Three characters in a book are talking. The scene is heating up, and the dialogue is going faster. Then, suddenly, you ask yourself, “Wait, who said that line?” and spend a long time figuring out what exactly is happening.
Everyone’s had that experience, and if you’re a writer, it’s something you fear happening with your own works. Here are some tips and Black Dynamite gifs to help you avoid having dialogue that is difficult to read due to simple mistakes.
Use Standard Punctuation for Easy Reading
Direct tagging, or using ‘said’ words along with a title for the speaker, is the way your teacher probably taught you to make dialogue a long time ago. A simple example:
“How are you today?” Sam asked.
In the above, the speaker – Sam – is obviously pointed out. A bit less obvious, however, are the ways to keep this type of dialogue easy to read and effective at communicating information. If you do your job right, a reader will be able to slide right over your punctuation without tripping.
Remember to keep quote marks outside punctuation like periods, commas, or question marks. When you have the dialogue tag ‘she said’ or ‘he said,’ remember that you should use a comma instead of a period.
This is right:
“I was at the store,” Alex said.
Whereas these are wrong:
“I was at the store.” Alex said.
“I was at the store” Alex said.
These basic rules can be broken, but it should be for good reason and with consistency. The most memorable example I can think of is Johnny Tremain, a book set in Revolutionary War-era Boston that used apostrophes instead of quotation marks. Even though the consistency made the author’s use of apostrophes work, it still took time for me to get over as a reader. Think very carefully if the work your reader puts in will be worth it before you commit to non-standard format.
Indicate Speakers Through Action
When direct tagging is used repeatedly, the effect can become boring. The tags, rather than melting into the background, become thorns that stick into a reader’s brain.
I learned this later than a trained writer would, so I know this lesson’s not entirely obvious. By decorating the paragraph around your dialogue with actions and a specific actor, you can indicate a speaker. Using action also helps your readers see the placement of your characters, see the setting, and visualize the speech.
Sam wiped his brow, taking the sweatband off with a pass of his hand. “I’m going to the store.”
So much more about Sam’s situation is apparent in this example. By placing Sam’s movement just next to the quote, a reader can easily associate the action with the speaker. You can put the actions before, after, or even break up dialogue to indicate who is speaking.
Is it appropriate in every case? No. But it is very effective, and it’s the hardest to practice.
Give Your Characters Distinct Voices
One of the hardest types of scene to get right is one in which 3 or more people speak. In a movie or play, each character can be seen talking – but in writing, writers have to indicate who says which line. That can get tedious real quick.
Instead, label sections with a high density of dialogue by giving your characters unique ways of speaking.
“I was attending a seance at the time.”
“Cal? She with you?”
“I… I don’t know what to say.”
In the above exchange, it’s pretty clear that there are 3 characters at least. The first sentence is from a character who uses larger, more mysterious words. The second sentence is from someone who tends to skip words or information, giving short queries and responses. The third person, at least in this scene, is nervous.
In addition to these stylistic differences, the characters reference each other to elicit a response from the correct party. By combining this with voice, you can cleverly get away with using no indicators of speaker at all. But beware – this can also be dangerous territory, so keep an eye out for confusing stuff.
Dialogue is important in prose, and it’s something every writer must practice. Do you have any dialogue writing tips? Leave them in the comments below!