20

I'm not talking about if it's right to go like: "See you later, Mom!" Sierra grabbed an apple and ran out of the front door.

I'm more concerned with something I remember seeing but can't remember how to do. It's where words in the character's dialogue is punctuated by actions like when, for example, a character is hitting a punching bag and says words in between hits that connect to form a sentence but between each word is a hit.

"I-"-she hit the bag-"-really"-hit-"-don't"

I don't know how to write something like that and it's kind of essential to the part of a book I'm writing.

10

I've seen this done in a variety of ways, each complementary to the writer's writing style. For example, one series that I really enjoy that uses a first-person perspective, and very staccato action sequences.

She released her physical frustrations on the bag, shouting at me with each strike. "I." Right hook. "Really." Left jab. "Don't." Headbutt. "Care." Haymaker.

This creates a very visceral feel, giving the reader an incredibly clear image of what's going on, and accentuates the grunted pause of the speaker with periods, but the clinical analysis of the strikes only works for a certain kind of narrator.

A writing style that holds a stronger emphasis on onomatopoeia, but delivered by narration, might look a bit different. I personally prefer the clarity as delivered above.

Her strikes on the bag didn't even slow as she spoke. "I." Thwack! "Really." Smash! "Don't." Thunk! "Care." Crash!

This strikes me as something a little less mature, with the narrator processing what's going on a little less, but focuses on the dialogue and retains the sharp tone very effectively.

And I'm not a huge fan of this one, but I've seen that onomatopoeia inside the dialogue as well.

Her words were divided by strikes to the bag. "I thunk really smash don't whack care. Pow"

This one flows more like a sentence and less like someone barely grunting their words between strikes - but I for one find it a little more distracting.

23

Blender's right, it's messy. But, by writing it as you suggest, you really get a feel for the moment. I really like it!

But if you do it like this:

"I-"-she hit the bag-"-really"-hit-"-don't"-hit-"care."

Hearing it sounds as messy as seeing it.

Punctuating the sentence cleanly and correctly is key. So, rather than use ellipses or dashes, I'd stick with commas and separate the dialogue and action a little to keep it as readable as possible. Something like this:

'I,' she gave the punching bag a right hook. 'Really,' then jabbed in a left hook. 'Don't,' then slammed it again. 'Care.'

I'm sure you'll get other opinions/suggestions though.

  • 1
    This feels tense when reading, I like paragraphs written this way. – Mafii Feb 13 '18 at 15:40
  • 1
    One issue with this approach is that it ends up separating and capitalizing each word of what is logically just one sentence. – ArrowCase Feb 13 '18 at 17:39
  • 2
    I'd add ellipses to the end of each quote (at least) to make it obvious the sentence continues. – Azor Ahai Feb 13 '18 at 19:21
22

There is always the temptation these days for a writer to try to act out a scene as they imagine it playing on a movie screen. But this does not work in prose. It is impossible in prose to have two things happen at once. The reader can only read one word at a time and a rapid back and forth between dialogue and action does not produce the impression of simultaneous speech and action, but of a rapid and confusing alternation of action and speech.

What you do instead in prose is tell the reader that the two events happen simultaneously while keeping your prose constructs as simple as possible to avoid confusion. For example, you might do this:

"I. Really. Don't Care." she said, punctuating each word with a blow.

A simple clear statement like this allows room for the reader's imagination to work. The danger with some of the more elaborate statements that people have suggested is that, because they are harder to follow, the reader's mind will be more occupied with deciphering the prose than with imagining the scene.

  • +1 for writing the dialogue in a tense and "punchy" way, then adding the imagery just after it. I also think it would be better like this: "I—just—don't—care." It could also be broken up like so: "I—just—don't"—she punctuated each word with a blow to the punching bag—"care." – ArrowCase Feb 13 '18 at 17:37
  • "Let the reader/viewer/listener complete the scene/emotion" is a refrain I've from several different successful people in different creative arts recently. Seems like it's really good advice. – Todd Wilcox Feb 13 '18 at 19:17
8

I'd go around it like this:

"I really don't care," she exasperated, each of her words punctuated with a blow to the punching bag.

OR

She struck the punching bag again, each of her words accompanied by a blow to it. "I really don't care," she said exasperated.

Breaking it up into several quotes seems messy in my opinion so whenever I have to do this kind of dialogue I try to make it a point afterwards or prior to it.

  • The second example is great - Easy to read, and doesn't require backtracking to revisualise the scene in your head. – Steven Lowes Feb 13 '18 at 10:53
  • This seems great, but personally it doesn't get across the same feel as GGx's example. While reading, the paragraph doesn't feel very intense. – Mafii Feb 13 '18 at 15:39
6

I would just format what you did a bit differently, you can get the tempo you want in the reading by just adding more words. Don't be afraid of that, beginning writers often confuse "getting it out fast" with a sparsity of words. This is a mistake!

