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The tradition of dropping the definite article in dramatic dialogue seems to go back to William Shakespeare's days and beyond. Thus, in Romeo and Juliet (to pick a play at random), the Apothecary is referred to (in the dialogue and blocking) as, simply, APOTHECARY, and not "the Apothecary." As in:

Enter Apothecary.

APOTHECARY
Who calls so loud?

... and the Prince simply as PRINCE.

In contemporary plays and screenplays, a nameless character - say, an incredulous-looking cop - would become, in dialogue format, INCREDULOUS-LOOKING COP. As in:

INT. STREET - SUNNY AFTERNOON

An incredulous-looking COP approaches. Jack and Jill stare at him.

INCREDULOUS-LOOKING COP
What are you morons even doing here?

Here's my question:

If you were writing a story and came to a point in which two characters engaged in friendly banter, would it be okay NOT to drop the definite article? As in:

Standing on the beach, the Frenchman and the Englishwoman looked skeptically at the approaching ship.

The Frenchman said:

"Well, didn't I say it would take them less than a week?"

The Englishwoman:

"That wasn't the bet."

The Frenchman:

"Of course it was. What are you talking about?"

The Englishwoman:

"You said, three days. Not the same thing."

The Frenchman:

"Oh, no. Pedantic? You?"

The Englishwoman, stubbornly:

"Three days. You said, three days."

The Frenchman:

"This hair-splitting doesn't become you at all, my dear."

The Englishwoman:

"Don't try to weasel your way out of this. You've lost the bet. You owe me."

The Frenchman shrugged. The Englishwoman raised her eyebrows sarcastically.

What do you think? Is it okay not to drop the article?

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    Are you asking about script writing or narrative writing (eg a novel)? Your question starts out with a play (script) but the actual question seems to be about narrative writing though it's somewhat lost in between examples. Apr 27, 2023 at 20:10
  • It would also be helpful to clarify what effect you're trying to create by adopting this non-standard style of dialogue. It's hard to say what's "okay" without knowing what the aim is.
    – IMSoP
    Apr 28, 2023 at 9:32
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    You mention Shakespeare, but keep in mind that Shakespeare (like all playwrights and screenwriters both before him and since) was never meant to be read (except by actors and other people involved in the production.) It's meant to be seen and heard by the audience. There's a big difference. You wouldn't use this type of formatting in writing that's not meant to be on a stage or screen. Apr 28, 2023 at 14:00
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    Why are you drawing conclusions about prose writing from script writing? Look in a novel.
    – user55858
    Apr 28, 2023 at 18:21
  • Are you not comparing chalk with cheese, and coming up with at least three Answers? May 1, 2023 at 19:07

5 Answers 5

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I don't know that there is a rule, but "The" clutters the manuscript and adds nothing to the narrative. Just FRENCHMAN and ENGLISHWOMAN would serve better.

Also, "The Frenchman said:" is wrong, you just start with the tag:

FRENCHMAN: Well, didn't I say it would take them less than a week?"

You seem to be trying to make the text more readable, but to a script reader, including actors, this is less readable.

They are looking for their own lines, with their character names in CAPS. The script is not intended to be read like a novel.

You seem to be trying to cross a novel with a screenplay; and any professional script reader will reject this on the first page. Authors that can't be bothered to put their scripts in the standard expected form, with proper capitalization, setting descriptions, and margins (margins margins margins!) are rejected at first sight, and will not be read.

There is plenty of free instruction online for the proper form. If you want to be read and produced, I highly recommend you follow it.

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  • Note the past tense in the beginning. This isn't a screenplay.
    – Ricky
    Apr 27, 2023 at 19:56
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    @Ricky It might be helpful to add that to the Q. Since you started asking about special directions in Romeo&Juliet (which is a play, and not a novel) people are assuming you're writing a Play. Apr 27, 2023 at 23:01
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    You are writing as if it is a play, and reference plays specifically twice in the beginning. The dialogue you are writing looks like a play or screenplay; in book form we write "The apothecary said, "I don't have that powder, It would take me a day to make that." Never write with "character:\newline speech". Unless you don't really care about ever getting published, then write however you wish. Again, read published best sellers to see the proper format for dialogue. It is what readers expect, and thus all that agents and publishers will accept, anything else will be summarily rejected.
    – Amadeus
    Apr 28, 2023 at 11:10
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The tradition of dropping the definite article in dramatic dialogue ...

Dialogue occurs in many forms of writing, in many styles. The style you are looking at is a traditional way of writing out scripts, which are instructions for actors to perform from. The names of characters are abbreviated, capitalised, and offset with punctuation, but no quotation marks.

