Today I had the absolute pleasure of reading a feature written by our photographer, Cat Cutillo. Truth is she writes almost as much as she shoots and I’ve never known anyone who was as good at both disparate skills.
The key to Cat’s success as a writer is finding good stories and connecting with people that others often overlook. There was her story of the South Korean artist who fell in with an orchid grower to produce something you can’t find anywhere else. She wrote about a poet who continues to write as a healing balm after the death of her husband. And this month, she told the story of Magic Jeanne. It’s the story of a magician whose greatest trick was repairing the mistakes of her past life.
Cat got some great quotes. They are great as is. There was a time or two when I thought they could be made even better with a little thought about rhythm and where to place the attribution. Which is the point of this post.
But first the basics. I would say in the vast majority of instances, the best place to put “he said” is after the first sentence of the quote. Like this:
“A good quote can really make a story,” Clay said. “They give you a peek into the mind of your source.”
Why not just put it at the end? Well, the only concrete reason I can manage is that doing so earlier helps your reader understand who is talking. A more subtle reason is to give your reader a pause between the sentences of the quote. Most people take a half a breath somewhere when they are talking. Seek to imitate that. Listen for that sometime when you are speaking to your friends. …
But other times, the rhythm dictates another approach. Here is one of Cat’s quotes, as she presented it:
“I’ve been in jail. I had a DUI. I was a con person. I lied. I cheated. I was just not a good person because my emphasis was on drinking or when can I drink next,” says Fields. “Now I’ve got to do something right with this gift.”
There is absolutely nothing wrong with that. I just thought it “sounded” better in my head if it were written like this:
“I’ve been in jail. I had a DUI. I was a con person. I lied. I cheated,” she says. “I was just not a good person because my emphasis was on drinking or when can I drink next.
“Now I’ve got to do something right with this gift,” she said.
Why? Note the staccato sound of the first five sentences of that quote. They are like a machine-gun fire of atrocities from a past life. The next sentence is longer, more languid and sort of a different thought. I thought it best to put the attribution between those elements.
Then I added a visual pause by dragging the last sentence down to a new paragraph. It’s not right or wrong. But it feels better to me. I’d be curious what you think.
I did something similar with this quote. Here’s Cat’s original:
“When you’re dealing with a magic prop and you’re showing things that happen that are impossible,” says Fields. “Well, the kids are reaching into that impossible. You did the impossible. Can I do the impossible? Yeah, you can.”
Here’s what I did with it:
“When you’re dealing with a magic prop and you’re showing things that happen that are impossible,” says Fields. “Well, the kids are reaching into that impossible. You did the impossible. Can I do the impossible?
“Yeah,” she says, “you can.”
I just liked ending the story this way. “Yeah,” she says, “you can.”
Maybe this is making sense and maybe it’s falling on deaf ears. If this seems too esoteric, I suggest reading authors known for good dialogue – people like Toni Morrison and Elmore Leonard and David Foster Wallace. Hear they way they write dialogue. Then put that fictional technique to use in your non-fiction writing.