By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy
Dialog 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 dialog 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?
Wait, let me clarify that.
The dialog 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. Dialog 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 dialog 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 Dialog 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 dialog. 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 dialog. 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.
Originally published during the Blue Fire blog tour at Writerland.