Wednesday, November 04, 2020

How to Handle Multiple Speakers in a Scene Without Confusing Your Reader

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Too many cooks might spoil the soup, but too many speakers will clutter the scene.

Before I dive in today, here's a heads up that I'm guest posting at Writers in the Storm today, chatting about 10 Ways to Get a Stuck Story Moving Away. Come on by and say hello.

I love dialogue. It’s the easiest thing for me to write, so there’s usually a lot of it in my books. When it’s just a few people talking it’s no trouble at all keeping the speakers clear, but the more character I put in the room, the harder the dialogue is to write. 

Wait, let me clarify that.

The dialogue is still easy. It’s the keeping everyone straight without overwhelming readers that makes me want to scream.

When it comes to multiple speakers in a scene, clarity is key.

Dealing with multiple speakers (let’s say three and up) adds a layer of complexity to a scene that can spiral out of control. Dialogue tags become more frequent because we don’t have the natural turn-taking sequence we’re used to reading. It starts to get clunky, because every line is tagged and way too many “he said, she saids” get in the way. And then there’s the whole, “what do I do with a character when they aren’t speaking for a while?”

With a little stage direction, internalization, and character building, you can help readers keep track of who is saying what. Just remember:

Not everyone has to speak at once.

Approach a room full of speakers with care. It’s easy to overload your readers and make it hard for them to keep track of what’s going on. Try grouping speakers to help break up the names. For example, two might hold a small conversation within a conversation while the others in the room watch, or do their own thing, or keep speaking “off screen.”

You might also identify the speakers once, then do the traditional back and forth dialogue structure. When you want to introduce a new speaker, let that person chime in, and perhaps let one of the others fall out, so it becomes a round robin of speakers.

Another trick: Let non-speakers react with non-speech noises, such as a laugh or a grunt. Your speaker can acknowledge them, but they aren’t the focus of the conversation.

(Here’s more on Want Better Characters? Get Rid of the Dialogue) 

Strong conversations use more than words.

Tagging dialogue with “said” isn’t going to cut it after several lines, and there are only so many times you can slip in “asked” or “whispered” or even “shouted.” “She verbed” tags get repetitive pretty quickly when a lot of characters are speaking.

Stage direction or character actions help break up the dialogue and still maintain awareness of the people in the room. Let Bob rub his eyes, Jane can pour herself a drink, Sally can run over and close the windows. Not only will this help keep the speakers straight, it gives you opportunities to characterize or show a bit of setting.

(Here’s more on How to Subtly Boost Your Dialogue’s Power With Body Language) 

The point-of-view character can play narrator.

Your point-of-view character’s internalization can suggest continued conversations without showing the dialogue. This one can be tricky, because you don’t always want to summarize a conversation, but if you start something like say, an argument, you can let the character think about it as it continues “off screen.”

For example: Bob groaned. The women ignored him and kept arguing, their accusations growing more and more heated.

Then simply pick up again by resuming the conversation, such as: Bob waved a hand until they paused. “I get it,” he said, “I messed up and you’re rightfully pissed off, but we have zombies in the lobby.”

(Here’s more on Bob and Weave: How to Mix Character Actions and Internal Thoughts) 

You can fall into a bad pattern if you aren't careful.

Tagging multiple speakers the same way every time reads awkwardly and makes the whole conversation clunky. Vary your sentence lengths and rhythms. Flip names around so they fall in different positions (before the dialogue, in the middle, at the end), move tags from the front, to the middle, to the end of the dialogue. Mix up “s/he said” with an action tag.

A lot of short sentences in a row makes this even more clunky, and too many long passages without a break makes it easy to forget who was speaking in the first place. Reading it out loud is particularly helpful in these cases.

(Here’s more on Give Me a Beat: Rhythm in Dialogue) 

The author is the social director of the scene. Own it.

Clarity is key. Make sure readers can always tell who's speaking. If the sentences are short, tags at either end work well to identify speakers. If the sentences are long, the sooner you tag the new speaker the better. 

For example, if Bob and Sally have been having a back-and-forth-conversation, and Jane suddenly pipes up with a comment, make it clear she’s the one speaking:

Use: “I don’t know,” said Jane from the back. “They aren’t acting like the zombies we’ve seen so far.”

Not: “I don’t know. They aren’t acting like the zombies we’ve seen so far,” said Jane from the back.

Readers will naturally assume the speaker is one of the people already speaking. Discovering it’s a new character will jar them out of the story and might even force them to re-read the dialogue.

(Here’s more on Hey, Who Said That? Polishing Our Dialogue Tags) 

Remember—readers don’t have the author’s knowledge about the scene.

