1. Dnaiel

    Dnaiel Senior Member

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    Grammar Construction of single dialog for an unidentified speaker

    Discussion in 'Word Mechanics' started by Dnaiel, Feb 13, 2017.

    I'm working on a scene in a novel. I have two people who are not identified, in near darkness, and this is about all the reader will hear out of them. The dialog looks like this:

    "So I took the cat over to the dog and let them at it." Raised eyes. "A little blood, but lots of stupid fun." Teeth gritting. "Okay, it was fun for me."

    Should I break that up into separate paragraphs, or do you think this is fine?

    ETA
    This entire spoken dialog is one speaker.

    ETA2
    The example sentences above are not the actual text in my manuscript. They're just made up for the sake of this query.
     
    Last edited: Feb 14, 2017
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  2. Spencer1990

    Spencer1990 Contributor Contributor

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    If that's not just one speaker, I'd do some work to differentiate the two. You don't have to break it into separate paragraphs, but that would be one way to do it. Unless there's some cue that two people are talking, I might get tripped up.

    If it's one person, there's no problem.
     
  3. Catrin Lewis

    Catrin Lewis Contributor Contributor Community Volunteer

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    Is that all one speaker? It looks like it, the way you have it now. Are the physical reactions from the second person, who says nothing? That isn't clear; I'm just guessing. But why put it in that cryptic way? At best, I'm afraid, it sounds like stage directions.

    Doesn't work for me as is, and I don't think the paragraphing makes much difference.
     
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  4. Spencer1990

    Spencer1990 Contributor Contributor

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    I have to respectfully disagree. It's slightly unusual to have tags/beats like his, but it's not unheard of, and I quite like it because it's punchy, economical. I see nothing wrong with the words.
     
  5. Dnaiel

    Dnaiel Senior Member

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    It's taken out of context, but the whole section does make it clear that it's one speaker, even though that's not obvious from this sample.
     
  6. Cogito

    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    Separate paragraphs to mark the change of speaker, even though one "speaker" is reacting nonverbally.

    I realize you're avoiding pronouns to further anonymize the two parties, but it comes across as awkward and contrived. This is not an easy scene to manage, and you may need to make compromises, or add some detail to distinguish them physically.

    Or erhaps have them both speak.

    "So I took the cat over to the dog and let them at it."

    "You what?"

    "A little blood, but lots of stupid fun."

    "You disgust me."

    "Well, it was fun for me."
     
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  7. Homer Potvin

    Homer Potvin The game sour like a pickle be.... Contributor

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    Yeah, are the beats reactions from the non-speaker? I suppose it doesn't matter either way. It is a little awkward, but also a little cool. Depending on the context, you could probably just leave it if the differentiation isn't important.
     
  8. Dnaiel

    Dnaiel Senior Member

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    I should add that the beats, in the original, are more clearly from the other person. There isn't any problem differentiating the two, so I was just wondering if I could get away with sticking the beats within dialog breaks.
     
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  9. Spencer1990

    Spencer1990 Contributor Contributor

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    Clarity is king. If it's clear, do it. I like what you have there.
     
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  10. Homer Potvin

    Homer Potvin The game sour like a pickle be.... Contributor

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    It might be confusing, depends on how important it is. I usually never write another character's beats in someone else's dialogue, but this seems like a special case. Screw it... do it up and deal with it later.
     
  11. Dnaiel

    Dnaiel Senior Member

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    Yeah, it's completely clear, not confusing at all. If I can put it in one line, I'm happy and the world will be at total peace tomorrow.

    Thanks!
     
  12. Catrin Lewis

    Catrin Lewis Contributor Contributor Community Volunteer

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    Respectfully disagree that I found it unclear and that it didn't work for me? Hmmm. How does that operate?

    Are these two being observed by a third party, or is this written in a kind of quasi-omniscient POV (limited omniscient, if you will)? If the former, how can he/she see the second party's raised eyes in the near-darkness? Or know that that character is gritting their teeth? Gritted teeth make no sound. But if the POV is a kind of omniscient, why so cryptic?

    Or maybe it's 1st person from the POV of the speaker. Lovely chap all round, isn't he? Cruel to animals, and reduces the person he's speaking with to a couple of physical reactions--- delightful.

