Tips for Dialogue Among Multiple Characters?

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Emily J
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Re: Tips for Dialogue Among Multiple Characters?

Post by Emily J » July 27th, 2010, 3:27 pm

Everything in moderation is my motto.

I think a combination of all the methods pointed out thus far (interjecting action, dialogue tags, and allowing the conversation to reveal the speaker) would be very effective. Any tactic when over-used becomes overt and thus artificial and distracts readers from the story itself.

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polymath
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Re: Tips for Dialogue Among Multiple Characters?

Post by polymath » July 27th, 2010, 4:39 pm

Variation, too, as well as moderation. I encounter writers who stick to one-easy-to-remember standardized method in many different aspects of writing. Compound words, for example. Anymore, meaning any longer or further, also any more meaning the same thing in traditional uses, but conventionally also more prescriptively meaning any additional more things. In many word terms, one form might be compounded, hyphenated, or separate words depending on whether noun, verb, adjective, or adverb. For example, follow up, verb, follow-up, noun; follow-up, adjective.

Depicting speech In dialogue is one common method. Summarization in indirect discourse is another method less commonly used by fiction writers, but more judiciously common in pubished writing.

"Did you bring the howitzer, Consuella?" Hregog asked. Direct Tagged Discourse.

She replied, no, she didn't, in heavily accented Spanish and with a sharp shake of the head. Indirect Tagged Discourse.

She didn't, of course, and emphasized her frustration by a pointed nod of her head at the broken-down Range Rover. Free Indirect Discourse.
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Re: Tips for Dialogue Among Multiple Characters?

Post by djf881 » July 30th, 2010, 5:14 pm

It can be very confusing for the reader when a lot of people are talking.

I'd really suggest you avoid setting up a situation where there are more than three active participants in a conversation; there can be more people present, but most of them should not say much. Think about dinner parties and other gatherings that you've attended; a couple of people usually dominate the conversation, so it's perfectly natural for some of the people present not to be speaking.

It also helps if each of the characters in a conversation like this has a unique voice that makes it easy for the reader to figure out who is talking. Imagine a police interrogation. There are three characters: the good cop, the bad cop, and the suspect. If you just run their dialog on the page, with no tags or descriptions, it should be pretty easy to tell who is saying what. Obviously, that's a somewhat extreme example; you don't generally want your characters to fall into such broad stereotypes. However, making characters distinct is a good way to avoid dialog confusion.

The best way to learn anything technical about writing is to read a lot of good books and to pay attention to how authors do these things.
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Re: Tips for Dialogue Among Multiple Characters?

Post by djf881 » July 30th, 2010, 6:18 pm

Omega12596 wrote:I use a combination of action and character 'voice' and cannot, in all honesty, think of a time I have ever used dialogue tags. Not using them was drilled into me when I was maybe nine years old at a young writer's conference. YMMV.
The reader experiences a "he said" as an almost transparent construction. It's less intrusive than anything else you can do to orient someone to who is speaking.

What you don't usually want is to try using other verbs as tags, which can stop the reader. I'll break this rule if somebody shouts or whispers, because the connotation is different than "said." But even then, that's kind of telling rather than showing.
Whirlochre wrote:'I'd rather read dialogue tags,' I said, 'than trawl through a morass of one liners interspersed with descriptions of nervous tics, ways of playing with food, and other distractions far, far worse than any exasperation, ejaculation or gasp.'

My dinner guests convulsed as one, threw up their spaghetti bolognaise, and chirped like sparrows hurled into a blender.
Nonverbal communication is a big part of how people interact with each other, and it makes perfect sense to include this stuff in dialog. When somebody jabs a finger in your face or chops at the air for emphasis, that's information worth sharing. If someone is sweating profusely or won't look you in the eye, that's also important. Things like tone and volume are missing from text, and description helps to reinsert some of that emotion.

Sometimes characters say one thing but mean another or are thinking something else. Sometimes there is subtext. If you convey the words people say without some of this other information, you pretty much have to just make everybody say exactly what's on their mind.

At some point, however, too many descriptions of incidental actions get unreasonable and intrusive. You see this a lot in material submitted to critique groups and on share-your-work forums, but much less often in published novels. Getting a feel for when to use description to punctuate dialog, and when to use tags, and when to just let the speech stand on its own is a key skill for a writer to develop.
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Re: Tips for Dialogue Among Multiple Characters?

Post by Omega12596 » July 31st, 2010, 1:14 am

djf881 wrote: The reader experiences a "he said" as an almost transparent construction. It's less intrusive than anything else you can do to orient someone to who is speaking.

What you don't usually want is to try using other verbs as tags, which can stop the reader. I'll break this rule if somebody shouts or whispers, because the connotation is different than "said." But even then, that's kind of telling rather than showing.
The first part is the hard rule I dealt with through all my schooling. Said is unnecessary, since the character is obviously speaking. And changing said to whispered, coughed, hacked, etc, et. al, don't make the tag any better.

OT, a bit, but how many of you guys read your dialogue out loud? I do when I'm editing, but not when I'm actually writing the scenes.

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Re: Tips for Dialogue Among Multiple Characters?

Post by djf881 » July 31st, 2010, 2:55 am

Omega12596 wrote:
djf881 wrote:
The first part is the hard rule I dealt with through all my schooling. Said is unnecessary, since the character is obviously speaking. And changing said to whispered, coughed, hacked, etc, et. al, don't make the tag any better.

OT, a bit, but how many of you guys read your dialogue out loud? I do when I'm editing, but not when I'm actually writing the scenes.
No. Coughed, hacked, whatever is worse. Words that aren't "said" attract notice. Readers don't really read every word on the page. A "said" tag is innocuous; readers don't really see it when they are reading dialog. It's experienced almost as a kind of punctuation. Reporters are also trained to only use "said"

And it is obvious that someone said it; the tag tells us who said it. You don't need one after every line of dialog, but you need them sometimes.
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Re: Tips for Dialogue Among Multiple Characters?

Post by J. T. SHEA » July 31st, 2010, 3:24 pm

I'm with Quill. Simple dialogue tags. 'Said' or a synonym for 'said'. Some writers disapprove, but I doubt many readers do.

I also avoid the little bits of business used by most writers in dialogue. Like Whirlochre, I sometimes think there’s more than enough facial tics and fiddling with hair and clothes and food going on in novels. And characters shouldn’t be talking with their mouths full...

Mind you, the first person observer/narrator of my Steampunk series is a sixteen year old boy for whom food is fuel, and who has little interest in the nuances of other people’s gestures or clothes. And there are nearly always one or more large external events unfolding in the background, commanding the attention of the speakers. I DO have a few extended and important ‘Talking Heads’ scenes, at dinner tables or meetings, but even there I avoid bits of business which would lengthen the scenes and distract from the main business at hand.

‘Literary’ novels, where the eating and talking IS the main business at hand, are a different matter. And the bits of business CAN be used for character development.

Polymath, my Range Rover always breaks down when I’m transporting my howitzer. I hate it when that happens...

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