Answers to Questions About Writing Fiction

By Mark Nichol

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Here are three questions from readers about aspects of fiction writing, each followed by my response.

1. When it comes to fiction dialogue, do any grammatical rules apply?

Generally, dialogue in fiction should be consistent with the speech patterns and habits of the individual characters; that’s one way to convey their personalities, and such idiosyncrasy provides a note of authenticity. Search for “dialogue” to find numerous posts on the topic.

2. I have always thought that when writing dialogue and a character’s speech runs into multiple paragraphs, each paragraph should begin and end with quotation marks. However, recently I’ve seen it published where the first paragraph ends with no quotes but the second one begins and ends with them. Which is the correct way?

The way you’ve seen it recently is standard:

“First, second, and all other paragraphs except for the final one.

“Final paragraph.”

All paragraphs but the final one are left open because including a close quotation mark might lead a reader to believe that the quotation is final and that the next paragraph consists of a different character’s speech. The lack of a closing mark at the end of one paragraph and the use of an opening mark in the subsequent paragraph signals that the speech is continuing.

It’s a good idea, however, to toss in an attribution or some stage business to identify the speaker now and then in an extended speech or in a conversation involving more than two speakers.

3. Why is it a crime to use a cliché in a novel? We all use clichés in talking with people, so why the big no-no when writing?

In social situations and other informal environments, “lazy” language is acceptable — it’s a lot of work to keep up careful discourse. The same is true with casual writing. But novels should be written with the utmost care, even if the tone is colloquial, with language that is as fresh and original as possible. Occasional idioms are acceptable, but strive to find your own way of expressing a thought or conjuring an image. Ultimately, the choice is up to you, but reader response (or lack thereof) may change your mind.

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5 Responses to “Answers to Questions About Writing Fiction”

  • Dale A. Wood

    “The way you’ve seen it (quotation marks) recently is standard.”

    Isaac Asimov wrote dialog like that back in the 1940s and ’50s. (Is that considered to be “recently”?)
    Also, Asimov tended to have his characters speak in long expositions, with multiple paragraphs, rather than in the quick “give-and-take” of genuine conversations. I love Asimov’s writings, but I sometimes thought, “Would people really listen that long, silently, without even interrupting to ask any questions?”

    I do not think that writers like Hemingway, Buck, and Steinbeck wrote that way – though I am not deeply versed in them. They probably wrote more realistic conversation.

    Some other writers wrote like Shakespeare, with characters giving speeches to each other. Shakespeare did that often, but I remember two such speeches well:
    “The quality of merch is not strain’d. It falls like the gentle rain….”

    “Alas, poor Yorick, I knew him….”

  • Dale A. Wood

    Sorry, it is “the quality of mercy”, and not “merch”.

  • Amazing Blair

    Yes, it is well known that the quality of “merch” is quite strain’d.


  • Phil Radler

    I’m neither inclined nor qualified to address the merits of short-vs.-extended dialog in fiction, but as a matter of punctuation, omitting the closing quotation mark in a multi-paragraph quote (except for the last paragraph) is the current standard.

    From the AP Stylebook:
    “RUNNING QUOTATIONS: If a full paragraph of quoted material is followed by a paragraph that continues the quotation, do not put close-quote marks at the end of the first paragraph. Do, however, put open-quote marks at the start of the second paragraph. Continue in this fashion for any succeeding paragraphs, using close-quote marks only at the end of the quoted material.”

    From the Chicago Manual of Style:
    “If quoted material of more than one paragraph cannot be set as a block quotation (which is normally much preferred; see 13.10), quotation marks are needed at the beginning of each paragraph but at the end of only the final paragraph. (Note that each successive paragraph must begin on a new line, as in the original.) The same practice is followed in dialogue when one speaker’s remarks extend over more than one paragraph.”

    Hope this helps.

  • Pj Litle

    “The first single quote opens the dialog.

    “The next single quote continues the dialog.

    “The addition of a second single quote closes the dialog.”

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