3

I am in the process of writing a book and one of my characters cannot speak. Essentially, she knows this world's version of sign language and generally uses it. If a person does not know sign language, she writes in a notebook for them. Because of this, I've run into a bit of a problem when writing the dialogue. I am uncertain on the best way to structure it while still making it clear that she is not speaking out loud. It also gets confusing because her dialogue can end up mixing with her internal monologue.

The problem and my main question would be: what is the best way to distinguish my character's non-verbal communication from spoken dialogue and internal thoughts without anyone getting confused?

My first idea-Put her dialogue in italics and her thoughts in normal text.

Example 1

"Are you sure this is a good idea?" he asked her.

I've never been more sure of anything in my life, she told him.

I've never been less sure of anything in my life, she secretly thought.

My second idea-Main dialogue is in italics and quotes.

Example 2-

"Are you sure this is a good idea?" he asked her.

"I've never been more sure of anything in my life," she told him.

I've never been less sure of anything in my life, she secretly thought.

...

Honestly, neither method seems correct.

10
  • What about instead of marking with "said", "told", and other verbal related words you used "signed" and "wrote" and words describing what is actually being done? Apr 24, 2022 at 3:53
  • I've considered that, but I suppose I really want to know if using the italics is worth it or not. Apr 24, 2022 at 4:35
  • Have you checked out the new writing challenge? writing.meta.stackexchange.com/questions/2463/…
    – DWKraus
    Apr 26, 2022 at 22:50
  • 1
    Duplicate of this? writing.stackexchange.com/questions/4811/…
    – DWKraus
    Apr 27, 2022 at 0:38
  • 1
    @levininja That would make for an interesting follow-up question, but my main concern is ensuring the audience understands this character is not speaking out loud. As long as the audience understands the communication is nonverbal, the exact method the character uses is not as important to me. Jun 30, 2022 at 22:00

3 Answers 3

4

Treat it Like Normal Dialog

I just finished an audiobook version of Glen Cook's The Black Company. It features multiple mute characters who just had slightly different dialog tags. It was very easy to follow.

"Are you sure this is a good idea?" I asked.

"I've never been more certain of anything in my life," Darling signed.

Dialog tags could include:

  • Signed
  • Replied, fingers [descriptor]
  • Said in finger-speak
  • etc.

You probably only need to remind the user it's sign once per scene. After that, just use "said."

3

Here are 3 solutions to this issue that each have their own upsides and downsides.

1. Use different tag words and normal quotes

Usual tag words for dialog are things like "said", "whispered", "shouted". For signed language you can use "signed" and possibly throw in adjectives for other variants than the 'default' (signed energetically, signed quickly, signed slowly, signed surreptitiously).

Ex:

"Are you sure this is a good idea?" he asked her.

"I've never been more sure of anything in my life," she signed to him.

I've never been less sure of anything in my life, she secretly thought.

The upside is that this explicitly says how the information is being communicated. The downside is it only works so long as every line of dialogue is tagged appropriately - getting repetitive.

2. Use different quoting characters

Use quote characters from other languages for signed statements. Things like the double guillemets « like this » or the single guillemets ‹ like this ›. While not the standard in English they are simple enough to understand and would provide a different appearance to the signed text.

Ex:

"Are you sure this is a good idea?" he asked her.

« I've never been more sure of anything in my life, » she told him.

I've never been less sure of anything in my life, she secretly thought.

Alternative quoting characters from English-related text can be borrowed from programming where there are three main types of quotes used. The usual double quotes "like this", the single quotes 'using apostrophes' and the angle/backtick quotes like this. Single quotes obviously can cause confusion with apostrophes so might not be the best idea

Ex:

"Are you sure this is a good idea?" he asked her.

`I've never been more sure of anything in my life,` she told him.

I've never been less sure of anything in my life, she secretly thought.

The upside is that this marks the information as being delivered differently than the spoken dialogue. The downsides are that it uses characters that English speakers/readers are not as familiar with for the quotes, and it doesn't explicitly say how the delivery is different.

3. Italicized quoted text

This is much like the example you provided except that the only text in italics is also in the quotes. Internal monologues would be in plain regular text.

Ex:

"Are you sure this is a good idea?" he asked her.

"I've never been more sure of anything in my life," she told him.

I've never been less sure of anything in my life, she secretly thought.

The upside is that this marks the information as being delivered differently than the spoken dialogue. The downsides are it means you cannot use italics for other forms of emphasis (or language differentiation), and it doesn't explicitly say how the delivery is different.

Conclusion

I would say a combination of the first option and one of the other options is best.

4
  • 1
    I think you might want to escape the backticks, because no it shows up as monoscript/code formatting. You can use a slash in front, I think: \`
    – user54131
    Jun 29, 2022 at 6:15
  • 2
    I don't think with the first option you need to tag every line of dialogue. If it's a section of dialogue with alternating speakers/signers, the reader can remember it a while. It's also not usually important to the story whether someone speaks or signs; in that respect you only need to remind the reader in scenes where it does matter (though you may want to remind them more often for flavor or other reasons).
    – user54131
    Jun 29, 2022 at 6:21
  • I've always found the « and < type indicators extremely distracting, to the point where I've given up reading several stories because I couldn't enjoy them
    – GammaGames
    Jul 8, 2022 at 21:57
  • @GammaGames Having read a bunch of french books and stuff back in school I’m mostly used to them Jul 8, 2022 at 22:02
1

I always liked using the "less than/equal than" in place of quotes, or inside them to denote speech that I would like my readers to know but is not necessarily English in how it should be depicted

"<What do you want?>" She signed.

In this case, the language is translated into grammatically and syntactically correct English even if the direct translation means something else (for example, in German, the common way to ask for the time is "Wieveil Uhr ist es?" The literal translation is "How many clocks is it?" but the correct meaning in English is "What time is it?" and it normally gets translated to the latter rather than the former (though the film Casablanca has a hilarious scene where a German-speaking refugee couple, trying to learn English as they are fleeing to the U.S, ask Rick in English "How many clocks is it?" to which Rick gives the correct time in English and then quips that that couple will fit in in America. The scene is funny because of the funny foreigner trope but hilarious if you have passing knowledge of German).

Another way this could be done is to have someone translate for her, especially if the POV characters do not understand sign language. This could even lead in to a few hilarious moments where it's clear that the translator is not making a direct translation to cover up that the mute character has a "mouth" on her and said something very rude.

At the suggestion, Alice's hands flew in a wild frenzy of signs that Bob was surprised the translator could even follow. Bob wasn't sure the exact nature, but he caught several extended middle fingers. Finally, Alice's hands stopped and she shifted her enraged gaze from the translator to Bob.

"She...um," the Translator said in a flustered voice, "She said 'She would rather die'."

"No she didn't," Bob said, slightly grinning.

"No," the translator blushed, "but given the formal nature of the event, I decided to give you the gist of what was said. I gather you figured out the passion with which it was said."

Here we can reasonably infer that Alice tossed the middle finger around and was much more intense in her response than the more diplomatic translator. Even still, Bob could catch through her tone what was being said. This is actually common among professional translators as there might be an idiom or pun that doesn't translate well to the language. For one example, I remember seeing an interview with a English-Japanese translator who explained the difficult task of conveying the crassness of the Donald Trump quote "Grab them by the [expletive]". Apparently while the Japanese language does have words for that particular body part, the English word doesn't translate because in Japanese, none of the applicable words are used in way that is more crass than another... and saying he referred to a part of the anatomy as a kitty cat will just baffle the Japanese listener.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

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