1. Blueshift
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    Blueshift Member

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    Announcing who is speaking?

    Discussion in 'Word Mechanics' started by Blueshift, Jun 5, 2014.

    Hey everyone,

    I'm in the unusual position, perhaps, of enjoying writing whilst having few books of my own. Only now am I going through my writing, comparing it to standard forms of writing. (I do not recommend this: I am odd)

    What I'm curious about is this: in general, is there a rule when it comes to speaking sections? Do different writers approach it differently?

    For example, if two people are talking back and forth, is it required to always show who is speaking? Sometimes it seems obvious.

    Thank you for helping this person (me, who should know better) get the basics right!
     
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  2. WeWill77
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    WeWill77 Member

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    I think it's author's preference and the most important thing is clarity.

    When I write fiction, I make an effort to set up the dialogue in a way that removes as many identifiers as possible. I think it sounds more like natural speech, and also speeds up the prose and makes the story feel more active.

    Also, I think comparing your writing to others will only make you a stronger writer. I've been told it's one of the best ways to learn. You'll just have to avoid subconsciously copying others. Which everybody does anyway whether we like it or not. And that's what practice is for.
     
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  3. shadowwalker
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    shadowwalker Contributing Member Contributor

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    Personally, I go with Falcon's methods - use only as many identifiers as needed to avoid confusion.
     
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  4. GingerCoffee
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    GingerCoffee Web Surfer Girl Contributor

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    Have someone else read it. You, the writer, know who is speaking, it can mislead you. See if it's clear to the reader.

    If not, don't be afraid to use 'he said', 'she said', 'Mary said', 'John said', and so on.
     
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  5. Blueshift
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    Blueshift Member

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    Thank you Sunrise Falcon. I absolutely agree that reading is a great way to improve writing, and I shall have to do more of it.

    I'm glad to know that it's not seen as necessary. As you say, it breaks the flow and feels like it can get in the way.

    P.S. I find it slightly interesting that I have 'guessed' correctly on some issues as I've been writing. In recent years I haven't read any stories (though I've read non-fiction books). I read a lot as a child though, without really noticing the structure, or nature of subjects as basic as this.

    Edit: Thank you to shadowwalker and GingerCoffee.
     
  6. WeWill77
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    WeWill77 Member

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    I like both of these ideas.

    I've been taught that "said" is the best identifier, no matter how many times it's repeated, and that it might even be the only one worth using. And I agree with that.
     
  7. ToeKneeBlack
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    ToeKneeBlack Contributing Member Contributor

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    When there's only two characters talking you can often get away with identifying who is talking for the first couple of sentences, with occasional reminders later if there's a long dialogue.

    Add any more characters to a conversation and you either need distinctive speech to differentiate the characters (for example, it would be quite easy to spot lines spoken by Yoda when compared to most other Star Wars characters) or identification of who is speaking before or after their line.

    And like Sunrise Falcon said, don't use "said" to often. Once or twice per chapter is more than enough, unless you're writing books for very young readers. Try to convey emotion using descriptors such as "yelled", "muttered" or "chuckled", or whatever else best fits the situation. For example:

    "Have you been watching those baby movies again?" taunted June, his older sister.
    "Grub Guy's NOT for babies." snapped Simon.
    "Stop arguing! Simon, I called you down three times. Your pizza is in the microwave." explained their mother as she left the room.
    June waited for the door to close. "A grub is a baby insect, so Grub Guy must be a baby." she whispered.
    "Stop making fun of Grub Guy, or I'll..." threatened Simon, hesitating.
    "Or you'll what?" grinned June.
    "I'll tell Dad you've been sneaking out at night again." dribbled Simon with a mouthful of cold pizza.
     
  8. WeWill77
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    WeWill77 Member

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    I actually said the opposite. I think you should only use said. And you can use it 8 million times. Using anything else has become cliche, in my opinion.
     
  9. plothog
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    plothog Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    To much "threatened", "explained" etc is generally seen as poor writing. Though they seem to be teaching the opposite in British primary schools at the moment. I cringed when I had to help my daughter with her homwork, which invoved creating sentences with alternative saying words.
    There's an argument for using such words when you really need to convey how something is being said and you can't make it obvious from the words being spoken. I don't mind the occasional use of the word "whispered". What they should not be used for is avoidance of the word "said".
    One other way which you can sometimes indicate a speaker, is to write a line of character action before the dialogue
    E.g.
    Plothog leaned forward. "Can you tell who's talking at the moment?"
     
