My story for InMon on Thursday raised a great comment from Stuart, including the observation that he’d sometimes struggled to identify who was speaking. The scene involved three girls, discussing the Narrator’s one night stand the previous night, and I know what Stuart means; it’s a challenge I hate as a reader and face as a writer, so I thought I’d stop and deal with it in more detail today.
When I discussed this with my writing group on Saturday, we decided that sometimes it doesn’t matter which friend is saying every single comment – what’s important may just be their effect on the narrator. But as a writer, that’s a really brave call to make. There will be readers who will be turned off the story by this, and those readers might occasionally be the ones who decide whether you get published or not! So, how do we deal with this problem?
The Easy Answer
The most straightforward way to avoid confusion is to use dialogue tags, most obviously “she said” or “said Alice” etc. Whilst it’s good to occasionally mix things up and have someone squeak, shout or whisper, for the most part, writing guides discourage too much imagination on dialogue tags – we read “said” without slowing down, but anything else disrupts the brain’s concentration on the dialogue itself, apparently.
But putting “said Alice”, “said Louisa”, “I said” after every line of dialogue gets a bit tiresome after a while. And most of the time, dialogue tags come either in the middle or at the end of the speeches they refer to – ideally, the reader doesn’t want to wait that long to find out who’s speaking.
Slightly More Sophisticated
It’s a step up from tags to actions. For example: “Who cares?” Alice had let go of the gain control again.
This allows you to identify Alice as the speaker without any sort of tag. The rule here is, one paragraph per person, so if the action is in the same paragraph as the words, it’s done by the speaker.
Watch out for the tag / action distinction so bemoaned by writing coaches. You can speak and smile, for example, but you cannot smile a speech. Compare the punctuation in:
“Have a biscuit,” Evan smiled.
“Have a biscuit.” Evan smiled.
The first version implied that Evan smiled the words, which is impossible. In the second, someone says the words (and because it’s in the same paragraph, we can assume it’s Evan) and Evan smiles.
The fanciest way to distinguish between speakers is through character. In a super-short story like Thursday’s, that’s not so easy to do, but it’s a skill I definitely need to work on even within those boundaries, and in a longer piece it’s imperative.
The goal is for the reader to know your characters so well, they know who is speaking from the words they say. Think about your favourite book or TV show. If I gave you a few lines from it, you’d probably be able to tell me who is talking.
This is another danger zone: take it too far and the characters become wooden or caricatured. But there’s definitely a happy medium. I struggled to differentiate Louisa and Alice on Thursday because I made them so similar. Of course they are similar, they are friends, of the same age, living in the same place. They have shared idiom and experiences. But even when we lived on top of each other at university, my best friend and I didn’t speak exactly the same way. I’ve been with my husband more than a decade, but he and I are definitely distinguishable in the way we speak too.
So if I were to go back to Thursday’s story and improve it, I’d work on the girls’ characters some more. I’d find the differences between Alice and Louisa in particular, and the Narrator too, and I’d bring them out better in the dialogue.
A note on duologue
All the above still works, but if there are only two people speaking, it’s a little easier. As long as you punctuate and paragraph correctly, the reader can follow the exchange like a singles tennis match between them, with just the occasional tag to orientate us occasionally so we don’t get lost and have to count up half a page.
Sometimes, you can be sneaky and put names into the speech instead. If Sarah and Pete are talking and someone says “What do you think, Sarah?”, we know it must be Pete. But in real life most people rarely actually say each other’s names out loud, so use this sparingly. And still aim for top marks where you can.
I once wrote an entire 7000 word story as a duologue between a brother and sister. There was not a single word outside the quotation marks: no tags or actions, just the words they spoke, like a radio play. But for the most part (not entirely, it still needs work), I think you can tell who is speaking because of a combination of the other tricks mentioned here.
If you’re working on a story right now, how do you make it clear who’s speaking?