Syntax coloring to isolate dialogue

One of my occasional problems – I have to think it happens once in a while to other fiction writers – is that I bring characters together and have them talk for page after page. Alternatively, I start a narrative, and no one says anything for page after page. Those passages of all-talk or no-talk can be deadly if you’re not Dickens or Melville. (And maybe even if you are.) Ordinarly you’ll spot that in the re-write process, but even then your short-range editing view can blind you to long-range conditions.

How about a simple version of syntax coloring, which most text editors provide? Then – assuming you use quotation marks or some other typography to set off dialogue – you could reduce the page view to 50%, use a wide screen, and scan a whole chapter in two or three pages, watching for the oceans of black and seas of red which might need to be re-organized.

OTOH, maybe it doesn’t happen to other writers. Or readers don’t care as much as I do. Or this is already possible in S and I just haven’t come across it.


Have you tried just using a short annotation prefix before each line? If you just use initials, or some other short identifier, it wouldn’t take much time to do, and they can all be stripped out by the exporter in the end. Just something like this, where brackets denote the annotation limits:

[S: ]"Whatever, it's like, you know..."

You could also use highlighters, but that would limit your use of them elsewhere, and would also limit how many characters you can track.

Av: Thanks for the suggestions, but I don’t really want to track individual characters, nor do I want a full-time visualization. All I had in mind was a tool which I could apply – perhaps only a few times over the course of writing a novel – which would show, in a general sense, where I had people standing around and talking all the time, and where I neglected to have them talk at all. It’s little better than a whimsy, perhaps, but I think it helps the flow, not only in the reader’s mind, but on the page as well. Rather like checking back once in a while to see than your paragraphs are not all running about the same size, or running a word-frequency check to see that you’re not overdoing superfluous adverbs (which may itself be redundant).

I see where I was confused! While of course I am not the one with the gavel, I’m guessing you’ll get a no on this one. “Syntax” highlighting has been brought up before and rejected, though I do not believe prose highlighting as been brought up; which is definitely of a different intent. You never know though!

Unfortunately, the only work-arounds I can think of (use of highlighters; paragraph styling) are not temporary in nature, and would get in the way of what you really want here.

Forgive me, PJS, if I’ve misunderstood your problem, but it seems to me that it’s one of layout.

As a writer of fiction I, too, like to check from time to time that my chapters have enough (but not too much) of the solid prose broken up by dialogue. I achieve this by looking at print preview thumbnails in a word processor after exporting the Draft.

Standard layout for a manuscript is, as you doubtless know, double-spaced and with the first line of each paragraph (except the first paragraph of a chapter or section) indented 5 spaces. This applies to dialogue as much as to narrative. And there is no extra white space between paragraphs, or speakers in dialogue. In other words, a manuscript should not be laid out like a business letter – or this post.

When I export the Draft I change the spacing to 1.5 so that it looks more like a printed page, and I can see quite clearly, even when the pages are reduced to, say, 6 per screen, how much dialogue there is. Those indented lines give it away. (Mind you, I write quick-fire dialogue. No single speaker holds forth for longer than two or three lines without being interrupted.)

In Scrivener I’ve set the line spacing to 1.2 and indented the first line of each paragraph, with no space between paragraphs (in Preferences), so that even the scrivenings look more or less like the final printed version.

Hope this non-technical solution helps.


cw: You’re right. While the problem itself isn’t simply a matter of layout, the solution I’m looking for is. I don’t have a “word processor” – unless we grant AppleWorks an honorary designation – but I tried your idea with an RTF export into Tofu, and it works fine. Using a 10-point display face with the 3-column format, I can scan about two thousand words at a glance. (Next time, maybe I’ll get the 20-inch screen.)

Thanks for the help.