tmcg: (Default)
[personal profile] tmcg
In the Pet Peeve Department:

If you use ellipsis points at the end of some dialogue to indicate faltering or trailing-off speech, you do not then have to announce in the narration that the utterance has "trailed off." It's evident from the punctuation.

If you use an em-dash at the end of some dialogue to indicate sharply cut-off speech, and the next line is another line of dialogue, you do not have to announce at any point that the second speaker has cut the first speaker off. The two lines of dialogue and their punctuation work aurally, just as in a playscript, and the reader doesn't need any help from the narrator to get what's happening.

"If you just turned yourself in..." He trailed off.

"Turning myself in is not an option."


We don't need to be told that he trailed off. We can see that he did. If you're going to highlight the fact, then tell us why it's significant enough to be worth highlighting:

"If you just turned yourself in..." He had so much faith in the integrity of the local security forces that he didn't bother to complete the sentence. The happy outcome was that obvious to him.

She knew how corrupt they were. "Turning myself in is not an option."


Telling us what we can see for ourselves is just lazy padding.

"I don't understand," he said. "Why don't you just--"

She cut him off. "Because it would get me killed!"


All "She cut him off" does is interrupt the rhythm of the speakers' exchange. If you're going to interrupt it, do something more substantive in the process.

"I don't understand," he said. "Why don't you just--"

She cut him off before his insufferable naivete could make her any angrier. "Because it would get me killed!"


or

"I don't understand," he said. "Why don't you just--"

She raised a hand to fend off yet another of his naive suggestions. Which part of "the whole security force is in my enemy's pocket" had he failed to grasp? "Because it would get me killed!"


This one comes up often as a participial phrase:

"I don't understand," he said. "Why don't you just--"

"Because it would get me killed!" she said, cutting him off. Her hands jerked forward and balled into fists, as if she were taking him by imaginary lapels to shake some sense into him.


We saw that she'd cut him off eight words before the sentence told us. Nothing is lost by deleting "cutting him off" or the entirety of "she said, cutting him off":

"I don't understand," he said. "Why don't you just--"

"Because it would get me killed!" Her hands jerked forward and balled into fists, as if she were taking him by imaginary lapels to shake some sense into him.


A lot of the time, "said" tags are unnecessary; we know who's speaking from context, from interpolated description ["Okay." His pained expression belied the assent. "Yes"], and from the content, syntax, and vocabulary of the dialogue itself. But "said" tags do serve a rhythmic purpose and help keep the reader oriented, and as long as they aren't awkward or excessive they're close to invisible, hardly registering on the reader's conscious mind, as integrated as punctuation. "He trailed off" and "he said, trailing off" and "She cut him off" and "she said, cutting him off" make the "said"s visible to no good purpose. When they appear frequently throughout a piece of fiction, they amount to a rhythmic crutch; to me they loom larger each time, and become annoying narrative tics. It's like the TV commercial where the guy's in the job interview talking about his qualifications and what the interviewer sees and hears is this droning guy in the background and the stain on his shirt SHOUTING IN CREEPY GIBBERISH!!!! He can't focus on what the guy's saying, because the stain distracts him so much.


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