What is Modulated Dialogue?

Savvy Writer Article #1203
There are four main types of dialogue: Modulated, Directed, Misdirected, and Interpolated. Wow, that’s a mouthful! In this series, I will be sharing basic facts about each style. Today it is . . .

Modulated Dialogue

Modulated Dialogue uses narrative commentary and details to enhance the dialogue. I also call this meat and potatoes dialogue. It’s the most common dialogue type, and it has a beat, which I discussed in my Words for the Journey lesson How to Write Remarkable Dialogue, Part 1. This is dialogue that goes back and forth between what the characters say and narrative description. Good authors get a beat with this—a nice back and forth that gives the writing rhythm.

With modulated dialogue, each line of dialogue is also a place for narrative details. One character may talk about the past, and this sparks internal thoughts which the author describes. Or, a character comments about his or her surroundings, then the author adds scene details before continuing with more dialogue. Body language is often described.

The following is an example of modulated dialogue, starring one of my favorite characters, James Bond, in a scene I made up for this occasion:

“I was wondering when you might show me this,” Bond said, touching the tiny microphone lightly.
Q whipped his arm back, taking the microphone with it. “That isn’t ready yet. What I want to show you is this.” He slowly removed the Mylar blanket that had been covering a large something to Bond’s left.
Bond’s sharp intake of breath was louder than he expected. What had been hiding under the blanket, the lump he had so arrogantly leaned upon as if it were furniture, was the most beautiful automobile he’d seen in his life. Metallic red reflected the laboratory lights as if they were the sun, and the sleek, cat-like design gave the feel of a jungle predator, sure-footed and fast.
“May I?” Bond asked, pointing to the driver-side door and fighting an almost desperate tone in his voice.
Q blinked slowly in assent. “Of course. Just don’t drink, eat, or smoke in it, please.”
“I quit smoking long ago,” said Bond.

This is modulated, meat and potatoes, dialogue. It just goes back and forth between dialogue and description, dialogue and description. It moves the story along, sets the pace, and lets us know what the characters are thinking and feeling (often through body language) and what the environment looks like. As a writer, you should practice modulated dialogue first and get your rhythm. Rhythm is part of your style and voice. Learn it well.

Next time we talk about dialogue, we’ll cover Directed Dialogue. It’s used to emphasize the tension between two people in a scene.
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This post is a re-post of an article on the Words for the Journey Writers Guild blog, with the title The Four Types of Dialogue, Part 1: Modulated Dialogue.

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One response to “What is Modulated Dialogue?

  1. Alice Aldridge-Dennis

    Beautifully-written piece, Denise!

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