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What is the most appealing way to insert a bit of narrative within dialog in a single sentence? For example:

“The unified realm of my childhood,” Lucy hoped to avoid discussing the reasons for its disintegration; the children carried the blood of the traitor, and she carried more than her share of the scars, “had one councilor for all the districts.”

Should I use dashes or em dashes to indicate the break and resumption of Lucy's dialog that was interrupted by her thoughts? Do I capitalize "had" when Lucy's dialog resumes? How, precisely should this example be formatted?

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2 Answers 2

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There are different methods of adding narrative and action beats with your dialogue.

Grammatically, your example of comma splicing direct speech with descriptive text is incorrect.

A comma is permissible when it is followed by a voice tag. For example:

"She sells seashells," said Shirley, standing over Sandy's mutilated body.

or

"She sells seashells," Shirley said, standing over Sandy's mutilated body.

You can continue the dialogue after narrative with a comma

"She sells seashells," said Shirley, standing over Sandy's mutilated body, "down by the seashore."

Another option is using an em-dash to signal action with the direct speech.

"She sells seashells" — Shirley shook her head — "down by seashore. Sandy. Her name's Sandy."

This kind of interrupt suggest a brief action and might indicate a pause in the direct speech or coincident with the speech.

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    “The unified realm of my childhood” - Lucy hoped to avoid discussing the reasons for its disintegration - “had one councilor for all the districts.” ... I think this aligns with your remarks on signaling action with direct speech, and the other explainy bits should go elsewhere.
    – mfrancis
    Apr 12, 2023 at 20:21
  • @mfrancis, Yeah, I think you example works if we are in Lucy's POV. Because it would illustrate an interruption of her thoughts as she was speaking. And, I agree the other explainy bits ought to go in a new sentence.
    – EDL
    Apr 12, 2023 at 22:02
  • You should not use a hyphen (-) in place of an em dash (—).
    – A. R.
    Apr 13, 2023 at 14:03
  • @AndrewRay, yes, precisely, that is why my answer specifies using an em-dash.
    – EDL
    Apr 13, 2023 at 15:09
  • You said em-dash, but you used hyphens in your example. This has now been corrected in an edit.
    – A. R.
    Apr 13, 2023 at 18:26
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The only time you should insert anything into dialog in this manner is when you are explaining something about how they are speaking.

Good: “The unified realm of my childhood,” she explained tensely as she paced in front of the audience, “had one councilor for all the districts.”

This gives information about the manner she is speaking and so guides your reader on how to understand the words. Maybe you could throw in some gestures like stroking her chin or clenching her fists or even indicating she had a dry mouth and so licked her lips to moisten them. She could yell or whisper or speak hesitantly or like a priest chanting a religious service. There are many other things.

Don't get too excessive about it. Keep in mind that your reader has to follow you through the text to get the meaning of the sentence. Dialog should flow like a real person speaking. So you can insert things like indicating the speaker has paused and is doing something during the pause.

Good: “The unified realm of my childhood,” she explained while serenely stirring her tea, “had one councilor for all the districts.”

Again, this paints the picture of how the speaker is behaving during the dialog.

There is not an absolute barrier between good and bad. Generally, the farther from describing the means of speaking, the more potentially troubling the interjection.

Borderline: “The unified realm of my childhood,” she mused while recalling the festivals and fields of her youth, “had one councilor for all the districts.”

This one is potentially useful since it might indicate the speaker had a dreamy or distracted attitude. It would make sense if the speaker had an established history of speaking this way. Or you were working on establishing such.

Your example goes too far afield.

The unified realm of my childhood,” Lucy hoped to avoid discussing the reasons for its disintegration; the children carried the blood of the traitor, and she carried more than her share of the scars, “had one councilor for all the districts.”

You are talking about her hopes rather than her manner of speaking. And you are talking about other people and their characteristics, people that are not speaking.

If you want to get this information in, you should expand the dialog, or put the description outside the dialog. For example, if she wants to avoid a subject, show her avoiding the subject, possibly have somebody call her on it. Or have her explicitly say she does not want to talk about a subject and have her give a reason. Or have somebody else explain that the subject should be avoided.

The method you choose should be one that advances your story.

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  • My example is wordy, yes, and I need to tidy that up. The parenthetical giblet after the semicolon should go elsewhere. Thank you for the rationale behind your suggestions. Still, if I want to break a dialog with a distracted thought (one shorter that the example) what is the most appealing format?
    – mfrancis
    Apr 12, 2023 at 18:23
  • I suppose like you have it up there :) Looks nice and simple. Thank you again!
    – mfrancis
    Apr 12, 2023 at 18:35
  • Also, "Lucy hoped to avoid discussing the reasons for its disintegration" is on the nose, which is adding to the clunkiness. Remember: Show don't tell. As Boba Fit said, body language can help here, or any indication of wanting to avoid the discussion. A smirk, a scowl, shaking her head ruefully. Pausing a beat too long before answering. Whatever. Sometimes clunky wording isn't lexical. :)
    – kmunky
    Apr 13, 2023 at 0:42

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