[[The question has been edited in an attempt to address the reason it was originally put on hold.]]

Suppose that several individuals are speaking. There are two conversations occurring at once in the same place. Both are heard simultaneously by each person that is present. Each person participates in one and only one conversation.

How does one write dialogue so that it is obvious without explanation that both explicitly quoted speeches occur at once, but without violating conventional grammar?

QUESTION: Specifically, does (1) or (2) as literally heard by the perspective character (PC) violate modern grammar? Which one if any---and in that case, how can it be rewritten without such a violation, yet without rewriting it into (3)?

*COROLLARY**: Are there published modern precedents in novels or short fiction regarding dual but explicit dialogue?

1) There is the em dashery from Tristram Shandy:

"So I told him---This salad is floating---that he doesn't know how---in its dressing!---to fix cars. I look at it and---He needs to get---it's disgusting!---a professional to look at it." Tom spits in the salad and goes on complaining. Janice continues speaking to Bob---who nods and smiles periodically. I don't believe that he can hear what she's saying.


2) There is the symbolic indication of simultaneousness via brackets:

"So I told him that he doesn't know how to fix cars," says Janice. ("This salad is floating in its dressing," Tom complains. "I look at it and---" he spits in the salad.)

"He needs to get a professional to look at it." ("It's disgusting.")

Bob looks at Janice and nods and smiles periodically. I don't believe that he can hear what she's saying.


3) One can summarize who says what and when, or write explicitly the loudest dialogue and summarize what is also said, or separate the speeches and join them with a while clause.

"So I told him that he doesn't know how to fix cars," says Janice. "He needs to get a professional to look at it," she tells Bob.

"This salad is floating in its dressing!" Tom complains while Janice speaks. "I look at it and---" he spits in the salad. "It's disgusting."

Bob looks at Janice and nods and smiles periodically. I don't believe that he can hear what she's saying.

However this cannot achieve the effect which simultaneous dialogues can achieve:

@P.S. I agree: following several overlapping conversations at once is typically confusing if not usually impossible. That's also the point.

"It's noisy and she cannot understand anything that is said ..." is unclear and vague; the reader isn't given the information they need to visualize any realistic group interactions that cause the noisiness mentioned---if that's all the writer tells them.

Several conversations at once that are described as they are heard by the PC is a technical device. It allows the author to reveal information where the PC is present and yet the PC is plausibly unaware of this information despite they fact that they are present there in fact. They hear it but they also have a reason in that context to be insufficiently attentive or incapable of parsing it. (That is not true about the readers, who are made aware of it, because those conversations which are difficult to follow in real time are typically more easily parsed and followed if they are read not heard.)

closed as primarily opinion-based by FumbleFingers, Centaurus, Peter Shor , Misti, Ellie Kesselman Mar 9 '15 at 22:15

Many good questions generate some degree of opinion based on expert experience, but answers to this question will tend to be almost entirely based on opinions, rather than facts, references, or specific expertise. If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

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    I think this is "writing advice", which might be more at home on writers.SE – FumbleFingers Mar 8 '15 at 12:59
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    Usually, I think the writer chooses to fully quote the overpowering voice and summarise the other conversation, sometimes intentionally getting the facts wrong in the mostly-unheard conversation. "This salad is floating in its dressing!", Tom says while Janice goes on about something-or-other to do with her car. – Ian MacDonald Mar 8 '15 at 13:14
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    I find it impossible to follow two conversations at once (even if they're equally loud). Maybe I'm lacking in listening ability, and maybe many people (maybe you) can actually understand two simultaneous conversations . But if your perspective character is like me, they will only be listening to one of them and completely ignoring the other. And including the conversation they're ignoring will probably confuse your readers unless you're very careful how you do it. (All of your above attempts would confuse me.) – Peter Shor Mar 9 '15 at 3:12
  • I made the suggested edit. Hopefully the question isn't opinion based now. I'm worried primarily having to defend the syntax. If it's within accepted grammar I'm satisfied. I have not violated usual grammar before in any of my publications (although they are mostly academic). Experimental writing which is too strange is usually a way of getting invited to revise the text instead of getting published---which is not the desired outcome. – Guido Jorg Mar 12 '15 at 2:33

One way is to simply write it in play script form:

Tom: blah blah

Janice: foo foo

Bob: bleh bleh

Wife: bar bar


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