As any good journalist will tell you, it’s best to let your sources tell the story. That’s true of fiction or news writing, and it’s done with quotes.
For one thing, the use of quotes varies the voice of the story. What do I mean by voice? Every writer has a voice, a certain tone to his or her writing. That’s a good thing. Every writer’s voice is different, so it gives variety to the world of literature. At the same time, big chunks of narrative in the writer’s voice can bog down your writing–like having the same speaker drone on for too long. Almost all writers (including me) are in love with their own voices, but it can get very boring for the reader. That’s why it’s a good idea to break it up by letting someone else do the talking. As I already said, that’s done with quotes.
Let’s start with journalistic writing. Why? In my opinion, it’s easiest to add quotes to news or feature writing. You’ve interviewed a variety of sources (at least, I hope you have, otherwise you need a different article). Now all you have to do is pick the quotes that best tell your story. While that can seem daunting when you have a long interview, you’ll soon find it’s easy to separate the useful quotes from trash–the wheat from the chaff, as it were.
As you get more experienced with news writing, you’ll learn to weave quotes into your story or, even better, make them the foundation on which you build your story. If you’re not at that point yet, a good rule of thumb is to place a relevant quote every few paragraphs.
Voice aside, the biggest plus to adding quotes in nonfiction is that it lends authority to your writing, especially if your sources are credible experts in their fields. Finally, using quotes in nonfiction lends a special human touch to writing that, if the writer isn’t careful, can become too much about facts and figures.
It’s a little more difficult to add quotes to fiction. That’s not because it’s hard to make up things for your characters to say. It can be refreshing to be able to make people say whatever you want them to say. However, it is a challenge to make sure those quotes aren’t also in your own voice. If every character sounds the same, it makes your situation worse, not better.
On the other hand, if your characters are too overdone, the dialogue can become laughable. I’m sure you can think of an example from your own reading–an Irishman with a brogue so stilted and behavior so stereotypical that the Irish wouldn’t have him, for instance. Anyway, you can see how tricky quotes in fiction can be. Still, if you achieve the right balance, it takes you work to the next level, making it worth every bit of the effort you put into it.
If you’re still shaky about using quotes in your writing, try this:
Write a scene, any scene, in straight narrative. That is, write it only from your narrator’s point of view. Then, go back and write the same scene, but this time describe the same scene using only dialogue. Tough? Probably. But it will help you refine your use of quotes so you’re comfortable using this powerful writing tool.
A Bonus Secret
Finally, I’ll tell you a secret…readers love white space. How is that relevant to quotes? No matter what genre, quotes generally add white space to the page. Pull almost any book off the shelf and look at a page of dialogue. Then compare it to a page of straight narrative. Doesn’t it look like less work to read? Readers think the same way. White space makes them think they can get through a page quickly, so they’re more likely to keep reading–and that’s good for you!