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Friday, March 28, 2008

A Matter of Position

"There are no dull subjects; there are only dull writers." --H. L. Mencken

We're used to seeing quotations this way. Now, consider how we use quotations in our stories. Or rather, how we structure the quotations themselves. Placement of attribution--the "he said" part--makes a difference.

The treatment above is typical at the beginning of a story or book, with the quote, a dash, and the name of the person quoted.

In text, you can put the attribution at the beginning, middle, or end.

To put it at the beginning looks like this: H. L. Mencken said, "There are no dull subjects; there are only dull writers." In nonfiction articles, the person's credentials are often jammed in with the name the first time the person is quoted: "H. L. Mencken, famed New Yorker essayist, said. . . ." Putting the name at the start of a sentence helps readers keep track of who is talking, particularly if the previous paragraph ended with a quotation from someone else.

When the attribution is placed in the middle, a tiny bit of suspense is created, in the same way that comedians put a pause before the punchline. "There are no dull subjects," Mencken said. "There are only dull writers." In the middle, the attribution affects the pacing.

Finding attribution at the end of a sentence is ordinary and fine in the regular flow of text. Try to mix up the "Mencken said" with the "said Mencken," for variety's sake. Never put the attribution at the end of a final sentence in a story. You're ending with a strong sentence, right? (Otherwise you wouldn't be using it as your closing line.) To tag on the attribution at end detracts from the power of the quotation. It's like having Ella Fitzgerald sing "The Star-Spangled Banner" to a standing ovation and at the very end the janitor comes on stage sweeping her off. Kinda ruins the moment.

While we're the subject of quotes: Do not strain the reader's patience with verbs other than "said." A rare variance is OK, but "said" doesn't interrupt the reader's focus on what was actually said.

category: craft


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