    But maybe that was the intention.
     
  13. Cogito

    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    Your beats are awkward and inconsistent, A beat is a short sentence, but you have a noun modified with an adjective, and a noun modified by a participle. Now, you may get away with fragments, but at least keep the constructions consistent.

    As for separate paragraphs vs one line keep in mind YOU already know who is saying or doing what, so of course it is clear to you. But that's why you get other opinions. Clearly other people were confused or had to re-read it to figure out the switchovers. Never sacrifice clarity just to fit more on the page.
     
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  14. Dnaiel

    Dnaiel Senior Member

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    But that's not what I was asking. I just gave an example to illustrate the construction. That's why I wrote "The dialog looks like this". This example, as pointed out, was confusing. That's okay; it's not the actual dialog I'm writing. Nor was I trying to be economical. It all fits on the page just fine, but that's coincidental. When I examined the traditional structure, breaking it up into paragraphs, the pacing felt a bit off and arduous.

    I just wanted to know if the construction was acceptable.
     
  15. Spencer1990

    Spencer1990 Contributor Contributor

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    How does it operate to disagree with someone's opinion? I was offering a counter. I didn't say you were wrong. I gave an opposite opinion by disagreeing with yours.
     
  16. ChickenFreak

    ChickenFreak Contributor Contributor

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    Separate paragraphs. You mean that the spoken words are Speaker One and the actions are Non-Speaker Two, right? Separate paragraphs.
     
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  17. Cogito

    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    Nearly anything is "acceptable". What you're really asking is whether it is wise to do so.

    I can only comment based on what I see, Some writers will do a very short dialogue all on one line, when ambiguity or confusion is very unlikely. That's okay once in a while, but I wouldn't recommend frequent use, nor would I do so if there were any chance of confusing the reader.

    If you're self-publishing, anything you choose is acceptable, because you are the sole arbiter, other than the reader. If you go the traditional route, you'll have to meet a higher standard, and that's a good thing. It makes you be a better writer, which in the long run means a better chance of gathering a loyal reader base.

    Putting a beat in between two scraps of dialogue in the same paragraph usually indicates an action taking place between two pieces of dialogue by the same speaker. I particularly recommend against inserting a beat between two speakers' utterances without a paragraph break.

    Ultimately, it's your choice. But you did ask. And choices have consequences.
     
  18. Mckk

    Mckk Member Supporter Contributor

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    What struck me was: how, in near darkness, can the observer who's overhearing this conversation see or even know someone has raised their eyes? And don't you mean eyebrows? You widen your eyes. You do not raise them - unless you raise your head in order to look up, in which case I suppose "raised eyes" could be true. However this is clearly more of a stylistic thing, and it does work on some level, if a little odd.

    But how on earth could you know that the person has raised their brow or that he's gritting his teeth, when the whole thing happens in near darkness and you're not one of the speakers?

    As for whether mixing two people's speech/gestures into one paragraph is "acceptable" - no, it is not. Not traditionally. The same way head hopping isn't acceptable. However, I have no idea why you asked because you've already made up your mind that you're gonna do it, which is fine - your story, and just 'cause something is traditionally done one way doesn't mean no one else can do it some other way (didn't @Steerpike post an article recently precisely about that - that we try to make everyone conform to these "rules" and some of the best books out there will use any tool they have and can rather than limit themselves by what is conventionally acceptable?).

    So, acceptable, it is not. Are you gonna do it anyway? Yes, I believe you are, based on your replies in this thread. Does the dialogue actually "work" as it currently stands? Can't tell since there's no context.

    Seems to me if you're asking if it works, you should post a larger excerpt (not so large that it belongs in the Workshop - I mean like a little bit of the start and finish surrounding that particular line might be useful).

    Personally, as the reader: definitely confused. Sorry. You did ask, so my answer is: yes, break it up into paragraphs. When something is traditionally done one way, people tend to expect it to be done in that way, and will therefore make appropriate assumptions. Since your particular bit is supposed to be mysterious and you don't want to use any clarifying pronouns or sentences, you must therefore ensure the structure of it is such that the reader will make the correct assumptions. Therefore, breaking conventions at a moment like this is unwise, in my opinion. Break conventions elsewhere, or else establish early on that this is the way you write all dialogue (like McCormac who don't use quotation marks at all, or something), otherwise your reader will very likely be confused.

