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In my story, there's one scene where character A talks to character B in a stern tone. I want to emphasize a specific sentence without making it seem like character A is shouting.

For example, character A says "blah blah blahhhhh blah blah blah blah". To me, that sounds really bland. I also don't want something like "blah blah blah blah" said character A. I want the emphasis to be in that sentence, not a add-on. But if I put character A as saying "BLAH BLAH BLAH BLAH BLAH", it seems like character A is shouting. If there's nothing I can do I'll just do something like "Blah blah blah blah" said character A in a stern voice.

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  • This character most certainly was not shouting: "CATS. CATS ARE NICE." :)
    – Spook
    Commented Jun 12 at 5:47
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    Interestingly, Death in Terry Pratchett's Discworld always speaks in smallcaps, and it doesn't look like shouting. Although it does look like something guttural or otherworldy.
    – Stef
    Commented Jun 13 at 12:24

10 Answers 10

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One possible technique is to give only that sentence in direct quotation.

Mr. Jones sat at his desk, steepled his fingers together, and sternly discussed the importance of rules and the bad example set when admired students violated them. "And you do realize, Smith, that you would have to pay for the mirror if you broke it?"

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    That's brilliant!
    – Ben
    Commented Jun 12 at 6:13
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Generally, typographic techniques -- using bold, or italics, or both, or changing fonts -- are the least effective methods because they are very subjective.

The stronger techniques are to either describe how the speaker is talking, or show other people reacting to their tone and words.

You can use similes or metaphors.

"You made a mess," said John, sounding like a teacher who was more disappointed than angry.

You can just be declarative.

"You made a mess," said John, sternly.

Or you could exchange 'said' with an appropriate tag -- 'castigated,' 'criticized' maybe. Using said/asked is the preferred pattern, but other tags are fine. It's about the ratio they are used. I counted up said v. non-said tags in a Stephen King novel and he used non-said tags between 5-10% of the time. It's efficient.

The strongest technique is for the dialogue to carry the entire burden of conveying the tone.

"Your answers on the final exam are entirely unacceptable for me to consider giving even a passing grade in this course."

In this method, it's helpful if you've already established speech patterns or word use that link the speaker's attitude with the words. People often fall into subconscious patterns that communicate their inner emotional state to others, so it's not a silly writer's trick.

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A common typographical mark of emphasis is italics.

An advantage of italics is that it isn't generally read as shouting.

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You need to accept that we cannot emulate all the variances of intonation that we find in spoken language in written text.

In conventional fiction we only have unemphasized text (like this) and emphasized text (in italics, like this). Boldface (like this) and all caps (LIKE THIS) are commonly discouraged in fiction, as they stand out in an aesthetically unpleasant manner from the surrounding text and, maybe more importantly, their meaning isn't standardized in the same way that the meaning of italics is.

Emphasis is something that in spoken language only applies to a single word or a short phrase (e.g. "I said blue, not red"). When you put a whole sentence in italics, as Divizna has suggested, it becomes unclear what you mean by that, because you cannot emphasize a whole speech (by definition, emphasis means that you say some parts of speech differently than the rest, and those parts are commonly shorter than the non-emphasized parts) and because italicizing a whole sentence usually has a different meaning (e.g. that it is a voice from a device such as a tv or radio or that it represents thoughts or that it was spoken in a different lanugage and is only rendered in English for the convenience of the reader).

So, as I see it, your only option if you want to let the reader know (without being misunderstood) that your character is speaking in a stern voice, is telling your reader so:

"Come here," John said in a stern voice.

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+1 Divizna; italics is good.

You can also use punctuation to add texture to the speech.

"Blah, bu-blah blah blah. Blahhhh!"

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Character A looked down, then looked up to the heavens as if praying "Lord, give strength". He toyed with the paperknife. Then he looked at Character B. "Blah blah blahhhhh blah blah blah blah", he said, wearily.

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Use staccato language for the person who is angry.
It's like yelling without raising your voice.

Check it out. Just one word sentences.

Stewart stepped into the office of his boss. "Hey, Cheryl said you were looking for me."

His boss looked up and frowned. "Never. Ever. Walk into my office without knocking. Never. Am I perfectly clear? Never. Clear? Don't. Ever. Forget."

Stewart saw a dark blue vein pop out on his boss's forehead. "Uh, yeah. I got it."

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If you go the route of conveying sternness (at least partly) by words, one way may be to adjust the phrasing, changing from "normal mode" to "stern mode".

For example, if A does not usually calls B's name when speaking (as is usual in English (*)), then "Bob, you made a mess" sets the tone.

Or changing from fluent to paused: "Sit down, Bob. We need to talk. You made a mess". Other moods would also be paused, but words would be different.


(*) In Japanese, for example, it is usual to use the other person's name frequently. To simplify, that is because there is no equivalent to the word 'you'.

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Put the last sentence of the lead-up paragraph on its own line. The forced pause wakes the reader up.

AAA AAA, BBB too! And C. And D.
And E.

From my own profile (not here):

In my cozy cave, I was completely alone. Completely free.
Completely naked.

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Make the body language and facial expressions lean more towards the emotion the words would otherwise convey.

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