Write well. Write often. Edit wisely.
Terry, a reader of the The Editor’s Blog, has asked a couple of specific questions about dialogue. Let’s take a closer look at her questions and some possible solutions. (I’ve edited her questions for space.)
I have been reading Dorris Lessing and Henry Miller. Both use multiple characters with dialogue in the same paragraph. Lessing often introduces them with a Semi-colon. I very much like what they are doing, but I don’t feel confident about my choices to do that in my own writing. And now I have this problem. I am writing some paragraphs in which a person is overhearing or taking in remarks from others. If I give them all a paragraph it feels like it gives them too much importance and makes them kind of stronger characters in the story. But I don’t want them in the story, they are a crowd of people, and I want the character to feel the general sentiment of the crowd.
He sat on the rooftop listening to them speak to the police. “He went that way,” the girl said. “He was fat,” another stated. “And ugly,” said another. “It was the most awful thing in the world.” “You should kill him.”
Anyway, this is just an example. Could you talk about both of these situations?
Great questions. Let’s look at the second first.
I agree with not wanting to give bit characters too much attention by giving each their own line of dialogue. The readers won’t see them again, and there’s no reason for them to have time, space, or attention. So . . .
Report the dialogue rather than having anyone speak it. Or maybe report most of it but let one line stand out as quoted dialogue.
He was on the rooftop, listening to the witnesses speak to the police. One claimed he went east, another called him fat, and yet another said he was ugly. One woman—older, he guessed, because of the tremor in her voice—said, “It was awful. You should kill him. Kill him dead.”
You can weave the character’s reactions through the indirect dialogue.
He rested on the rooftop, listening as the witnesses talked over one another to give their stories. One claimed he ran east down Pope Street, another said he went west and turned at the corner. One man said he was fat. Tommy patted the towels he’d stuffed under his shirt; worked every time. He frowned, however, when another man said he was uglier than his favorite mutt. And Tommy knew his eyebrows rose when he heard, “You gots to catch him and kill him, officers. Else no decent folks will sleep peacefully tonight.”
Use whatever fits the story to bring out even more from the character who is overhearing the conversation. Show his reaction to the dialogue.
Of course, you don’t need to include any of the details at all. Just report that the character heard others talking. This is a good technique if the character can’t see what’s going on. Also good if you just want readers to know what was happening without giving importance to what was actually said.
He crouched on the rooftop, hidden from the witnesses and cops gathered at the west side of the building. Damn, but they wouldn’t shut up, those busybodies giving descriptions of his looks and telling which direction he’d gone.
He crouched on the rooftop, unseen by the cops and witnesses standing outside the library’s side door. He really hated being seen when he did his business, but those blabbering idiots were actually helping him. They had the cops more confused than a hunting dog trapped between a rabbit hutch and a geese sanctuary.
If you want to keep it brief, just go for the basics.
He hid on the rooftop, listening and grinning as witnesses gave the cops conflicting descriptions of his size and clothing, and pointed them in three different directions.
In situations such as this, there’s no reason to describe the speakers or even quote their words. The reader doesn’t need to know who said what, only that certain words were said or that a conversation happened. I’d definitely go for indirect dialogue in such cases.
However, if you still want to quote them for some reason, you’ve got a few options.
You can group the dialogue as though you were presenting a set of quotes.
Tommy overheard the witnesses telling the cops what they knew: “He went down that way and you can catch him if you run fast,” from a child; “His face was as ugly as his crime,” from a clearly not hysterical woman; and “I would’ve tackled him, except he had that gun, you know,” from a man. Probably the linebacker he’d noticed a little too late to halt his plans.
To me, this is visually busy and distracting and still gives too much emphasis to the speaker.
A simpler option . . .
Tommy overheard the witnesses telling the cops what they knew: he went down Jinzer Avenue; his face was butt ugly, covered in scars and stuff; that loser was one fat, really fat, dude; you got to catch him now, officer.
No, I didn’t use quotation marks. This construction suggests that the character is overhearing bits and pieces and that the identity of the speaker doesn’t matter and/or isn’t known. It can also be used to signify that the hearer isn’t catching every word. This use of italics rather than quotation marks is a stylistic decision. One I would recommend you don’t use often. But it can be effective for just this kind of dialogue. Think of a character walking through a party, overhearing snippets of conversation.
We always want clarity for the reader, so make sure the reader won’t be tripped up by unusual punctuation or constructions. Focus on elements that are important for the reader to notice and present those elements clearly.
What does dialogue do to the character?
Also, as is always good, you can show how dialogue affects the character. Overheard dialogue only means something as it means something to the one who hears it. Consider showing the character’s feelings or actions from these overheard words.
Now to Terry’s first concern, a variation of the second one.
Although many books written some time ago did permit multiple speakers in a single paragraph, such is not the norm today. Readers expect all the dialogue in a paragraph to come from one speaker.
The writers Terry mentioned did write late into the twentieth century, but they also learned the rules much earlier. Their choices might merely reflect the rules they knew. You’ll find that most writers today will separate character dialogue into multiple paragraphs.
Are there exceptions? Always. And we’ve seen some here. But writers are creating a world and experiences for the reader. We don’t want to cause a reader to stutter or have to reread a paragraph. Any time the reader is confused, he’s taken a step away from the fictional world. There’s no reason to distract him with odd constructions, to make him think, “Huh?”
If characters are having a normal conversation (if that’s possible in fiction), there’s no reason to jar the reader with oddities on the formatting side. Sentence construction and punctuation serve the story; they shouldn’t detract from it.
Again, having said that, of course you can try novel ideas. Just realize they might not suit your reader. And your first reader may be an acquisitions editor at a publishing house or someone at an agent’s office. Instead of assuming you’re trying something special for your story, she may instead assume you simply don’t know the rules of writing dialogue. Breaking the rules could be a gamble.
As for introducing dialogue with a semicolon? I can’t see the purpose for that. A colon, yes. A colon can substitute for a comma to introduce dialogue or quoted material. A semicolon, however, is not the punctuation for that purpose. You can use a semicolon to separate elements within a sentence. You don’t use it to introduce those elements.
Keep in mind that the using the colon to introduce dialogue is a bit old-fashioned; your younger readers might not understand it. Just something to be aware of if you do choose to go that route. You might want to restrict the colon’s use of introducing quoted material to non-fiction writing; you’ll find it to be more common there. (But it is valid for fiction, so feel free to use it.)
Note: I don’t make it a practice to tell writers that they absolutely can’t do something; writers often find their greatest moments of creativity when they break the rules. But the rules exist because they work. They work for the writer, the reader, and for the piece of writing. They allow the writer to communicate in a way the reader can understand. So . . . Learn the rules. Use them. Play with them if you want to. Break them when doing so serves the story. But remember the reader. Put yourself in his shoes. Look through his eyes. And write accordingly.
I hope these examples and explanations answer Terry’s questions and help anyone else wondering about these issues.
If you’ve got a comment, something to add, please share it with us.