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My attempt at the current writing challenge features a flock of sparrows.

Since the actual "dialogue" between two sparrows would sound like a bunch of cheeping, I need another way to show what they're saying.

Here are the options I've considered so far:

  1. Normal quotation marks. (Example: "This crumb is MINE.") This feels like the weakest option - the sparrows aren't speaking English. Normally I could add "she replied in (language)", but the sparrows don't have an official language, and it doesn't feel right to give them one.

  2. Showing the effect on the character. (Example: Raider was having none of it. The crumb was HERS, she insisted.) Sounds a little flat.

  3. Italics. (Example: This crumb is MINE.) I think this is my strongest option, but also might make the sparrows sound telepathic.

Are there any other options?

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Tell your audience that the sparrows are cheeping and use italics for the translation. This is a technique that I've seen in a few books for communication that isn't verbal/audible the italics carries the meaning but it's stated beforehand that the character isn't hearing the dialogue, often used for for mortals "conversing" with greater entities.

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    You can do this using dialogue tags. "The crumb is mine!" cheeped Raider. Cheeped, chirped, twittered. tweeted, and sang are some common ones that are associated with birds. – tryin Jun 3 at 4:55
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If the sparrows aren't sentient or human-like (such as the animals in Aesop's fables) but normal animals, then I think it would be more appropriate to go with option #2.

Describe the scene in detail: how would two sparrows fight over a breadcrumb? Would they peck each other, squawk, flap their wings to intimidate each other? If you find the right words and pacing, it will be tense and engaging, not "flat".

In general, you can give the animals human mannerisms, without having them speak, and convey intention entirely through body language. This works best in a comedic setting. Look at Shaun the Sheep to see what I mean.

For example, in this particular scene, while humans would raise their fists to fight over a woman, birds could "menacingly stretch their wings, and circle each other, fueled by their desire for that delicious, beautiful, pure breadcrumb". Humans may hit someone with a pool cue, a sparrow would use a twig.

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How do you know what the sparrows are thinking?

I mean that sincerely. If you're watching them, you attribute dialogue to them because they're obviously communicating things to each other. They just don't use speech or other formal language.

You know what they're "saying" because their body language and interactions with each other and objects around them makes it clear to any observer. As well as clear to the other sparrows.

Perhaps your solution isn't in the description, but in the narration.

If you were telling this story to a friend, you'd add in the dialogue in a way where no one would think the birds spoke in words.

The brown sparrow was eating his bread crumb when the gray one plopped right between his and his food and told him "mine!" She glared at him until he backed away then she began to eat the bread. He snuck towards her, trying to grab a small bit that had fallen off, but she cheeped "back off dude!" until he gave up and flew away.

So allow your narrator some poetic license. If a human observer can tell what the sparrows are thinking, express those interpretations through your narrator.

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Just use English, in quotes, like any dialogue.

When we write about medieval fantasy, the narrator is always translating ancient languages to English for the reader. It is understood, whether you are writing for Hobbits or writing for sparrows or writing for medieval humans, that you are translating their communications system into modern English for the reader. Actual medieval speech as spoken would be unintelligible to us; even the writing from two hundred years ago is difficult to read.

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I post this answer about once per month:

Jane Austen invented a style where the thoughts of any character are suddenly stated as fact through the 3rd-person narrator.

Free Indirect Speech

What distinguishes free indirect speech from normal indirect speech is the lack of an introductory expression such as "He said" or "he thought". https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Free_indirect_speech

Just write the dialog, without quotation marks and without "she chirped".

It looks like #3 but without the italics.

I agree #3 is the strongest of the examples, but the italics do seem like telepathy or a translation from bird-language.

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