FRENCHMAN: Well, didn't I say it would take them less than a week?

ENGLISHWOMAN: That wasn't the bet

FRENCHMAN: Of course it was. What are you talking about?

ENGLISHWOMAN: You said, three days. Not the same thing.

FRENCHMAN: Oh, no. Pedantic? You?

This is a utilitarian choice, not a stylistic one: it helps the actor pick out the parts that apply to them, and follow the general shape of the scene.

If you were writing a story and came to a point in which two characters engaged in friendly banter ...

The general style used in English prose fiction is to use quoted text and "dialogue tags", with each change of speaker marked by a paragraph break. In that style, the dialogue tags obey the normal grammar of the language, so definite articles would be used naturally.

For a conversation between two characters, dialogue tags are generally used only at the beginning and where useful to convey body language, tone, etc - the reader will assume the speakers are alternating until told otherwise.

"Well, didn't I say it would take them less than a week?", said the Frenchman.

"That wasn't the bet", said the Englishwoman.

"Of course it was. What are you talking about?"

"You said, three days. Not the same thing."

"Oh, no. Pedantic? You?"

If you are trying to mimic the style of a script, you should use the full conventions of a script, including its peculiarities of capitalisation, punctuation, and abbreviation. That way, readers will recognise the style.

If you are not, start from the form the reader would expect in prose, even if you deviate from it to create some particular effect.

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    @Ricky I don't see it as a question of what is "permitted". To paraphrase Terry Pratchett, we have rules so that you think before you break them. If you have a deliberate effect that you're trying to create, and doing something unusual is the best way to achieve that effect, then go ahead. But bucking convention purely for the sake of bucking convention is just going to annoy or confuse some of your readers. There needs to be a payoff for your audience.
    – MJ713
    Apr 27, 2023 at 22:12
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    @Ricky You asked whether your proposed style would be "okay"; what did you have in mind by that question? It is not a common way to write dialogue, nor an immediately recognisable one, matching neither the expected form for a script, nor the expected form for prose.
    – IMSoP
    Apr 27, 2023 at 22:24
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    @Ricky The problem is that it's not just the definite article that you're changing, you're inventing an entirely novel way of laying out dialogue, which doesn't match the conventions of either scripts or prose. Scripts don't "omit the definite article", they use abbreviated, capitalised, character names, and a particular style of punctuation. Standard prose fiction doesn't "include the definite article", it uses fully grammatical phrases, or alternating paragraphs. If you don't want comparisons to either form, just a judgement on the style you've invented, why focus on the definite articles?
    – IMSoP
    Apr 28, 2023 at 9:29
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    @Ricky If everyone is having problems understanding you, then consider that the problem is that you haven't written it clearly. This isn't snark, it's literally how I look at my own writing. As for dropping the definite article, no, English prose doesn't let you do that. It's an acceptable abbreviation in some contexts, but if you're writing English prose then you can't. (Unless you're doing it for a very specific effect by deviating from English grammar.)
    – Graham
    Apr 28, 2023 at 11:21
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    @Ricky Saying you are "not omitting the article" implies that readers would expect you to omit the article; but since your style is entirely unexpected anyway, there's no such expectation. It's like Lewis Carroll showing someone a draft of Jabberwocky and asking whether it was "okay" to write "tulgey" instead of "tulgy" - the reader would have no expectation of either spelling, so the question is meaningless. If your style more closely resembled a script, then omitting the article - or, more specifically, abbreviating the character names - would be expected; but it doesn't.
    – IMSoP
    Apr 28, 2023 at 16:34
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If you are writing a script for a play, the name of the speaker should be as short as reasonably possible such that the character is still identified. It isn't actually part of the play, it's a key for the actors. So "The Frenchman:" and "The Englishman:" might be shortened to "Frn:" and "Eng:" for example.

If you are writing prose and dialog with people referring to each other and especially to people not present, it may be that you keep the article. "Here comes The Prince."

The Prince entered the room. The Englishman bowed with formality. The Frenchman gave only a shallow and perfunctory bow.

This effectively changes the terms to titles. Which, of course, brings us to character names that include an article. One of my favorite SF shows is Doctor Who. The lead character is The Doctor. His long-term opponent is The Master. (Lately, The Mistress.) And, if we are not careful, it brings us to the Canadian TV series Letterkenny in which there is a character only ever referred to as "The Ginger."