  10. GothicMermaid
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    GothicMermaid New Member

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    ^ I was just going to say that :)
     
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  11. minstrel
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    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Supporter Contributor

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    Watch out. Sunrise Falcon, plothog and GothicMermaid are right. Too much of the kind of thing in your example starts looking ridiculous before the end of the first page. Readers will be laughing out loud by page three, and will set the book aside forever by page five. Stick with plain old "said" in the large majority of cases. :)
     
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  12. GothicMermaid
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    GothicMermaid New Member

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    Besides, all the "he said", "she said" will end up being ignored anyway. But if you must, you can probably add actions instead of "snapped", "screamed", "shouted".

    I hate to bring this up but Twilight traumatized me.

    Edit: But going to the OP, I don't think you have to add the names in. Just a simple "he", "she" would do just nicely.
     
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  13. ToeKneeBlack
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    ToeKneeBlack Contributing Member Contributor

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    Sorry, Sunrise Falcon, I was distracted while reading your post.

    Looks like I'll have to revise my own story a bit :)
     
  14. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    I'd aim for a happy medium. Some of these 'alternative' tags can be distracting to the point of hilarity, as @minstrel and @plothog pointed out. I was reasonably okay till I got to Simon dribbling his pizza...

    On the other had, he said-she said-he said-she said-he said-she said? That can make the dialogue exchange incredibly flat, and the repetition of 'said' does register with the reader. It's not an invisible tag when it's used too often, or to the exclusion of every other kind of tag. I know some published writers advocate this approach, but they aren't the writers I enjoy reading!

    Way I see it, you've got four options, if you're not using unattributed speech.

    1) I'd say use words like 'whispered' or 'hissed' only if it's absolutely necessary to let us know a line is being spoken that way. And make sure it's a direct reference to how a speech can actually sound, or to its direct purpose, like 'explained.' Saying somebody 'dribbled' a line isn't quite there. Nor does somebody ever 'cough' a line—a speech tag I've seen used recently in a piece of first-draft writing. A character may cough before speaking, or even during the speech, but they will stop to do their coughing before they finish what they were saying.

    2) Use 'said' when it's important to tag the speaker, but the speaker isn't saying anything in an odd way, or doing something while speaking.

    3) Use action tags to let us know who is speaking, and what they are doing AS they speak. This is killing two birds with one stone. In fact it kills three, if you can make this action develop character at the same time. "I don't know." Jason frowned. "Why? What's the big deal? What does it matter to you?"

    4) And you CAN use the name of the person being spoken to as well. "I don't know, Fred. What do you think?" But be careful not to over-use this, because it can become ridiculous. You don't constantly call the person you are talking to by name during a conversation, so make sure you don't do it too often in a dialogue exchange, either. But this device does work, on occasion.

    If you mix these four techniques, you should be fine. None will call undue attention to itself, but the reader will be able to follow who is saying what. Ultimately that's the main concern with dialogue tags. Don't ever make the reader backtrack to figure out who is speaking.
     
    Last edited: Jun 5, 2014
  15. EdFromNY
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    EdFromNY Hope to improve with age Supporter Contributor

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    The only thing I will add to @jannert's excellent advice is that using dialogue tags, usually with names, becomes essential once a third person enters the conversation, except in when a character is responding to direct address.

    There are numerous examples in literature of fairly long exchanges of dialogue between two characters without tags. Hemingway does it incessantly in A Farewell To Arms, in a couple of cases with three characters - where the discussion consists of two characters talking to a third, and it isn't especially important which of the two characters is saying what.
     
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  16. WeWill77
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    WeWill77 Member

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    I've had to unlearn almost everything the primary and secondary schools here in the US taught me about writing. No joke.
     
  17. EdFromNY
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    EdFromNY Hope to improve with age Supporter Contributor

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    That's because primary and secondary schools are teaching writing as a functional skill, not a creative one. Also, education at those levels (particularly at the primary level) is not at all nuanced, which creative writing tends to be. Most "rules" in creative writing are relative, and translate poorly as absolutes (as many of the discussions on this forum make clear).
     