It’s easy for us to keep track of who says what and when, but readers can only go by what’s on the page. Don’t leave them out of the loop. Make sure they can follow along and the conversation is clear.

Multiple speakers take extra work, but sometimes you really need the whole gang there. Keep your eyes (and ears) open for clarity and flow, and everyone will get their say.

EXERCISE FOR YOU: If you have a multiple-speaker conversation in your novel, double check to make sure it’s clear who’s speaking, and that you aren’t creating awkward rhythms in the text. Read it out loud, run it past a critique partner or writer friend, or both.

Do you ever have trouble with too many speakers in a scene? How do you handle it? 

*Originally published February 2011. Last updated November 2020.

If you're looking for more to improve your craft (or a fun fantasy read), check out one of my writing books or novels:

In-depth studies in my Skill Builders series include Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means), and Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It). My Foundations of Fiction series includes Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for plotting a novel, and the companion Plotting Your Novel Workbook, and my Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft series, with step-by-step guides to revising a novel. 

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The ShifterBlue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize (2011), and The Truman Award (2011). 

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing, including Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It)Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structureand the Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft series.
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  1. Long ago I was told that I should always keep dialog from one character seperated from another. Before that I was having two, even three characters converse back and forth within a single paragraph. It was awful!

  2. Great suggestions. Thanks!

  3. I love dialogue too, so this advice is very helpful for me. Thanks!

  4. Thanks for the suggestions. This was giving me trouble lately. Back to the keyboard...

  5. Paul: Eek! LOL I can imagine. I'm sure you're not alone in that though.

    vvdenman: Most welcome

    Teralyn: Anytime ;)

    Tara: I hope it helps!

  6. Great tips. I rend to struggle with this, as I have to deal with multiple characters at a given time.


  7. This is something that not a lot of authors consider when writing dialogue between more than a few people. Thanks for sharing!


  8. Yeah, I've been having to deal with this, myself, lately.

    I also have a tendency to stick too many characters in a room. I've learned to list who's in a scene, why they're there, and what they're doing, if the scene doesn't come easily to me.

  9. On the first pass, I tend to tag everything so I can blast on while I have the idea of the conversation. Later, I have to add stage direction or decide whether it's obvious who is speaking, etc.

    Thanks for refreshing this concept and reminding me that I still have a few more passes to go before I stop losing everyone.

  10. I write longhand and do dialogue fast. I mark in the left margin the initial of the speaker & do tags later.

  11. I feel for you, Paul, my old critique group had issues with this very thing when they read my work. It gets hard to not have an overload of tags while still making it clear who's saying what without people getting needlessly confused.

    Especially when you're dealing with scenes with three or more characters at once.

    Janice, thanks for the tips, they'll definitely help me out.

    Thanks for mentioning how too many uses of "Said" in tags stops being invisible, I think that's one of the statements that can't be hyped enough.

    Too many "Said" tags can be just as annoying as coming up with too many replacements for "Said."

    As you said, there are times in a story when you need "The whole gang there" for both plot and character reasons, and that with the right strategic editing, you'll get a good play by play with your dialogue, like in the really good movie and television shows.

    Today I shared my thoughts on career themes on my blog, hope some of you check it out. This is only the start of my comeback. Thank God for movies, food, and the right books to snap you out of a emotional coma.


  12. Misha: Thanks! I think it's always a struggle, even once you figure it out. So many moving pieces to keep track of.

    Tessa: Most welcome!

    Carradee: Lists are great.I always have an in-progress file with all kinds of lists and notes of things to remember.

    Mouth: I do the opposite, so my first draft scenes are a mess :) Sometimes even I forget who said what, hehe. I need to tag more in first drafts!

    Pamela: That's really cool. Good tip!

    Taurean: Indeed.

  13. Great advice, thank you and please keep it coming :)

  14. Most welcome, and that's the plan :)

  15. Thanks for these ideas to put in my new toolbox. I surely can use them.

  16. Really a great summary.

    I always think there are four main options: no tag, said, He Verbed (and I put She Said Adverbially here too), and "beats" of description. Those are in increased order of detail, so tagless and said take the least effort and take the least attention away from the speech itself, while a beat takes a moment to add a whole other dimension to it.

    And I agree that the He Verbed forms are best used sparingly because they're clearly Telling instead of going big with Showing or getting out of the way. But a lot of that is that none of these four (including Said) can be leaned on too much. It's about which is right for the moment, and keeping a sense of variety.

    1. Thanks, Ken!

      I like your breakdown of "sparse to detailed." That's a good thing to keep in mind when deciding how much info you need for each line of dialogue.

      Variety is certainly key with writing. Anything that gets used too much starts to feel repetitious, or even create monotonous rhythms.

      Good stuff.