If you read writing books, you know that your characters should say whatever they say, with no help from you. “John said” or “Mary said.” Neither spluttered, murmured, extemporized, or expostulated. And no one ever said anything with an adverb attached – apologetically, artfully, dolefully, anything. In early to mid-20th century books, even successful authors just added “-ly” to any adjective, however unlikely — I’ve seen “boringly” and “heart-warmingly.” I think that habit is what killed the questionable art of adverbial speaker attribution.
It’s easy enough to know who is speaking when you only have two or three characters in a conversation. In fact, with two, you don’t have to do anything except let them talk – your readers can just follow the back and forth. But what do you do if you have a crowd to manage – a dinner party or the denouement of a complicated mystery?
The first step in keeping a chatty crowd under control is to know all the different ways you can flag the speaker of a line of dialogue. Speaker attributions, of course. “’We’ve got some old friends coming over tonight,’ Mary said.” But if you start ending every paragraph with a “said,” your readers are going to start tripping over them.
Injecting a little bit of action before a line of dialogue can flag a speaker. “Sky held out a hand with dirty fingernails. ‘Hey, dude, it’s been, like forever.’” You can also use a little interior monologue from your viewpoint character. “John could not for the life of him understand why Mary had invited Sky and Lotus Petal. They hadn’t seen them in years. But he may as well make the most of it. ‘It has. Good to see you again.’”
In fact, it’s a good idea to let readers know how your viewpoint character is reacting to the dialogue happening around him or her. If your characters are real people to you, it’s not hard to get caught up in the conversation and forget your viewpoint character is there. That’s how conversations break down to a series of talking heads.
Speaking of your viewpoint character, you can often draw your readers’ attention from one speaker to another by focusing on what drew your viewpoint character’s attention from one speaker to another. And if your viewpoint character has a strong opinion of what’s happening, that can anchor the dialogue even more. “As Lotus Petal spoke, John heard a familiar scratching sound to his right. He turned.
“Sky was lighting a joint in their living room.
“‘Please don’t. We don’t even have ashtrays any more.’”
If a character has a distinctive voice, that’s often enough to identify them without any additional help on your part. “Chill, Dude. You’re harshing my mellow.”
Direct address can show who a character is talking to. “Look, Sky, I’m sorry, but we’re really not comfortable with smoking – anything – in the house.”
If, in the middle of a broader discussion, two characters get into a rapid-fire exchange, you can drop any other forms of identification.
“’Wow,’ Lotus Petal said, ‘you really have sold out, haven’t you?’”
“’Don’t start,’ Mary said. “’We’ve invited you into our home.’”
“You weren’t so uptight back in college.”
“You knew how to behave like a guest back then.”
“And you knew how to make a guest feel welcome—”
“’Ladies, ladies . . . ‘ Sky snuffed the joint out with two fingers and put it in his pocket. ‘We’re all good, right?’”
Once you’re aware of these different approaches to tagging a line of dialogue, all you have to do is mix them up randomly. Be careful not to fall into a pattern. It’s easy to do out of sheer force of habit, but readers will start to notice if your dialogue mechanics develop a rhythm.
And above all, keep the conversation dynamic, with more going on than just the words. Use all these techniques — the beats and interior monologue, the rhythm of the dialogue – not just to show who is saying what but to show how characters react to one another and play off of one another. That’s how you make even a complex conversation a living, organic thing.
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