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Posted, Sep. 1, 2004
Updated, Sep. 1, 2004

QuickLink: A68801

Writing Tool #21: Quotes and Dialogue

By Roy Peter Clark (more by author)
Senior Scholar, Poynter Institute

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Learn how quotes differ from dialogue.

Reporters tell me that one of the most important lessons they learn in journalism school is to "get a good quote high in the story." When people speak in stories, readers listen. But people speak in different ways.

The St. Paul Pioneer Press covered the sad story of Cynthia Schott, a 31-year-old television anchor who wasted away and died from an eating disorder.

"I was there. I know how it happened," says Kathy Bissen, a friend of Schott's from the TV station. "Everybody did what they individually thought was best. And together, we covered the spectrum of possibilities of how to interact with someone you know has an illness. And yet, none of it made a difference. And you just think to yourself, 'How can this happen?'"

Capturing a person's speech has a variety of names. Print reporters call it a "quote." TV reporters tag it a "sound bite." Radio folks struggle under the awkward word "actuality," because someone actually said it. As in the St. Paul case, the quote offers readers these benefits:

  • It introduces a human voice.
  • It explains something important about the subject.
  • It frames a problem or dilemma.
  • It adds information.
  • It reveals the character or personality of the speaker.
  • It introduces what is next to come.

Here are three quotes from page one of the June 28, 2004 edition of The New York Times:

"We have forces. We have the judicial system, and he is going to go to court. It's going to be a just trial, unlike the trials that he gave to the Iraqi people." –- Iyad Allawi, interim president of Iraq, on his plans for Saddam Hussein

"We can do a better job of creating an environment that isn't 'Lord of the Flies,'" –- Dr. Joel Haber, a psychologist, on how to eliminate bullying from the experience of summer camp

"Less than two percentage points we can handle just by not eating out as much." –- Joyce Diffenderfer on how her family copes with mounting credit card debt

But where is Joyce Diffenderfer? Where is she when she speaks these words? In her kitchen? At the desk where she pays her bills? In her workplace? Most quotes are disembodied -- or perhaps it's more accurate to say they are dis-placed. The words are spoken above or outside the action of the story. Quotes are 'about' the action, not 'in' the action. In that sense, quotes interrupt the progress of the narrative.

Which leads us to the power of dialogue. While quotes provide information or explanation, dialogue presents the reader with a form of action. The quote may be heard, but dialogue is overheard. The writer who uses dialogue transports us to a place and time where we get to experience the events described in the story.

Journalists use dialogue in stories so sparingly, the effect stands out like a sunflower in a meadow.

Consider this passage from Tom French on the trial of a Florida firefighter accused of a horrible crime against his neighbor:

His lawyer called out his name. He stood up, put his hand on a Bible and swore to tell the truth and nothing but. He sat down in the witness box and looked toward the jurors so they could see his face and study it and decide for themselves what kind of man he was.

"Did you rape Karen Gregory?" asked this lawyer.

"No sir, I did not."

"Did you murder Karen Gregory?"

"No sir."

The inhibitions against using dialogue in news stories are unfounded. Although dialogue can be recovered and reconstructed from careful reporting, using multiple sources and appropriate attribution, it can also be directly heard. An angry exchange between the mayor and a city council member can be recorded and published. The reporter who did not witness testimony from a trial may be able to recover accurate dialogue from court transcripts, often available as public records.

The skillful writer can use both dialogue and quotes to create different effects in the same story:

"It looked like two planes were fighting, Mom," Mark Kessler, 6 of Wynnewood, told his mother, Gail, after she raced to the school.

The boy had just witnessed the midair collision of a plane and a helicopter, an accident that dropped deadly wreckage atop an elementary school playground. Here's another passage from the same story:

"It was one horrible thing to watch," said Helen Amadio, who was walking near her Hampden Avenue home when the crash occurred. "It exploded like a bomb. Black smoke just poured."
Helen Amadio offers us a true quote, spoken directly to the reporter. Notice the difference between that quote and the implied dialogue between the young boy and his mother. The six-year-old describes the scene to his frantic mom. In other words, the dialogue puts us on the scene where we can overhear the characters in action.

On rare occasion, the reporter combines the information of the quote and the emotional power of dialogue, but only when the source speaks in the immediate aftermath of the event, and only when the reporter focuses on both words and actions. Rick Bragg carries this off brilliantly in his story on the Oklahoma City bombing:

"I just took part in a surgery where a little boy had part of his brain hanging out of his head," said Terry Jones, a medical technician, as he searched in his pocket for a cigarette. Behind him, firefighters picked carefully through the skeleton of the building, still searching for the living and the dead.

"You tell me," he said, "how can anyone have so little respect for human life?"
Bug - Writer's Toolbox

  1. Read the newspaper looking for quotes and read fiction looking for dialogue. Discuss the different effects upon the reader.
  1. Look for missed opportunities to use dialogue in news reports. Pay special attention to controversial meetings and the coverage of trials.
  1. Develop your ear for dialogue. With a notebook in hand, sit in a public space, such as the mall or an airport lounge. Eavesdrop on nearby conversations and jot down some notes on what it would take to capture that speech in a story.
  1. Read the work of a contemporary playwright, such as Tony Kushner. With friends, read the dialogue aloud and discuss to what extent it sounds like real speech or seems artificial.
  1. Interview two sources about an important conversation they had years ago. See if you can re-create the dialogue to their satisfaction. Begin by speaking to them separately, and then bring them together.

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