Clarity of the image is much more important and readers do not mind a lot of words. They are not reading to get through your story quickly, this is not a job to them, it should be an entertainment and one in which they lose track of the time. An author can spend an entire page describing what happened in a few seconds.

For action scenes, I do not want to be too flowery or descriptive; my theory is that "high concept" metaphors and similes do slow the pace more than I'd like. So I stick to the facts, but do not skimp so much on the words, or try to cram it all into one line.

High information density reduces comprehension. Which is saying, if you try to cram too much information into the sentence, the reader doesn't get most of it and doesn't realize they aren't getting most of it, or if they do, they lose their reverie of reading the story and have to stop and pay attention to the mechanics of parsing your sentence to understand what you said. As authors we don't want that kind of break to ever happen!

Take it easy on them. Here is my first draft of such a scene, though I'd probably go through it three or four more times (days apart), but not to get it shorter, to ensure the image is clear.

"I," she said, then punched the bag with her right hand.
"Really," she struck it with her left.
"Don't," another hard right.
"Care." She struck it three times: left and right, quickly, then a tiny pause and a much harder right, to punctuate the sentiment, that moved the bag enough to put a slight sway in it.
She dropped her hands, with an audible exhalation, and turned to Mark. "Now go home."

The punctuated sentence she speaks is the first word of each line, followed by a moment of action. To me this keeps it clear and understandable. The description is kept short to not break that line, although it makes no difference on the final word, once her sentence is over, and the longer description signals to the reader that is the case.

2

Mark Baker has a great answer if the simultaneous action and dialogue is a one-time thing, which I assume is the case here.

But if a character has a persistent tic interwoven with their dialogue, you might need to develop a shortcut so the reader "knows" when the tic happens without explicitly writing about it.

I think the Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid screenplay by William Goldman had a good example of this. A tobacco chewing character constantly spits and then shouts "bingo!" or "dammit!" depending on whether he hit his intended target. Soon, the spitting is no longer mentioned explicitly, but there are bingos and dammits sprinkled throughout the dialog. They form a very efficient shorthand for indicating that the character spat again and hit or missed the target.

1

Like Adrian McCarthy's answer that cited Mark Baker's answer, I wholeheartedly approve of Mark Baker's answer. However, I wanted to further elaborate with an example in case you don't want just a single action that is repeated.

You can also flip-flop, and elaborate the actions with more detail.

She yelled: "I really [pant] dont... care!"

Interspersed with her words was a series of violent impacts. After a punch here, an elbow there, and a roundhouse kick, culminating with a flurry of rapid taps followed by a power punch that left her breathless, and left the punching bag far more battered than a half dozen seconds earlier.

See, a little bit of time travel to re-cover the same time period can work rather smoothly, and be much less distracting than trying to toggle with word-by-word frequency. Writing can then move back to some more dialog, if desired. I will continue the scene a bit, just to show this being done a bit more.

He asked, "You done yet?"

"Huh?"

As the water bottle lost its contents, the top of her head lost whatever dryness it might have still had. Then she continued her momentous struggle to catch her breath.

He clarified, "Blowing off steam?"

"Yeah. Yeah, I think so. Go ahead. You can toss 'em here now. Good. Thank you. See you tomorrow."

After he threw the car keys in her direction, he acknowledged tomorrow's plans and then walked towards the parking lot. She remained gazing at the still-swinging results she just created.

Notice that the key toss was in the middle of her dialog, which you figure out given context. It's one way to take twice as long to describe a scene. Instead of feeling slow paced because you appear to make things drag on too long, it may look like you're describing multiple aspects/perspectives and actually condensing words into a shorter period of time, which feels fast pace (rather than slow pace).

1

Unless you're writing a screenplay -where you are able to employ the freedom of precision in your story telling- writing accurate or specific action and dialogue in mix is a narrative that has to be engendered in the reader's mind, not told.

In the boxing example for instance, one possible way I would perhaps say it: "Tom's emotions were sporadically emphasized in tandem with every punch his arms flung out" or "Tom voiced his emotions through gritted exemplifications of vociferous limb-infliction. Beating the bush as such is for prose-writing. Besides that's indeed how an aspiring or seasoned writer could wield the art of the craft.

Writing play is unlike this however. Action can be directed precisely and albeit employment of linguistic and grammatical niches to observe brevity is essential, only grammatically rich directions and expression of objective are obligatory for a successful narration.

But on the other-hand, writing prose is entirely a work of art that stimulates the mental faculties to paint a desired picture not dictate every detail unnecessarily.

"Every flash of Tom's fist on Jesus's face left Christ's face and mind with Tom's feelings."

No?

Hey I didn't say I was the expert. BAHA!

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.