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How good is it to use script-style conversations in stories?

New Hampshire, 2144, Beside a sign at Bulgart st.

James: Please, Robert, I don't have time to discuss this. You must hand over those documents!

Robert: I'm not giving away the only evidence to the death of my wife.

James: You realize they'll be over in time and I won't be able to help you.

Robert: It is my job alone to find out who's behind this. You really can't understand!

Robert hears a car approaching.

James: You need to run, now!

Robert says, "Thank you, friend" and quickly runs towards the closest building. He hears, behind him, the car stop. Two agents rush out of the car.

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You certainly can. You can do anything that works. Melville does something very like this at one point in Moby Dick, so there is good precedent for it.

The thing is, why are you doing it? Why break convention? Any time you break convention, you call attention to what you are doing. When you follow convention, you text tends to become transparent and the reader simply sees that scene you are creating. When you break convention, you call attention back to the text itself.

There are certainly writers who break convention. Cormac McCarthy does not use quotation marks. I have no idea why, but I notice that fact that he does this, which makes me more conscious of the text. This might be why he does it, since his text is very deliberately poetic. (Again, it may simply be because he is Cormac McCarthy and he can do what he likes.)

Using a script format like this seems to add a kind of staccato tone to the dialog, as if it is spit back and forth rapidly. But that's how it strikes me. It may strike others differently. Being unconventional, it does not come with any guarantee of how different readers will interpret it.

In the end, though, as an author you are entitled to literary innovation. It may be worth it if it produces some worthwhile effect for your intended audience. But be aware that it will almost certainly rub some people the wrong way.

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    Cormac McCarthy is a good example. He's a special snowflake, he can do as he likes, and I will never ever read his work because I find his special snowflake writing and formatting to be impossible to read. So sure, write it however you like, but be aware that it's a choice which may limit your audience. Dec 1 '16 at 14:18
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    Yes, though limiting your audience is not necessarily a bad thing. If every writer is chasing the mainstream taste, getting noticed in the mainstream is extremely difficult.In a sea of nearly identical mainstream books, what makes one work stand out -- without leaving the mainstream? But there is an audience -- a sizable audience -- outside the mainstream, and perhaps far less competition for their attention. Limiting your audience to an audience that is relatively poorly served may be the ticket to successful publication. Being a genre of one may be the most secure position for a novelist.
    – user16226
    Dec 1 '16 at 14:26
  • An interesting position, and a thoughtful one. I don't know if "wacko punctuation" counts as a genre, but 10 really dedicated readers beat five casual ones. Dec 1 '16 at 15:26
  • Great answer, Mark. McCarthy may have been influences by non-English novels, some of which conventionally do not use quotation marks (e.g. French or Polish fiction).
    – user5645
    Dec 1 '16 at 21:13
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It's not unheard of to do this, but I wouldn't recommend doing it at the beginning of your book. Give the readers time to get to know the characters, then you can cut to a kind of short-hand between the characters. The reader should always be able to follow what is going on in the dialogue; if it's confusing, you failed them in the writing of the story.

Everything else in a novel should be like a novel. Screenplays are written for directors and actors to bring to life. A typical book reader wants you to paint an experience in their mind, which they can't get from watching TV or reading a screenplay. If you wanted to short-hand your first draft via a screen play method, that would be fine, as long as you go back and fill in the details to give book lovers what they expect from a book.

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I think the crux of it is that anything you do that breaks convention will make your writing more difficult to read. That isn't to say you shouldn't do it, by the way (several of my favourite books take serious liberties with style and formatting), but it must be worth the effort. If a reader would be able to get everything they could possibly get from your writing, for less effort, if you used conventional formatting, they'll be (understandably) frustrated if you don't.

If not - if your choice adds something, and the effort is worth the reader's while - your only difficulty is convincing them to put the effort in in the first place. Once they do, they'll be glad they did.

As with all such things, though, it's ultimately a matter of taste. There are people who think anything "conventional" is bland and unadventurous, and wouldn't be seen dead reading mainstream fiction (or using the phrase "wouldn't be seen dead"). There are also people who think anything "unconventional" is a pointless attempt to seem clever, and that mainstream fiction is mainstream because it's just better.

For what it's worth, I think both of these positions are ridiculous, but that's beside the point.

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Either you're writing a prose piece or you're writing a screenplay. Don't do both.

If you're doing some advanced stuff with formatting trying to represent different kinds of media (radio transcripts, chat logs), you might be able to have speaker tags the way you do above, but not ploppped down in the middle of a regular paragraph.

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  • What do you mean by that: If you're doing some advanced stuff with formatting trying to represent different kinds of media (radio transcripts, chat logs), you might be able to have speaker tags the way you do above, but not ploppped down in the middle of a regular paragraph. Dec 1 '16 at 10:33
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    If in your book you were showing that two characters were in an online chat, for example, you could reproduce a chat log, which looks like your text above: Name: blah blah blah. But that's special formatting to show something which is happening online. If you're just writing a book like any other book, describing what happens in third-person limited/omniscient, then you can't suddenly write one exchange of dialogue as if it were a screenplay and then go back to regular prose. Dec 1 '16 at 12:08
  • Conversely, if this is a screenplay, then a line or two of stage direction is allowed, but not paragraphs of prose describing the action and thoughts. Your story is conveyed in dialogue. Dec 1 '16 at 12:09
  • So I should avoid doing it and write it as a simple conversation? Dec 1 '16 at 12:14
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    @SovereignSun "Don't do both" Precisely. You can break convention any way you see fit if you think it benefits your narration, and you know that you can establish a new convention, which is better than the old and accepted one, but you have to remain consistent in order to enforce the new one throughout your text. I personally am not convinced that ditching dialogue tags altogether enhances reading experience, but it is just me.
    – Lew
    Dec 7 '16 at 20:22

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