    The best way to test this: get some beta readers and don't tell them how it's meant to be taken. Later ask them: who did you think was making those gestures? If the answers all come back correct as you had intended, then you can continue in peace. If not, rethink, no matter how much you might prefer the rhythm as it currently stands. This is a piece of writing, not music. Rhythm is important but it shouldn't trump clarity.
     
    Last edited: Feb 13, 2017
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  19. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Contributor

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    I don't know that "traditionally" is the correct word. I do see this done, and when I do it is usually in older, classic works. I just saw this done recently--now I can't recall where. Probably Melville or Conrad, since I've been reading both recently. Pretty sure I've seen similar sorts of things with Woolf, but she also head-hops mid-paragraph or sentence.

    I think traditionally, depending on how you want to define that word, it was more tolerated, but the more modern view is to avoid it for the sake of avoiding reader confusion.
     
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  20. Dnaiel

    Dnaiel Senior Member

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    No, I'm asking if it's acceptable. Meaning, will an editor or publisher shake her head and think me an idiot for committing a grave writer's sin that I didn't know about. Kinda like switching tenses in every sentence. That's, of course, unacceptable. Rejectable. Death warrant already signed.

    That's true, but that's not in my manuscript. I just quickly typed up an example for the sake of discussing the sentence construction. I failed to make that clear in my original post. There is absolutely no confusion in the dialog; it really works quite well.

    No, I haven't made up my mind. I haven't yet been given anything solid enough to be afraid of it, though.
     
  21. LostThePlot

    LostThePlot Naysmith Contributor

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    I do this stuff a lot; one speaker saying stuff while the other party just emotes in response and I do it just with paragraph breaks. It's a little different with truly anonymous speakers but you want to keep the same flow as if it's just a normal conversation. Treat the other figures actions as if they were in dialogue, new paragraph for each reaction, then new paragraph to go back to the speaker again. I would personally lengthen those descriptions slightly though, like "the only answer is grinding teeth" because otherwise it doesn't scan well. Don't get me wrong I'm a fan of minimal, non-descriptive prose but I think clarity demands a little more than one or two words. With pronouns it's not such a big deal to write "he grits his teeth" or "he shrugs" as an answer but without it I'd want to be a little more verbose.

    Readers will understand saying "the other figure" and "the first speaker" instead of pronouns. They know what you're trying to do.
     
  22. ChickenFreak

    ChickenFreak Contributor Contributor

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    Are you saying that you think it's fine without paragraph breaks? Without paragraph breaks I absolutely read it as the speaker also performing the actions.
     
  23. Dnaiel

    Dnaiel Senior Member

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    I'm asking if I can get away with it.
    Yeah, I can see that in the example I give. But not to worry about the text I presently have in my manuscript because the actions were clearly from the intended party. So, that's not an issue.
     
  24. ChickenFreak

    ChickenFreak Contributor Contributor

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    I look dubious--to me, you're breaking a very firm convention, so the context will have to be extremely strong for the reader to have that understanding. But without the actual text as an example, I'll have to take your word for it.
     
  25. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Contributor

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    Absolute prohibitions on a single paragraph seem to overstate the case. It's not like you never see this. Grabbing a book off the shelf from an author I thought did this from time to time, I found an example within a couple of minutes. Lawrence Durrell (Booker prize nominee and winner of other prizes), The Black Book (1963):

    Tarquin agitates the doorknob and rehearses exits. He is angry but nervous with love. "Next thing I'll know," says Clare, "I'll wake up and find you in bed with me." This produces a sort of insanity. Tarquin begins to whistle. "In bed," continues Hylas, "right here in the bloody bed wiv me." In all this I do not exist. Custom merely has demanded my presence.

    Probably could find better examples in The Alexandria Quartet--not sure, but that's the one I was thinking of. But The Black Book was near at hand. This is certainly considered a modern novel, not in the time period of Conrad or Woolf or others.
     
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