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Occasionally in a novel, you have a point where there is dialogue, but only parts of it matter. You usually see this where the hero conveniently catches only the words he needs to hear:

He could only make out a few words: "Enemy... coming... keep... daughter... safe."

Using ellipsis like that is usually how dialogue is written when only some of the words matter. At least that's how I've seen it written, and it seems to work for my own uses.

However, I now have a similar problem, though it is much more complex. In my sci-fi-ish novel, evil robots have taken over the world and imprisoned humanity (extreme over-simplification; the novel is vastly better than that). The computers of the robots are highly advanced, and the prisoners are kept under constant surveillance.

Due to these conditions, the prisoners have had to develop a code even the smartest computer can't break - the code it can't find. During a seemingly-normal conversation, they will emphasize certain words, which together make up the line they are saying. For instance, during a handshake, they might squeeze extra hard on "meet", "behind", and "closet". All the surveillance would see was perhaps an overlong greeting. This code can be initiated with anything - taps inside the palm, touching the shoulder; the point is, only certain words matter in a long string of dialogue.

This is of course different from the above example, so is there a better way I could write it?

Should I include the whole dialogue, or should I show only the relevant words? So for example:

Laura listened to every word he squeezed her hand on, and slowly a message began to appear: "You have to get to the counter behind the yellow stripe. They served Jake and me there." A pause. "They're great at cooking, I swear the meals have been looking almost like real meat for a while now. What do you think?"

Versus:

Laura listened to every word he squeezed her hand on, and slowly a message began to appear: "Get... behind... me. They're... looking... for... you."

Which method is best?

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Why not combine the two methods...

"You have to get to the counter behind the yellow stripe. They served Jake and me there." He smiled, and for a moment Laura almost lost track of his real message, hidden within his words and the rhythm of the pressure in their clasped hands. "They're great at cooking, I swear the meals have been looking almost like real meat for a while now. What do you think?"

She paused as if considering his invitation, while frantically assembling the spoken words which he had stressed through his grip. "Get... behind... me. They're... looking... for... you."

Smiling deeply, she nodded her acceptance then began to move casually yet quickly as his secret message had prescribed.

  • What about for long conversations carried out using this method? Would you still do both? If not, which would you use? – Thomas Reinstate Monica Myron Nov 1 '17 at 0:52
  • I try to avoid long spans of dialog (long conversations) in the same way and for the same reason that I avoid long expositions (walls of text). Reader attention spans are pretty short these days, so I try to make my scenes short and single-purposed. If you absolutely have to include the code words from a long conversation, try to go with the second method as it will provide a higher-paced read for your fans. – Henry Taylor Nov 1 '17 at 1:04
  • Well the answer to shortening attention spans is just to make the dialogue tension-packed. Make the characters tense and give the reader unanswered questions. Works every time. But back on topic; yes, I agree that the second option is best for conversations. – Thomas Reinstate Monica Myron Nov 1 '17 at 1:45
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    I agree that tension is one of a group of attention enhancing tools, each of which suffer from the same shortfalls. Their effectiveness varies from reader to reader; and vary even more so from author to reader. We are all in love with our own words. You might want to run a quick experiment to see what I mean. Ask a fresh test-reader to write a number (tween 1 & 10) at the bottom of each page, recording their tension level during the 1st read. Then check how those numbers relate to paragraph length. When I last did this, the results revealed some misconceptions which I unknowingly held. – Henry Taylor Nov 1 '17 at 2:01
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    @ThomasMyron If you must have a long conversation, it'd probably be best to tell the reader that they're using this communication method, then just write the conversation normally. On the other hand, this method of communication is extremely ill-suited for anything other than short, urgent messages, so perhaps long conversations are best avoided. – eyeballfrog Nov 1 '17 at 2:52
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I would use the first method, but underline or bold the code words, italicization is too subtle.

We (the reader) are supposed to be in on the trick, so it should not be so subtle that we miss it.

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    I don't agree. Unless it's representing a written document within the novel (i.e. a pamphlet or some kind of propaganda), then bold and/or underlining words shouldn't be used. Italics is how emphasis is shown in written dialogue – user18397 Oct 31 '17 at 23:41
  • Or use uppercase – Alexander Nov 1 '17 at 0:34
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    @Thomo Italics will be read by all readers as vocal emphasis, but this is not vocal emphasis and it would be misleading to make the reader see it as such. The OP is trying to indicate a physical gesture (hand squeezing or tapping on certain words that otherwise are not emphasized at all). If there were vocal emphasis it would give away the code to the robots. This is an unusual situation that has no standard answer. Underlining could do the trick. – Amadeus-Reinstate-Monica Nov 1 '17 at 3:06

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