A few days ago, I stumbled upon an issue of the type; meaning I had two characters talking between themselves and another character talking in the background; actually delivering a speech.

What the problem is, is that what the speaker's saying is important (for the most part at least) to one of the characters talking (could be both, but it was only one in my case).

I'm not sure how to get this in writing, as opposed to how easily this is done in movies (background speaker's volume is lowered by about half maybe while the characters in the foreground can whisper loud enough for the people watching the movie).

Should I maybe use some fancy formatting to set it apart from the foreground dialogue?

Such as:

"The individuals or groups responsible for the senseless bombing..."

She approached him taking care not to make any noise or disturb anyone around her. She seated at Jimmy's right side and peered at him. "What's going on?"

"... will bear the full weight of justice."

He grimaced from the interruption. "The President's delivering his statement about the bombing yesterday."

or with more interaction between the characters:

"Is any of you strong enough to hold the rubble while we get inside? I wouldn't want to..."

Tommy was about to step forward to help, but was interrupted by Sydney. The latter visibly was out of breath. "Finally I found you! Bad news, other regions have been affected and the damages have been far reaching."

"Yes, like this, but this isn't enough, I'll need more..."

Tommy bit his tongue. He couldn't leave everyone here, no matter how hard he wished to. "What is the progress towards clearing the exit?"

"Hey you there! Could you leave your damsel and give me a hand?"

Or is there a better/more effective way so that readers don't get confused? The speech styles of all the characters involved may not necessarily be different. Or is this something to be avoided in writing completely?

EDIT: The speaker in my case will soon interact with the other characters as well. It seems relevant, so I added another example.

  • 1
    Shouldn't the speaker's lines be cut in-between? The characters get more face time (and I assume the speaker doesn't get any stage direction/narration apart from dialog) so I expect words to be lost from the speaker's speech in the transcription (here, 'transcription' is what you show in dialog, as opposed to outline/summarize in narration).
    – Mussri
    Commented Apr 27, 2013 at 17:57
  • Right, some of the lines I guess can be cut in. We could say in the example I posted, that the 'cut' part mentions when and where the 'bombing' took place. I also added that the speaker will soon interact more with the characters, and well, in the my story, the speaker's part is a bit more fleshed out as well with actions accompanying the speech. I just added another example, a bit closer to what I have in my story.
    – Jerry
    Commented Apr 27, 2013 at 18:13

3 Answers 3


I think your first example is perfect, making sure that you drop out words from the speaker to indicate the passage of time as your foreground characters are talking "over" the speaker. It makes perfect sense to me as a reader what's occurring.

  • Thanks for the input! How about the second one? Is it still as clear? The fact that the speaker talks with the characters later tend to make me think there's a point (when the speaker switches from being in the background, to the foreground) when I need to drop the italics, but will it create more confusion or? I'm really clueless, sorry ^^;
    – Jerry
    Commented Apr 27, 2013 at 19:00
  • 1
    The italics in this structure indicate a remove from the two foreground speakers, so I would not use italics for the second example unless it was meant to indicate emphasis (screaming). In the second one, the "background" person is sort of right next to them. In either case, when the "background" speaker starts to interact with the foreground characters, you must drop the italics. I have seen once where the author had two columns of text side-by-side to indicate simultaneous thought, but I don't recommend it. Commented Apr 27, 2013 at 22:51
  • Thank you! And I can imagine that having two columns side by side is quite original. I've never seen it myself, but you're right. I don't think that it's the ideal solution either. The effect I think would be the same since one would have to read one of the two first, unless people can read different lines at the same time.
    – Jerry
    Commented Apr 28, 2013 at 8:43
  • 2
    I agree that putting the background speaker's words in italics is a good idea. I've seen that done and it does clearly set them off. The idea of using two columns is interesting, but it would be decidedly unusual, and therefore the reader's attention would likely be focused more on the odd technique than on what the characters are saying or doing. I would save something like that for a VERY rare case where I really wanted to emphasize simultaneous action. Frankly, I doubt I'd do it unless there were many places in the story where it was appropriate, so the reader would get used to it.
    – Jay
    Commented Apr 29, 2013 at 15:45

I saw an effective example of this in 1634: The Baltic War (David Weber & Eric Flint) recently. The factors that made it work were:

  • The background speech was in italics (as you've done here).

  • The passages of background speech began and ended in the middle of sentences.

  • There wasn't a lot of back-and-forth; for every speech chunk there were at least a few paragraphs of foreground action.

  • The content of the speech clearly showed passage of time (as suggested by Lauren Ipsum).

As I read this I felt that this was a familiar technique -- surely I've seen it before.

  • Thank you for the answer :) It certainly helps to confirm the technique to do this I believe!
    – Jerry
    Commented Aug 20, 2013 at 11:55

As a reader I very much dislike fancy formatting and commingled narrative. Narrative should be linear, i.e. sticking to one point of view, and formatting should be constricted to italics for emphasis, foreign words and such. That's all.

From a reader perspective I would expect something like this:

"... bla bla bla ...", Tommy said, when Ricky's attention was caught by a word that stood out from the general noise of the talking crowd:

"... you really must use your pencil to write!"

Why the hell would I want to write with a pencil, Ricky thought, and returned his attention to Tommy:

"Sorry, Tommy, I was distracted for a moment. What did you just say?"

Don't put anything that Ricky does not process into your text!

Sorry for the bad prose, English is not my native language. But you get the idea.

  • 3
    Hmm, I'm not too sure about this, because... have you ever been in a situation where, while there are more than one thing going on, you are observing/hearing/sensing different things? You can be actively listening to someone speaking to you, but in the pauses, you also get to hear background noise, and it doesn't need great attention to pick up some key words, especially if they are told with specific intonation; and usually good speakers are good at that, otherwise, people would get bored during their speeches ;)
    – Jerry
    Commented Aug 20, 2013 at 11:58
  • Yes, but if YOU are there, and observe all those things, then YOU are the protagonist and everything is told from your perspective. That is just what I did in my example: you (Ricky) switch your attention from one thing to another, or, if you like, with a "soft focus" take it all in at the same time. Just show how your attention switches, and don't simply mix different speeches without comment and let the reader make sense of the confusion.
    – user5645
    Commented Aug 20, 2013 at 14:42
  • Erm, okay? I guess that part wasn't so obvious. I did intend those bits to be from the POV of the protagonist. It feels though, that by saying "when Ricky's attention was caught by a word that stood out from the general noise of the talking crowd", it's more telling than showing, whereas if a reader correctly interprets the second italicised dialogue as from the background, I feel it to be a bit more effective. I wonder if anyone could add their thoughts on this maybe?
    – Jerry
    Commented Aug 20, 2013 at 15:03

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