Let’s Talk Dialogue – Part 3 – 6 Ways Emphasis Can Change Meaning In Dialogue

Let’s Talk Dialogue – Part 3 – 6 Ways Emphasis Can Change Meaning In Dialogue


Writers Write shares writing tips. In this post from our Let’s Talk Dialogues series, we discuss six ways emphasis can change meaning in dialogue.

Most of us don’t speak in a continuous monotone. Even newsreaders have a slight lilt in their delivery. Nobody knows the value of a well-placed emphasis better than a teenage girl. (‘Oh, that’s sooo embarrassing!’). Did you notice how the italics were showing the emphasis there?

Catfight

OK, let’s imagine a group of girls at a party. Everything’s going well – the DJ’s playing One Direction, the boys are acting cool, the girls are dressed like the cast of Gossip Girl – when Tanya storms up to a girl named Chloe.
‘Did you say Keri slept with my boyfriend?’ Tanya demanded.

OMG! How does Chloe respond?

Let’s Talk Dialogue – Part 3 – 6 Ways Emphasis Can Change Meaning In Dialogue

What meaning do you want to stress in your dialogue?

Let’s look at how an emphasis in italics affects the way we understand the dialogue – it even changes the possible meaning of Chloe’s response.

6 Ways Emphasis Can Change Meaning In Dialogue

I never said she slept with your boyfriend,’ Chloe said.
     Meaning: Somebody else said she slept with him.

‘I never said she slept with your boyfriend,’ Chloe said.
     Meaning: How dare you accuse me of something like that?

‘I never said she slept with your boyfriend,’ Chloe said.
     Meaning: Someone else slept with him.

‘I never said she slept with your boyfriend,’ Chloe said.
     Meaning: She maybe just fooled around with him.

‘I never said she slept with your boyfriend,’ Chloe said.
     Meaning: She slept with someone else’s boyfriend.

‘I never said she slept with your boyfriend,’ Chloe said.
     Meaning: I just suspected she slept with him.

When else do we use italics in dialogue or in the narrative?

  1. When we want to isolate foreign words. Example: ‘Êtes-vous blessé?’ asked the French policeman.
  2. We can also use it for uncommon foreign words. Example: Her mother made a delicious tamatie bredie on a cold winter night.
  3. When we use the titles of books, TV shows or albums. Example:  Nigel was reading David Leavitt’s novel The Lost Language of Cranes. Or: Gina was listening to Madonna’s album Like A Prayer. However, if your character is reading a short story, we’d use quotation marks and it would probably look like this: Nigel was reading David Leavitt’s short story ‘Territory’ from his Family Dancing collection. And if your character were listening to a song, it would look like this: Gina was listening to the lead single, ‘Like A Prayer’, from Madonna’s album Like A Prayer.
Brands and the Bible

Of course, there’s always an exception to the rule. We don’t use italics or quote marks for most computer terms, brands or the Bible. Example: Timmy was eating Weetabix for breakfast. Or: David had to upgrade to a new version of Microsoft Windows.

Top Tip: If you want to learn how to write a book, join our Writers Write course in Johannesburg or sign up for our online course.

by Anthony Ehlers

If you want to know more about dialogue, you will love:

  1. Let’s Talk Dialogue – How To Shape And Structure Spoken Words
  2. Let’s Talk Dialogue – Do You Say It Out Loud Or Keep It To Yourself?
  3. Let’s Talk Dialogue – 6 Ways Emphasis Can Change Meaning In Dialogue
  4. Let’s Talk Dialogue – 5 Ways Punctuation Makes It Perfect!
  5. Let’s Talk Dialogue – How Social Media Has Changed Dialogue