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Tuesday, February 15

Wait—Who Said That? Keeping Your Speakers Straight

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Dialogue is a cornerstone of any story, but the more characters we put into a scene the harder it is to keep track of who's doing the talking. Adding dialogue tags helps, but too many and things get out of hand. How do you find the right balance of tags vs direction vs internalization in a room with multiple speakers?

Let's Chat

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, but I discovered while writing my MG fantasy, Blue Fire, that the more folks I put in the room the harder the dialogue was to write.

Wait, let me clarify that.
The dialogue is still easy. It’s the keeping everyone straight that makes me want to scream.

Dealing with multiple speakers (let’s say three and up) adds a layer of complexity to a scene. Dialogue tags become more frequent because you 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 there.

There are ways to avoid this, however. These are perfect opportunities for a little stage direction, some internalization, and some character building—all while helping your reader keep track of who is saying what.

The Name Game

One of the biggest issues you’re likely to face is having too many names too often, especially if there are more than three speakers. I found that grouping them helped break up the names. For example, two people might hold a small conversation within a conversation while the others in the room watched, allowing me to identify them once, and then do the traditional back and forth dialogue structure. When I wanted to introduce a new speaker, I let that person chime in, and let one of the others fall out. It becomes almost a round robin of speakers.

Dealing With Dialogue Tags

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. Combat this by using stage direction or character actions. 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.

Think About Who’s There

Your point of view (POV) character can also remind everyone that there are lots of people in the room by thinking about them. Internalization can suggest continued conversation without actually 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 your POV think about it as it continues “off screen” in a “Bob groaned. The girls ignored him and kept screaming at each other” kind of way. They can pick up again by speaking and resuming the conversations.

Things to Watch Out For

Multiple speakers can read awkwardly, so make sure to vary your sentence lengths and rhythms. A lot of short sentences in a row often makes this even worse, and too many long ones makes it easy to forget who was speaking in the first place. Reading it out loud is particularly helpful in these cases. Flip names around so they fall in different spots, move tags from the front, to the middle, to the end of the dialogue. Mix up he said with an action tag.

Keep the Reader Updated

The most important thing is to make sure the reader can always figure out who is speaking. If the sentences are short, tags at either end work great. But if the sentence is long, and there are multiple speakers, tagging at the end with a new speaker can jar the reader. They’ll naturally assume the speaker is one of the ones they’ve been following, and might have to go back and re-read when they learn it’s someone else. It’s a good idea to tag those longer new speaker lines first or within a few words so the reader is clear that the speaker has changed.

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.

If you're looking for more to improve your writing, check out one of my books: 

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 Shifter, Blue 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 Structure, and the Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft series.
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Originally published during the Blue Fire blog tour at Writerland.


  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.