Friday, 11 November 2011

Using Speech Tags To Change The Stress In Dialogue

He said, she said. Such simple words, yet they can be placed to make subtle differences to the meaning of your dialogue. "I believe Nancy is a good writer." That seems a straightforward sentence. Now read through the next three sentences...

"I," Sarah said, "believe Nancy is a good writer."
"I believe," Sarah said, "Nancy is a good writer."
"I believe Nancy," Sarah said, "is a good writer."

Each sentence now has a different subtext according to where the break is.

"I - and this is my personal belief even if it's not yours - believe Nancy is a good writer."
"I believe - but on the other hand I could be wrong about this - Nancy is a good writer."
"I believe Nancy - but not Jemima, Jim and John - is a good writer."

The belief is altered by the stress on the sentence, and the stress is indicated by the last word before the break.

That is a word that I use too much (That is a word I use too much is more succinct) but it does have its place from time to time...

"I believe that," Sarah said, "Nancy is a good writer."

In this case the 'that' is acting like a drum roll, making us wait to find out, gripping the table with the suspense of it all, who exactly does Sarah believe is a good writer. And the stress ends up with Nancy. Having said that, the original sentence - I believe Nancy is a good writer - doesn't need the addition of a that - I believe that Nancy is a good writer.

People tend not to speak in a monotone, so changing the stress is one way we can indicate the rhythm of their speech patterns. It's a good idea to say your characters' dialogue out loud so you can work out which words need to be stressed, and whether you need a break to indicate this. Mind you, anyone in earshot will think you're bonkers, but I reckon that's a small price to pay.


Jim Murdoch said...

Of course the use of italics would add further colour: ""I believe Nancy," Sarah said, "is a good writer."

Lost said...

Very interesting. I'm just looking at formatting speech, but hadn't considered before how much of a difference the placement of speech tags could make.

steve poling said...

I want to disagree, but I can't say how. I must experiment with this.

penny simpson said...

Never did like Nancy's writing...!

Sarah Duncan said...

Jim, agree with you, but it looks a bit ugly on the page - think I wouldn't break the sentence at all, given that the italics give the stress.

Lost, it's all to do with the rhythm of how we speak. A lot of this we do naturally without thinking so it's understandable that we don't analyse it, just do it.

Steve, do you want to disagree on principle?

Penny, Tsk, how can you say such things?

Laura E James said...

I totally agree with that. Or rather, I totally agree with 'that'. 'That' is one of my pet hates and only use it when it adds necessary rhythm or emphasis. Just like just.