Formatting dialogue: it’s a thing.

I’m reading a book at the moment in which the author doesn’t use quotation marks for speech, or separate speakers by paragraph. So dialogue goes something like this:

Of course, said the baker, it’s very important to rest your dough before you do anything else with it. I find that leaving it in the kitchen doesn’t have the desired effect if some fool leaves the door open, said the housekeeper. Goodness, replied the baker with a tilt of their eyebrow. I imagine that’s very annoying (yes indeed, the housekeeper affirmed with a nod), but couldn’t you lock the door to prevent it happening?

It’s a stylistic decision that makes conversations seem to flow very quickly, like natural dialogue, and it also fits with the general theme of the novel as one of shifting and confusing boundaries that affect everything from people to the urban geography of the area in which the book is set. So I see what the author is doing, and I do have a certain amount of appreciation/admiration for it.

It just makes it infuriating to actually read.

It’s taken me about a year to get 1/3 of the way through the book because I’m constantly having to shift back and re-read the last sentence, because it’s only at the end of the sentence that I find the speaker has changed, so what they’ve said either doesn’t make sense at all or means something slightly different given the different character’s motivations. It’s having precisely the disorienting effect the author wants it to which is all well and good, nice one m8, u got me, but it’s just so frustrating. I end up reading a few pages, getting too annoyed to continue, then putting it down for weeks until I get the motivation to try again.

(There’s a side-issue here in that the characters all sound exactly the same with no real variation in speech patterns or vocabulary, but I’ll let that slide for the moment.)

Like I say, I get that it’s a stylistic decision but it’s severely impacting my enjoyment of the piece. I’m too busy wrestling the text into submission to really settle into the story. The characters have all these deep conversations about politics and literature which I’m sure are illuminating if not exactly riveting, but I find myself sighing every time they sit down with their cups of tea because I know what I’m about to suffer through.

I’ve never been a fan of those lists of Cardinal Rules of Writing (you can take the word ‘said’ out of my cold dead hands) but I’ve got to say that in this case I’m on their side. Separate dialogue with line breaks. Make it obvious who’s talking. Take pity on your poor readers, unless you want them to skip over your otherwise carefully-crafted dialogue to get to parts that make sense.

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