chocolates,

putting in the pronoun “he” to refer to Squiggly.

In fact, both sentences are fine, but if you’ve started to pay attention to parallel structure in your writing, you might be second-guessing yourself about what to do in cases like these.

Recap: What Is Parallel Structure?

I talked about parallel structure in the episode on how to write a better resume. Here’s a quick review. A sentence like this is sloppy:

Fenster crawled slowly, steadily, and won the race.

It’s sloppy because it has the conjunction “and” linking an adverb (“slowly”), another adverb (“steadily”), and a verb phrase (“won the race”). Though the sentence is understandable, readers can find it disconcerting. They’re expecting another adverb in the series and then have to suddenly shift gears to process a verb phrase instead. To fix it, all you need to do is put in another “and”:

Fenster crawled slowly and steadily, AND won the race.

Now the first “and” is linking the adverbs “slowly” and “steadily.” The second “and” is linking two verb phrases. The first verb phrase is “crawled slowly and steadily”; the second verb phrase is “won the race.” Making this sentence parallel is a reader-friendly thing to do.

Style and Parallel Structure

That’s enough of parallel structure, for now. Next we need to talk about writing style. When you’re having your characters speak or have thoughts, often you’ll want to take what a character is saying or thinking and put it at the front of the sentence, before the attributive–the he-said or she-said part. So instead of writing

Squiggly said, “You shouldn’t have!”,

you might write,

“You shouldn’t have!” Squiggly said,

or

“You shouldn’t have!” said Squiggly.

I’ll call this “quotation fronting.” It’s a useful stylistic option.

However, parallel structure and quotation fronting are on a collision course. For example, they collide in the sentence about Squiggly and the box of chocolates:

“You shouldn’t have!” said Squiggly, and grabbed the box of chocolates.

What is the “and” is connecting? Before it, we have an entire clause: “‘You shouldn’t have!’ said Squiggly.” But after the “and,” all we have is a verb phrase: “grabbed the box of chocolates.” Oh, no! It’s not parallel!

Here’s the basic problem. On the one hand, we want to join two predicates: the one about saying, “You shouldn’t have!” and the one about grabbing the box of chocolates. On the other hand, with the quotation fronting, we’re rearranging the pieces of the speaking predicate. In doing that, we sacrifice parallel structure, and it’s OK! It’s part of English’s heritage as a Germanic language that it can do these unusual coordinations with things moving to the front and the subject and verb flip-flopping.

Of course, there is a way to phrase sentences like our Squiggly example so that they’re parallel. What you do is repeat the subject, as in:

“You shouldn’t have!” said Squiggly, and HE grabbed the box of chocolates.

Now the “and” is joining two independent clauses. Clause #1: “‘You shouldn’t have!’ said Squiggly.” Clause #2: “He grabbed the box of chocolates.”

At this point, you may be thinking, “Great! I’ll play it safe and always repeat the subject.” That’s not a good idea. To see why, let’s take an example without quotation fronting. Suppose we write

Squiggly squealed with glee and grabbed the box of chocolates.

The “and” is joining two verb phrases: “squealed with glee” and “grabbed the box of chocolates.” This option is good if you want the squealing and the grabbing viewed as parts of a single event. Alternatively, we could restate the subject for the second verb phrase, so that the “and” joins two entire clauses, like this:

Squiggly squealed with glee, and he grabbed the box of chocolates.

This option is better if you want the squealing and the grabbing viewed as separate events. It’s the difference between, “I came, saw, and conquered” and “I came, I saw, and I conquered.”

But wouldn’t it be weird if you read a story whose author always chose to repeat the subject in situations like this? The same is true when it comes to repeating the subject in sentences that use quotation fronting.

So here’s the quick and dirty tip for sentences in which a character says or thinks something, and immediately afterward does something. First, write the part about what the character says or thinks, using or not using quotation fronting as you please. Then, if you want the actions of saying and doing to be more like a single event, don’t repeat the subject: Squiggly squealed with glee and grabbed the box of chocolates. If you want the actions of saying and doing to be more like separate events, then go ahead and repeat the subject for the verb of doing: Squiggly squealed with glee, and he grabbed the box of chocolates.

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