If you are using title-like indicators for characters, you should be careful not to confuse your readers by jumping between their name and title. If the Prince is named George, then you should be careful to tell people this a few times before you start switching between The Prince and George. Maybe refer to Prince George a few times before you put him in a family situation where his older sister starts talking to just George.

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  • No, not a play: a novella.
    – Ricky
    Apr 27, 2023 at 20:01
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This should be a comment on IMSoP's answer, but it was too long. In a novella, write in full sentences and use articles whenever grammar requires them. Don't introduce each quoted line on a new line, unless it's very long, in which case you should consider indenting it to indicate it's a quote.

The purpose of a novella is for the reader to read the whole thing word by word. It should (almost entirely) be in full sentences because readers are familiar with full sentences, so they are easier for a reader or listener to follow.

If you aren't writing to be clear, you're not writing a conventional novella. Sometimes that's your intention (e.g. some stream-of-consciousness writing). Also, sometimes using an unusual format conveys your meaning more clearly (e.g. writing in the style of a transcribed commmunications log). But that's only appropriate if the effect you're aiming for justifies the inconvenience to the reader. You'd need to tell us what you're trying to do before we could decide whether we think your idea is worthwhile.

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    I'm not sure why you say "Don't introduce each quoted line on a new line, unless it's very long". Adding a paragraph break for every change of speaker is a well-established rule, and has nothing to do with the length of the utterance. Not adding such breaks would be an immediately noticeable stylistic choice. Or maybe we're talking at cross-purposes somehow?
    – IMSoP
    Apr 28, 2023 at 10:35
  • I mean, don't have "The Frenchman said" on a different line from his quoted speech. I agree that you should start a new paragraph for each new character.
    – user7868
    Apr 30, 2023 at 23:56
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Since you seem to think that some of the other answers are getting off-topic, I will try to make this first section as targeted as possible.

You know that Style One (which has no definite articles) exists, and is used commonly in scripts and screenplays.

Style One:

FRENCHMAN
Well, didn't I say it would take them less than a week?

ENGLISHWOMAN
That wasn't the bet.

FRENCHMAN
Of course it was. What are you talking about?

You have just invented Style Two (which does have definite articles, among other differences), and you want to know "Is it okay", or "Does it read okay?", or "does [it] strike you as aesthetically and/or visually and/or grammatically wrong in THIS CASE?"

Style Two:

The Frenchman said:

"Well, didn't I say it would take them less than a week?"

The Englishwoman:

"That wasn't the bet."

The Frenchman:

"Of course it was. What are you talking about?"

You also mentioned in a comment that this is for a novella.

If you use Style One in your novella, then readers will be confused. They will wonder why part of your novella is written like a script, and what point you were trying to get across by writing it that way.

If you use Style Two in your novella, then readers will also be confused. They will wonder why part of your novella is written like something that is not quite a script, and what point you were trying to get across by writing it that way.

So the answer to "Is it okay?" is "No." Style Two is not "okay" in a novella. But neither is Style One. Neither style is incomprehensible or grammatically incorrect, but both are unexpected in the novella format, and so they come off as awkward or aesthetically displeasing.


To give a metaphor: imagine a guy is going to buy a car, and the dealer shows him a particular car where the driver has to operate the turn signal with his foot. There is nothing actually wrong, on a cosmic level, with a foot-operated turn signal. But it's still going to turn the guy off from buying the car, because he is accustomed to operating the turn signal with his hands. He might buy it if it was the only car available, but there are plenty of other cars with "normal" turn signals, so why wouldn't he pick one of those instead? And pretty much every other car buyer is going to have the same reaction.

You are the car dealer and manufacturer in this scenario. If you install a foot-operated turn signal (use an unexpected format) in your car (novella), it's just going to narrow your pool of potential buyers (readers). So why do it?


A caveat: there are a few cases where Style One might be acceptable in a novella.

  • If you just wrote a script and called it a "novella" (like selling a motorcycle as a "car"), then readers could probably accept that, because they could put the work into the pre-existing "script" bucket in their brains. But I don't think many editors or publishers would be enthusiastic about that approach.
  • You could get away with writing some chapters in a "script" style and other chapters in a conventional "novella" style, as long as the readers could get some sense that you had some reason for doing that, as opposed to a random whim. For example, if you were writing a novella where one character is an actor, you could write the chapters focusing on that character in a "script" format to signify that he treats his entire life as a performance, even when he is off stage.

Style Two, on the other hand, is not an typical style for a novella or a script, so it is awkward either way.

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  • This adds nothing to the existing answers.
    – Chenmunka
    Apr 29, 2023 at 7:16

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