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I am writing a short story that only has 2 characters, and is written in the third person. I am deciding between script-type writing:

Character 1: "Wow! these are my words!" He smiles

Character 2: "Yep!"

and standard story-type writing:

Character 1 smiled, exclaiming, "Wow! These are my words!", followed by Character 2 replying, "Yep!"

What is usually the most engaging and effective style? I want my piece to pop.

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  • What you call the "standard" is the standard for a reason. It has slowly evolved over long centuries in the attempt by countless experienced authors to develop "the most engaging and effective style". Why would you want to give up that potential for no reason at all?
    – Ben
    Commented Dec 22, 2023 at 10:40
  • Note that if you have heavy dialog, it's okay to skip speaking verbs here and there, especially if it's obvious which character is speaking (and it is often obvious, if there are only two characters). For instance, 'Are you hungry?' asked Alice. 'No, I already ate.' No need for "replied Bob" if Bob is the only other person in the room. The reader knows it's a reply, and already knows that it's Bob who is going to reply.
    – Stef
    Commented Dec 24, 2023 at 15:15

3 Answers 3

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It depends on how much dialogue there is.

Often times, when there is a lot of dialogue, there is sometimes little need to explicitly say which character says what, if their voices are distinct. In that case, one can move the story along with pure dialogue, sentence after sentence without much reference to who is speaking. Style 1, script-type, would be more appropriate for such a story/prose.

If there isn't that much dialogue, e.g. you are describing the scenario they are in, the environment, etc. then one can go with the standard story-type style, as this incorporates a balance between the third person text, and dialogue. This would allow for better descriptions of inner thoughts, or as per the example you provided, facial expressions.

To answer your question:

What is usually the most engaging and effective style?

This is impossible to answer. All good writing is engaging. Because good literature (books, short stories, etc.) exist in many different styles, both are engaging if done right. Both can be poppin' if done right. A Brief History of Seven Killings for example, has extraordinary dialogue, employing script-style writing so that it is "poppin'" as you say. At the same time, a book like Neuromancer follows a more story-type style, but is "poppin'" nonetheless.

Of course, you can write badly in either style, in which case, neither will be engaging, or poppin'. To get it to read well does not depend on well-defined criteria, which is why its not easy. The act of writing text that reads well is something that is learned over time, often years.

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Breaking Conventions should be Purposeful

The second example, with dialog tags, is the standard in fiction. You should use the standard unless you have a good reason not to.

Don't "break the rules" for the sake of breaking something, break the rules because it is deeply in line with the theme of your work.

Rules and When to Break Them

If your work is about two people rehearsing for a play, and explores how the theater scene sucks them in and takes over their lives, then you could accentuate this by bringing theater elements into your writing. You use script-style dialog notation, your characters say "end scene" to emphasize important points, they break the fourth wall, make comments about stage movement blocking, do soliloquies, etc.

Something like this would work because the "non-standard" dialog is tied into the theme. It is purposeful.

In contrast, using a non-standard format for the sake of being different is going to be confusing at best, and likely comes off as gimmicky.

Use the standards for the unimportant things, and then go nuts on the things that are vital to your story.

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The conventional and expected form of proses (short stories, novels, etc)is:

Character 1 smiled, exclaiming, "Wow! These are my words!"

and in case you want submit you piece to magazine for publication its most convenient to use standard manuscript format. Otherwise you’ll have to reformat the piece later.

Screenplays and play scripts use:

Character 1: "Wow! these are my words!" He smiles

Its not a question of what pops, it’s one of expectations. The expectations of prose — engagement, immersive experience, et cetera - are easiest to create using the expected form. But you can do anything you want … if it works. You’re style can be avant-garde or baroque as you want, but the reader is the sole and final determiner of what works.

As a general rule, fussy formatting and typographic tricks to make things pop irritate and annoy people. But if you are the only reader then who cares, you should go wild

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