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I am writing a story where one person A is narrating a story to B. In the story, there are conversations between characters, C and D, of the story. How do I then write the dialogue between A and B and the dialogue between C and D which is being narrated by A to B in a way which is grammatically correct and smooth for my readers to read?

I am struggling with where I have to write several conversations between C & D inside a dialogue of A who is narrating to B. Any advice?

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  • I am afraid you need to be more concrete than that. Provide the exact context, please. – fev Jan 1 at 17:44
  • Plato does this in some dialogues. For example in Phaedo he has Phaedo narrating a dialogue to Echecrates and they sometimes interrupt the reported dialogue to add their own comments – b a Jan 2 at 16:15
  • Conrad's Lord Jim is almost entirely in this vein. Click on that link and you can see whether you like Conrad's style. – TonyK Jan 2 at 18:05
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I would recommend having A paraphrase C and D's dialogue instead of repeating it word-for-word. That way, you don't have to worry about nested quote marks, and you can summarise C and D's exchanges instead of having lengthy conversations inside lengthy conversations, which will get confusing and tiring. Your readers (and B) shouldn't need to know every little thing that C and D said, only the gist of it.

Here's an example:

"C suggested that the pair should use the Lorem Ipsum Maneuver," A continued. "D disagreed, arguing that the Lorem Ipsum Maneuver was highly dangerous, and that the last pilots to try it ended up crashing."

"So what did they do?" asked B.

"In the end," said A, "D conceded that they had no choice, and they attempted the maneuver."

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The Narrator is the Third Person Perspective:

I would simply write these parts in third person from the perspective of the narrator as the third person. So the limited omniscience is limited by what the narrator knows. Since C and D conversations don't actually include A and B, A and B don't contaminate the story. You don't discuss A and B in the narration.

Occasionally the listener might insert themselves and break proper third person perspective, but you can otherwise mostly write it like the narrator is the writer. I would use a line or scene break every time this happened to make a clear separation between the narration and the discussion between A and B. Anything they need to discuss about the story takes place here, like out-of-place questions or fully omniscient comments.

* * *

A paused. "Little did they know what was going to face them as they went down that road"

* * *

Then use another to cut back to the narration.

This functionally would look like the classic "cut scene" where someone launches into a story in a TV show and the main scene fades out to go to the story. The best popular example of this would be "The Princess Bride" where A is narrating a story to B about C and D, but B occasionally inserts into the conversation exclamations of disbelief, excitement, etc. Otherwise, it's like you are watching the scene between C and D as narrated by A.

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I would suggest a mixture of paraphrasing and quoting. That will reduce monotonicity and keep the audience more engaged.

Extending @F1Krazy's example:

"C suggested that the pair should use the Lorem Ipsum Maneuver," A continued. "D disagreed by saying and I quote, Lorem Ipsum Maneuver was highly dangerous, and that the last pilots to try it ended up crashing."

"So what did they do?" asked B.

"In the end," said A, "D conceded that they had no choice, and they attempted the maneuver."

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In cases I have seen, it goes a bit like this;

"And after I punched him he said, 'you hit like a girl!' and then knocked me down and kept kicking me. "

You have your character speaking, and then the quote is in single quotes rather than double. Quotes in quotes in quotes though, I'm not entirely sure, but I guess it's also single quotes.

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If the outside quote is large, and the inside quote is small, you can use blockquotes for the former and quote marks for the latter (normally I would put an example in a blockquote, but we have enough levels as it is):


As Bob sat down, Alice launched into the next portion of her story:

I joined Charles and Debra at the table. "I saw an interesting article today," Charles said. "Really?" asked Debra.

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I disagree with the existing answers. While reported speech works fine in reports and essays, and short summaries (e.g. "I apologized" or "she said to say Hi" or "the waiter recommended the soup of the day") are okay, anything longer than that may feel a bit unnatural in actual dialogue.

Instead, I'd simply use nested quotes, at least some of the time.

'So that guy kept talking on his phone. We could all hear the entire conversation. Even his girlfriend got fed up with him and asked him to keep it down. And then Linda said, "I'm gonna complain." I was like, what really? And then Darren said, "That guy's, like, twice your size. You don't have the guts." And you know what?'

Melissa gasped. 'She didn't!'

'She totally did. Walked right up to him, prodded him in the back and, when he turned around to glare at her, asked, calm as you please, "Would you shut up, please? We'd like to watch the movie."'

It's probably best to mix and match.

  • Summarize as much of the inner dialogue as possible. ("They argued for a bit, but eventually agreed to disagree." "She showed us how to control the machine, patiently answering our questions.")
  • Summarize, short exchanges via indirect speech ("she asked him to keep it down")
  • Use direct nested dialogue where it's important to the story.

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