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  18. xanadu
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    xanadu Contributing Member Contributor

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    As @jannert said, balance is key. There's nothing wrong with the occasional "retorted" or "snapped" if it's really appropriate, but reign in the desire to use every colorful verb you can think of. The last thing you want is for the text to draw attention to itself and to the fact that you're reading a book. "Said" and its relatives (asked, replied, continued, etc) do the job well enough and are varied enough to keep the flow. They'll get you 90% of the way there. Readers are so used to them that, if you keep the flow going, they'll blend right in to the page.

    But don't overdo actions, either--that's one of the big issues I have in my own writing. Action, like everything else, should be done with purpose. There's no reason to have your characters nodding and blinking and raising eyebrows and sighing all the time just because you want to avoid tags. It becomes exhausting and boring to the reader. Those actions don't matter--the character could just as easily not be doing them and the story would be unaffected. So make sure the beats between dialog lines carry their own weight. Learn from my mistakes!
     
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  19. EdFromNY
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    EdFromNY Hope to improve with age Supporter Contributor

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    A habit I found myself slipping into as well, not so much to avoid tags as to control the pace. However, this is something I deal with in the editing process, not the writing process (although I do try to catch myself).
     
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  20. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    Oh, yes, so true. When it comes to 'creative' writing there are very few absolutes, and we each give them different priorities. It's what separates creative writing from plain everyday writing.

    One of mine is clarity. I will sacrifice ANYTHING else (except for correct spelling) to make my meanings clear and my story easy to follow. I hate having to backtrack while reading, or wonder who is speaking, or where the action is taking place, so I try hard not to put my readers through these mazes. Of course there are other writers who enjoy making their readers guess, and readers who enjoy guessing, so again this isn't an absolute. But it IS one of mine.

    I agree very much with @xanadu.
    It's very important that the action helps the story along in some way. If it's just brushing hair out of one's eyes or other action tics, they can become repetitious AND noticeable for all the wrong reasons. Of course we've all seen people in real life who do these things to excess, so if it's a character trait you want noticed, by all means overdo it! But if they are just space-fillers or dialogue attributions and don't mean anything, I'd be cautious about using them. Again, the trick is to vary the approach, and make each action-tag significant.

    I remember Garrison Keillor mentioning that when he first started writing, every one of his characters who had a slight space to fill, ended up lighting a cigarette and leaning against something—a wall, a desk, the back of a chair. He said that when his characters quit smoking, his writing improved. I've always liked that anecdote.
     
  21. xanadu
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    xanadu Contributing Member Contributor

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    I'm much the same. Writing is communication, after all. If you're not communicating your meaning, you're probably doing something wrong (unless you're being purposefully vague, which I'd argue takes a great deal of skill to do effectively). It's easy to over-, under-, or miscommunicate. Getting it just right is the tough part.

    Love this. Stuff like that can easily become a crutch. I've gotten much better at spotting that stuff in my editing phases. Now I just need to learn to write without relying on it.

    Very sound advice, Mr. Keillor.
     
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  22. lostinwebspace
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    lostinwebspace Active Member

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    What @ToeKneeBlack and others have said. You don't always have to use "said." Insert an action. Have someone change legs to lean on or sigh. That removes the repetition of dialog tags every so often, but it still reminds the reader who's talking.
     
  23. Renee J
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    Renee J Contributing Member

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    If I want to slow down the dialogue, I'll add actions and thoughts. That keeps it clear who is speaking. If it's fast dialogue, I use more "she saids".
     
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  24. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    @xanadu
    Totally agree (again.) I always pay attention to what beta readers say about this sort of thing. If they get confused or can't follow something I've written, I always change it. I take all criticisms to heart and certainly consider the beta's point of view, and often make other kinds of changes too. But this is one I never pass by. If somebody can't follow a passage or has any kind of question about what is actually happening, I always make changes. You never know for sure if people are following your meaning, till somebody points out that they're not!
     
  25. peachalulu
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    peachalulu Contributing Member Reviewer Contributor

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    Everyone has given good advice. I like to mix it up. Action before dialogue. Tags but mainly said. You can't go wrong with said. Occasionally, I goof and critiquers won't know who addressed who. But I'm not crazy about dialogue descriptors. They remind me of beginner fiction - first ya romance novels. You know the kind -
    "Like I'd date you," Stephen smirked.
    "You'd be lucky to date me," Angie hotly retorted before stalking away.
    It's just too much.
    I'd par it down and mix it up.
    Stephen smirked. "Like I'd date you."
    "You'd be lucky to date me." She spun, hoping her hair would lash his face.
     

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