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When writing dialogue, I know it's sometimes normal/useful to drop attribution and provide only the direct quotes during dialogue, like so:

"Like we used to Mamma?"

"Einmitt, my little mouse, exactly"

I've seen this done when the characters speaking are established, and the author wants the dialogue to flow. It's also a way avoid overusing "he said, she said, they said..", but that's not my main concern here.

But the trade off seems to be that without anything but quotation, you lose flavour/nuance to explain how the characters are feeling and their motivation. If you did use some extradialogue flavour, it might look like:

"Like we used to Mamma?" Hrafnhildur squeaked excitedly

"Einmitt, my little mouse, exactly", said her mother nostalgically

or like (completely changing my original intent):

"Like we used to Mamma?" Hrafnhildur intoned fearfully

"Einmitt, my little mouse, exactly", said her mother determinedly

I'm not sure if those last two examples flow, but I hope they get across that even if the first excerpt without attribution is fine, there's extra nuance that could be added.

Is there a way to communicate the flavour/nuance without the attributing text outside of the quotes?

Some of the advice here is helpful, but some is not relevant, and perhaps more specialised techniques are applicable in my example?

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  • Reading the two examples you gave, I wasn't missing anything in the first dialogue that I felt the second provided. The second example only seemed noisier, with unnecessary adverbs. Not sure if the example was a fair representation of your question or not. If it was, though, consider that some information that you want to give over might be unnecessary to the reader. They might even be better off without it...
    – user613
    Nov 10 '21 at 10:53
  • @user613 the first quote I provided is the one I have, and I quickly added the 'noise' as a counter example. Perhaps I don't have an issue right now, and I shouldn't worry, but I'd still like to know if there's some way of adding to it? Nov 10 '21 at 12:47
  • What exactly are you looking for? A way to provide narrative description without "he said"/"she said", or a way to omit narrative description altogether, trying to "bake it" into the words of dialog itself?
    – Alexander
    Nov 11 '21 at 2:06
  • 4
    Off-topic nitpick: it'd be clearer to me with a comma: "Like we used to, Mamma?" (I think the comma is standard, but anyway, when not there I parse it as used to + action, find that was wrong, then backtrack...)
    – Pablo H
    Nov 11 '21 at 16:49
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    There's a section on Stephen King's great book "On Writing" that specifically talks about avoiding adverbs in dialogue attribution. He called them "Swifties", as they were quite prevalent in Tom Swift novels. Adverbs on dialogue attribution are the sign of amateur writing. I suggest you give that book a read. Also, if your character's name is such a mouthful (Hrafnhildur), you'll want to use it sparingly (specially when combined with adverbs, as it will make reading that dialogue quite a pain).
    – kirgod
    Nov 12 '21 at 16:32
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One solution is to use descriptors applied to the characters in the dialogue in order to provide the reader with contextual clues as to how they should perceive the tone.

e.g:

Hrafnhildur's eyes lit up, "Like we used to Mamma?"

her answering smile was warm and filled with fond memories, "Einmitt, my little mouse, exactly"

Pros:

  • You're showing (not telling) how the characters are feeling
  • Can help build immersion and provide variety in the text

Cons:

  • Can affect pacing - if you're looking for some rapid-fire dialogue this could be a serious hindrance

YMMV:

  • It's fairly verbose - depending on whether you're above or below your target length this can be a good or a bad thing!

An alternative is to play with the dialogue itself to portray the tone.

e.g:

"L-Like we used to Mamma?"

"Einmitt, my little mouse, exactly like we used to!"

Pros:

  • Pacing remains as intended

Cons:

  • It can be difficult to convey some tones this way, particularly complex ones. Some out right impossible to do this way - nostalgia for example.
  • This can be ambiguous - and if the reader interprets an implied emotion incorrectly they may be confused later on.

So neither solution works 100% - fortunately there's nothing to stop you using multiple approaches in concert.

e.g:

the blood drained from Hrafnhildur's face,and her lip quivered slightly, "L-Like we used to Mamma?"

"Einmitt, my little mouse", her eyes narrowed and she squared her shoulders, "exactly like we used to!"

Having the extra contextual information and combining it with tweaking the dialogue makes interpreting the dialogue tone much easier and allows you to bring in a much richer variety of tones and emotions.

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  • 3
    Uh your last quote makes me worried for Hrafnhildur Nov 11 '21 at 3:56
  • @AzorAhai-him- which means, if that's the author's intent, the text is doing exactly what it's meant to do. Nov 11 '21 at 19:52
  • @Pureferret Haha, I know Nov 11 '21 at 19:56
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+50

The text of the dialogue can provide indications of emotional context.

"Like we used to Mamma?" Hrafnhildur squeaked excitedly

"Einmitt, my little mouse, exactly", said her mother nostalgically

might be rendered as

"Really, Mamma? Just like we used to?"

"Einmitt, my dear little mouse, exactly like we used to."

or, if Hrafnhildur is normally somewhat excitable and her mother normally rather affectionate,

"Really, Mamma? Really? Just like we used to?"

"Einmitt, my dear little mouse, just like we used to."

(Repetition of another's phrasing is used in speech to seek clarity, express correction, and affirm emotional and intellectual understanding.)

or

"Einmitt, my dear little mouse, 'just like we used to'."

if the mother is more strongly affirming the certainty and Hrafnhildur's enthusiasm by explicitly quoting.

