“Take out a piece of paper and a pencil. Number from 1-10.” These are words every fourth grader dreads, and could only mean one thing: dictation. Just when you realized your cursive S looked funny because you accidentally turned it into a treble clef, the teacher would say, “Next sentence.”
Whenever quotes were involved, dictation was a double whammy. Do the quotation marks go before or after the period? Why couldn’t the punctuation police just make them go directly underneath? Mere millimeters to the right or left made the entire sentence wrong. Don’t get me started on the metric system.
If I could just get through fourth grade, I would never have to take dictation again. Too bad my name starts with the letter s, but surely I could get by in life without ever using quotation marks. But alas, my writing is flat without them. Conversations make characters tick and paragraphs talk. If you want your story to come alive for the reader, the people must speak, and yes, this means quotation marks.
Before hives break out from a flood of fourth grade memories, I do three things when letting my characters speak on the page. First, I put quotes around only what they say. Next, when in doubt, I always use a capital letter. Last, I indent whenever a new character speaks. For everything else, we must keep our editors in business.
Sometimes writers balk at quoting real live people in writing, and for good reason. Besides punctuation police, there are plagiarism police roaming planet Earth. Again, let the characters speak-especially because they are real. Rarely would you carry a tape recorder around (does anyone ever do this anymore?), so you wouldn’t write verbatim what the person actually said. Don’t let this stop you from quoting them.
In my first book Tornado Valley: Huntsville’s Havoc, I used a disclaimer: “Thank you to … for agreeing to be named as the real people they are, while allowing the author to fictionalize their conversations for the purpose of telling their true stories.” In each case, I received permission from the interviewees, but I wanted the reader to know too. I remembered actual conversations to the best of my ability, but the words were mine. Many words were cut with a lot of dot, dot, dots, because a tornado in your peripheral vision could spark some choice words you may not wish to see in writing.
I hope this wasn’t just ‘a tale of fourth grade nothing,’ but that you, too, will strive for livelier stories with more conversations and quotes. Besides, I heard that in fifth grade, they diagram sentences. No wonder I don’t feel smarter than a fifth grader.
Check out some more encouragement and writing tips in my latest book WRITE, BABY, WRITE: You Can Do It! Available at: Amazon ($0.99)