2 min read

But they're all dead now

An exchange from Unseen Academicals by Terry Pratchett:

"All right, so you're an orc," Trev said. "So they used to eat people. Have you eaten anyone lately?"

"No, Mister Trev."

"Well, there you are, then."

"You can't arrest someone for something he hasn't done," said one of the bus passengers, nodding sagely. "A fundamental law, that."

"What's an orc?" said the lady next to him.

"Oh, back in the olden days up in Uberwald or somewhere they used to tear people to bits and eat them."

"That's foreigners for you," said the woman.

"But they're all dead now," said the man.

"That's nice," said the woman. "Would anyone like some tea? I've got a flask."

Nutt, a kindly orc, is hunted by Sisters of Perpetual Velocity, who are assaulting him on a bus in (I think) Ankh-Mopork. In theory they are supposed to be protecting people from him as an orc. The passengers have all piled out of the bus to enjoy the improptu street performance, as good Ankh-Moporkians do. It's an entertaining exchange, if dark.

This is a good scene if a long one. The next page is more sad, in a way that works well as a follow-on to the dark humor. Most of the scene doesn't make for good excerpts because it needs more context, which context I mostly don't remember and couldn't find easily.

One minor trick to pick out here is dialog tags used for the pause (?). "Said the woman" and "said the man" in this passage don't seem necessary. By convention we can assume the conversation is alternating between them. Granted, there are a lot of characters in this passage, but even still you probably don't need to clarify quite this much. Still the tags seem useful. So what are they doing for this scene? I think they change the timing – they slow the scene down a little. In particular the final "said the woman" here creates a pause between the first piece of dialog and the second that adds some emphasis or difference in feeling.

(It's sort of weird to think about in that way because the tag doesn't quite change the meaning of what you wrote, only the timing or the reading. Which in dialog sort of does change the meaning, I guess.)

Anyway, using dialog tags to create a pause seems like a useful trick.