Although these pieces will all be grouped together here for the sake of convenience, don't expect too much in the way of coherence in the order of the essays. It really depends on what I feel like writing at any given time. And of course, given that no two people share exactly the same views on English usage, there are likely to be times at which you read something I've written and think, "Good grief, what a load of utter bilge!" Actually, I hope that does happen at some point, because otherwise I'll have to conclude that I've sent all my readers to sleep. =:P
Anyway, enough introductory waffle. There'll be plenty of non-introductory waffle for you to endure as we go on, after all. So, let us get started. The first subject I'm going to cover is how to use speech. I don't mean in the sense of which characters should speak in what way, or anything like that, as I think that comes under the heading of individual style, and if there's one thing that's guaranteed to make your writing look worse, it's an obviously forced style. (Which is one reason why writing effective fanfic is a lot harder than many people think, incidentally.)
What follows is a (rather boring) snippet of conversation that I'm going to refer to later on in the piece. I don't have any particular story in mind here, but if anyone would like to write one, feel free; Albert, Bruce and Charlie are hereby placed in the public domain, whether they like the idea or not!
"Hello," said Albert. "What's up with you?"
"What do you mean?" asked Bruce.
"Well," replied Albert, "you really do look pale, you know. Not that I'm surprised, considering."
Bruce looked confused.
"Well," grinned Albert, "some people might think that your being out all last night when there just happened to be an all-nighter at Charlie's place was, shall we say, an interesting coincidence." (He paused briefly to light a cigarette, then continued.) "I think you've been on the booze."
"I resent that!" came the immediate retort.
"You're always saying, 'I resent that,' you know," pointed out Albert. "It's not all that convincing."
Bruce replied testily, "That's your opinion."
All right, so it's not exactly the most scintillating dialogue you'll ever read, but it'll serve for our purposes. The first thing to note is that each new speaker gets their own paragraph. It doesn't matter how little they get to say; even one word is sufficient. This is about as close to an iron rule as you can get in writing. Don't run several people's speeches into one paragraph just because you think it makes the para the "right" length. It looks terrible. but also note that where the *same* person continues, as with Albert's longest comment, you don't need a new paragraph. (Well, with one exception, which I'll get to later.) You'll also notice that where the run-in to a speech is part of the sentence, it's on the same line, but where is forms a sentence on its own, then a new paragraph is still needed, as with "Bruce looked confused."
That's that out of the way. Now, on to the subject that seems to confuse more people than any other, and that is how to handle punctuation while writing speech. I doubt anyone is perfect on this score, and in fact there are some quite famous authors who use forms that would probably be marked wrong at school. However, it is possible to devise a short set of guidelines that will serve you well in almost every circumstance, and which will allow your readers to concentrate on the work you have created, not the tools you have used to do the job.
Firstly, get the abbreviation "WPQ" into your head. To understand what it means, look at the third line of our sample conversation. You'll see that the word "Well" is followed immediately by a comma, then by the quotes, then by a couple more words, then by a comma, then by quotes. In other words, both after and before direct speech, the order is "Word, Punctuation, Quotes". Notice that I say "Punctuation" and not "Comma" - that's because, as you can see from the sample conversation, question and exclamation marks remove the need for a comma; and also because it applies to the end of a quote as well, where the full stop (or other punctuation) goes *before* the final quote marks.
In the penultimate line of the sample conversation, you'll see that I've used speech within speech, and so have used single quotes to mark that out. It doesn't actually matter whether you use single or double quotes for your speech, but whichever you use, you should use the other for speech within speech. Also note that you *don't* generally need a new paragraph for this, as it's not actually a new speaker, but the same speaker quoting someone else in the course of their own speech.
Finally, the final line. (How fitting!) You'll see that, in spite of the fact that the speech does not actually begin the sentence, the word "That's" is capitalised. That's because the first word of a direct quote always is, even if there's a "he said" or similar before it.
I said earlier that there was one circumstance in which you might need a new paragraph in the middle of a person's speech, and that's where they make such a long speech - telling a story, perhaps - that paragraphs are needed to break up the flow as is done in ordinary descriptive writing. There is a special punctuation convention often used in printed books under these circumstances, which is that where a paragraph ends but the speech doesn't, the closing quotes are not necessary. Here's a (somewhat artificial) example:
"Anyway, that was Thursday. I crawled into bed, and was asleep almost at once.
"Three days later, I discovered that I'd been right all along. Ah well, you live and learn."
You don't see this all that often online, but a few people - including me - have been known to use it, so beware before you point it out as wrong. Before we leave the subject of punctuation, I'll just go through a few of the most common errors, and briefly explain why they're wrong.
1) "Hello." He said.
2) "Hello", he said.
3) "Hello!", he exclaimed.
Version 1 is apparently permitted in some US schools, but frankly I can't think why, as "he said" cannot possibly stand as a sentence on its own. It's hideously ugly, and you won't find it in professionally printed works, American or otherwise, so it seems pointless to use it. Version 2 has the comma on the wrong side of the closing quotes, though again this is apparently taught as correct in some schools. Version 3 does the same, but in fact doesn't need a comma at all, as the exclamation mark obviates the need for it.
That's the hard slog over with. Just a few bits and pieces left in this chapter now. First, we'll look at variation. You'll see that in my sample conversation, the protagonists haven't just "said" things: they've "asked" or "replied" or "exclaimed" them. Doing this helps to avoid getting stuck in a rut, although there's really no reason to run away screaming from the use of "said": Richard Adams, for example, uses "said" most of the time in "Watership Down". But then he has the advantage of an imagination far greater than most of us, so doesn't need the extra help so much. You can also add adverbs such as "testily" so long as you take care not to overdo it.
Some of you may be bridling at my use of "grinned Albert" in Albert's long line, complaining that I should have used "said Albert with a grin" or similar, on the grounds that one physically cannot grin words. Technically, you're right, but this strikes me as a "rule" it's well worth breaking for effect's sake. The reader is quite capable of understanding what "grinned Albert" means, and the shorter, snappier phrase lends itself well to dialogue. So nyaah to the pedants in this particular case. =:P
Finally, note that on two occasions I haven't explicitly mentioned who the speaker is, because it's obvious. There are only two people involved, and quite apart from the common-sense argument, the speaker after Albert's long line must be Bruce, because a new paragraph has been started, implying a new speaker. (This is one reason it's important to be careful about your para spacing.)
And there we are. With a bit of luck and a following wind, you'll have got through this little piece without exploding with indignation and rage that I've said something you believe to be a mistake not even to be tolerated from a somewhat thick six-year-old. (An *intelligent* six-year-old would be quite another matter, naturally.) At the time of writing this, I really haven't the slightest clue what subject to cover in the next chapter I write, but then that's the way I write anyway, so there's no use complaining to the council about it!