Monday, February 3, 2014

Do your characters speak for themselves? They can, with DIRECT quotations.

image“Aargh!” the writer screamed in frustration, flinging her hands in the air and spilling her Coke.  “How come this dialogue isn’t quite right?” 

Lots of writing & grammar sites tell you the difference between direct and indirect quotations.  But those sites aren’t bossy enough:  they don’t tell you which kind to use. 

I will, and here it is:

Use direct quotations.

Indirect quotations are the boring kind.

Which of the following puts you to sleep quicker?  This direct quotation (it’s direct because the quotes are inside quote-marks):

“Hilda,” said Mary quietly, fidgeting with her skirt.  “Can I come to your house next week?”

or this indirect quotation (it’s indirect because it has no quote-marks):

Mary fidgeted with her skirt as she asked Hilda quietly if she could come to her house the next week.

Yuck.  I know which one I like.  How about you?

What do I have against indirect quotations?

Here’s why indirect quotations are (usually) deathly dull:

  • Visually, it’s a block of text with no breaks.
  • Grammatically, it’s complicated:  “if she could come to her house the next week.”  I almost wrote, “the following week,” which would be even worse.
  • The action gets swallowed up (in the second one, you barely notice that she’s fidgeting, and speaking quietly).

Here’s why direct quotations are (quite often) more lively:

  • Quotation marks are fun!  They pull your eye along – “wheeeeh!”
  • Grammatically simple:  you write them like you say it. (by “you” I mean “your character,” of course!)
  • The action literally stands out – OUTSIDE the quotation marks.

I’m not saying never ever ever use indirect quotations.  But it shouldn’t be a 50/50 split.  If a conversation in your story is interesting enough to warrant an indirect quotation, you should probably put in the extra few minutes to fill it out in direct-quotation form.

[When writing first drafts, especially, I use indirect quotes so I can get the ideas down, and then I go back later and fill in real quotes.  Since I do it, I say it’s perfectly okay, and you can, too!  Just remember to replace most of them out of your final version.]

Dialogue:  the Prime Directive (Rule #1)

First rule of dialogue:  dialogue (aka quotations) absolutely has to move your story along.

Dialogue is part of your story’s plot.

Dialogue is not just a free ride where you let the character stop and chat with his friends for a page or two or reveal tidbits about his likes and dislikes.  Unless your character is doing something, nobody will care what he thinks. 

In a well-written story, nobody just stops to chat.  If it seems like they’re just shmoozing and passing time, either the author’s done it wrong or you’re missing something.

And that is why indirect quotations can be so evil.  If something is worth talking about, because it follows the Dialogue Prime Directive (Rule #1) and advances your story’s plot in a fun and juicy way, why the heck would you gloss over it by writing it in indirect-quotation form?

One last thing about quotations.

Don’t confuse indirect quotations (“Mary told Kaitlin to move her stupid butt.”) with summaries, which are sometimes a great way to cover stuff that doesn’t need belabouring, so you can move along with your story quickly. 

Mom told Karen all about the discussion she’d had with the bank manager that afternoon.

is undoubtedly way more interesting (or at least quicker) to read than,

“What did the bank manager say?” asked Karen.

“He told me I had to apply for a mortgage,” said Mom.  “What a pain!”

“What forms did he tell you to fill out?”

“Well,” Mom said, “first, he handed me a Form B-173, but when I reminded him that Grandpop is acting as my guarantor, he apologized and handed me Form C-288.”  [and so on, but I’ll end the scene there]

You get the idea.  Boring quotations are, of course, boring no matter how many quotation marks you stick around them.  But they have the potential to make your story pop and glide along. 

Why not cash in on that and bring your characters fully to life by letting them speak for themselves???


  1. Another great entry. I'm really enjoying your blog Jennifer! I do the same when I'm writing. Write first in indirect and then pull it out later. I do still have very few indirect quotations if I want the focus to stay on something else, like the emotion or thoughts of the character, and not the conversation, but not all that often.

  2. Thanks! Love your little doodle - did someone do that for you? Anyway, never say never... they can be quite useful sometimes, as you say.

    1. Thanks! It is a stock photo I bought when I was blogging regularly.


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