All right, you, break it up: Dialogue and reactions

I haven’t found anything in any of my usage or grammar texts about this particular topic. I suspect it’s because the issue is one more of craft or art than of science (inasmuch as one can compare grammar to a science; one sure as hell can’t do that with usage, I know that for a fact).

Here’s the thing: I’ve seen paragraphs containing dialogue and reactions, and while that’s not illegal, the way it was written was less than clear. Person A says something, person B reacts to it in the same graf, and then A says something again. Why? Is it because the writer was taught that grafs have to be N sentences long? (N is often 10, for some reason entirely unknown to me. I had a professor, a Kipling scholar, who insisted that if we couldn’t write 10 sentences about a topic sentence, we needed a different topic sentence.) Not that any of these grafs came close to that, but it’s about all I can think of to explain the phenomenon.

So, okay. This dialogue will be crap, because I’m not a writer, but it will illustrate the problem at hand well enough. Slog on with me, if you would, please.

“What do you mean, he’s not breathing?” asked the detective. Mary gasped, jumping enough that her coffee sloshed over the rim of the cracked cup, and swallowed hard. What was she supposed to say? “I asked you a question, lady. I expect an answer.”

I’m left wondering why Mary’s reaction is sandwiched into that. Traditional dialogue as taught in middle or high school classes would render it thus:

“What do you mean, he’s not breathing?” asked the detective.

Mary gasped, jumping enough that her coffee sloshed over the rim of her cracked cup, and swallowed hard.

“I asked you a question, lady. I expect an answer.”

And while that may be one version of correct, I think it can be handled more elegantly. What about this:

“What do you mean, he’s not breathing?” asked the detective. He sidled out of range of the sloshing coffee cup Mary struggled to control, and eyed her warily. Her breathing had gotten ragged when he questioned her, and her eyes were wild. “I asked you a question, lady. I expect an answer.”

It seems more appropriate, to me anyway, to keep the description “in the head” of the person speaking. Rather than interjecting Mary’s reaction, let the detective provide the information in his own manner.

I fully expect someone to disagree with me. That’s okay. This is how I’ve been handling this particular issue for years, now. No one’s whined about it. (At least not directly to me so’s I would know about it — perhaps they bitch to their spouses or their dogs. Cats don’t give a shit, so it’s pointless to bitch to them.)

There’s another post coming soon(ish) about formatting dialogue, specifically about when you need to put it on a new line. I’ve notice a very odd thing happening, and I want to address it while it’s still fresh in my head.

As always, thank you for reading what I have to say. I hope it’s of some use to someone, somewhere.

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