Some sense of nostalgia might be expressed in slipping into forms of speech of that previous time. Terms of address such as baby names can imply backward-looking affection. Vocabulary, grammar, and tone can be reminiscent of a previous time; use of words from a mostly abandoned mother tongue (as might be the case in the example text), speaking more or less formally than usual, and use of a poetic tone can imply nostalgia. While assumed context may be sufficient for the reader to notice and interpret such a deviation, such is easier to express when the setting and characters are more established.

For the alternative intent

"Like we used to Mamma?" Hrafnhildur intoned fearfully

"Einmitt, my little mouse, exactly", said her mother determinedly

might be rendered as

"Mamma ... do you mean like ... like we used to?"

"Einmitt, my brave little mouse, exactly like before."

As mentioned, context of setting and characterization can imply what characters are likely to be feeling.

Ever since the cat had forced them to move, their lives had been miserable. Hrafnhildur remembered how happy she and her mother had been.

...

"Really, Mamma? Just like we used to?"

"Einmitt, my dear little mouse, exactly like we used to."

or

The cat had forced them to move, but at least now they were relatively safe.

...

"Mamma ... do you mean like ... like we used to?"

"Einmitt, my brave little mouse, exactly like before we fled the cat."

The emotional context can also be expressed by unspoken thoughts and in describing accompanying actions.

"Really, Mamma? Just like we used to?" Hrafnhildur's eyes bulged with excitement.

Her mother's whiskers twitched at her own fond memories. "Einmitt, my dear little mouse, exactly like before."

or

"Really, Mamma? Just like we used to?" I can almost smell the cheese!

"Einmitt, my dear little mouse, exactly like before." Yes, barnið mitt, we can reclaim those happy days.

The alternate intent might be expressed

"Mamma ... do you mean like," Hrafnhildur shivered at the memory, "like we used to?"

"Einmitt, my brave little mouse." Her mother stared at her firmly. "Exactly like we used to."

or

"Mamma ... do you mean like," But we were almost eaten by the cat! "like we used to?"

"Einmitt, my brave little mouse." We have no other choice. "Exactly like we used to."

Attaching emotional context to ordinary speech indicators or using specialized speech verbs is not wrong and can provide an intermediate emotional separation compared to thoughts, which are necessarily intimate, or visible indications of emotion. Telling expression, such as "said determinedly", can also present a sense of hearsay compared to showing; while the writer usually wants the reader to accept the expression as simple truth, sometimes less reader confidence is desired.

Non-dialogue content can also act similar to punctuation.

"Einmitt, my brave little mouse. Exactly like we used to." We have no other choice.

is not exactly the same as

"Einmitt, my brave little mouse." We have no other choice. "Exactly like we used to."

or

"Einmitt, my brave little mouse, exactly like we used to." We have no other choice.

or

Dear heart. "Einmitt, my brave little mouse. Exactly like we used to." We have no other choice.

or

Her mother paused. "Einmitt, my brave little mouse. Exactly like we used to." We have no other choice.

Even purely environmental insertions can direct the reader's interpretation of emotion.

"Really, Mamma? Just like we used to?"

Scraps of paper rustled nearby.

"Einmitt, my dear little mouse, exactly like we used to."

The warm summer breeze pressed against them and then passed on.

is not a clear expression of excitement and pleasant reminiscence (and hope), but it may hint at such emotion.

Given that miscommunication of tone can occur between familiar friends talking in person, with all the nuances of voice and body language available, absolutely unambiguous communication in text should not be expected. Emotional ambiguity may even be useful, portraying hidden or suppressed emotions or a lack of emotional clarity in the character. Ambiguity can draw the reader to pay more attention ("was he being sarcastic?"), set up a later reveal (e.g., formal speech might indicate insecurity, authority, or precision of thought with the initial context implying a different interpretation than is understood from a more developed context), or allow the reader to imagine how the character feels based on the reader's conception of the character. Explicit declarations of feelings and motivations can even be discordant with the reader's conception, similar to the potential disappointment from an animated adaptation of a comic strip ("Dilbert doesn't sound like that") or a movie adaptation of a book ("Faramir does not look like that").

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0

I've found that a simple rule of thumb is: Don't say said. And I don't mean use a million or two different replacement words, like whispered, interjected, answered, screamed, shrieked, etc. I mean, just use the quotes, and every once in a while add in a couple of words to describe body language. No need for complex descriptions.

As for your initial question, I'm thinking the first is good. The best one of the 3 for sure.

The easiest way is to add small implications as to what a character's feeling, such as swears from an angry character ("**********"), faster pace from an energetic character ("YES! YES YES YES!! I DID IT!"), stuttering from a fearful character ("wh-wh-what knife?"), or broken up speech from an exhausted character ("yeah. sure. just one. more mile. then. i'll be done").

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  • I'd use commas rather than dots in the last example. "Yeah, sure, just one, more mile, then, I'll be done". Putting a dot between "Just one." and "More mile." is confusing, because "Just one." makes sense on its own.
    – Stef
    Nov 12 '21 at 16:32
  • @Stef That's a good point, I didn't think about it. That's part of why it's all lowercase. Of course, commas are better grammatically, since that whole thing is sentence fragments. Semicolons would also make the same effect, but looking more formal.
    – Murphy L.
    Nov 12 '21 at 18:51

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