1. Mckk
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    Mckk Moderator Staff Supporter Contributor

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    Dialogue - who's talking when?

    Discussion in 'Word Mechanics' started by Mckk, Mar 23, 2015.

    All right, so I've always operated under the assumption that in dialogue between 2 people, when the line is set in a new paragraph, then the speaker changes. For example:

    Frank asks, "Want some cake?"
    "Sure," Bill replies. "Who made it?"
    "My wife. She's got a new cookbook."
    "Sweet. I wish my wife would bake once in a while..."

    I still think that's correct. But what happens when you start using pronouns and including body language etc?

    Frank asks, "Want some cake?"
    "Sure," Bill replies. "Who made it?"
    "My wife. She's got a new cookbook."
    He sighs. "Sweet. I wish my wife would bake once in a while..."

    ^Here, who would you say is sighing?

    Because I've operated under the whole "Different paragraph = different character", I was wondering if on this occasion, "He" would clearly point to Bill, and not Frank.

    But my friend tells me pronouns can only be used when it refers to the person who'd just spoken. In the above case, "He" would therefore refer to Frank, not Bill.

    Meaning I should write "Bill sighs".

    So which is it? Of course I can see the pronoun would make things confusing and certainly not against adding the name for clarity. But now I'm curious which one is correct - the assumption that the character changes in the new paragraph, or the assumption that it always refers to the named character immediately before.

    I'm confused...
     
  2. GingerCoffee
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    GingerCoffee Web Surfer Girl Contributor

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    Your friend is correct except in dialogue. It is true and a common mistake, the pronoun refers to the closest preceding noun it matches.

    But in dialogue everything in the paragraph you have with a character speaking is going to apply to the character who is speaking.
     
  3. Mckk
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    Mckk Moderator Staff Supporter Contributor

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    Then what if I'd written:

    Frank asks, "Want some cake?"
    "Sure," Bill replies. "Who made it?"
    He smiles. "My wife. She's got a new cookbook."
    He sighs. "Sweet. I wish my wife would bake once in a while..."

    ^does it mean it was Bill who both smiled and sighed?

    Edited to add: then can I assume in my OP, where "He sighs" was the only description, there's no name actually needed and it does, in fact, refer to Bill, not Frank?
     
  4. GingerCoffee
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    GingerCoffee Web Surfer Girl Contributor

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    I think that can get confusing when you put two pronouns one after the other. Correct or not is a moot point because it doesn't read well.
     
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  5. thirdwind
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    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

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    In this example, I would assume that Frank is smiling and Bill is sighing. However, I agree with Ginger that it should be rephrased/restructured for clarity.
     
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  6. GingerCoffee
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    GingerCoffee Web Surfer Girl Contributor

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    Take your first exchange:
    Frank asks, "Want some cake?"
    "Sure," Bill replies. "Who made it?"
    "My wife. She's got a new cookbook."
    He sighs. "Sweet. I wish my wife would bake once in a while..."
    You have tagged Frank, Bill, then you know it's Frank because he's answering Bill. By the fourth line, most readers would know it's Bill again. But don't go much further without a name.

    I always think it's obvious who is speaking when I write dialogue but then realize when I'm reading someone else's that even when an exchange is just two people, it's hard to keep track for more than a line or two who is speaking if it isn't stated.

    You might put "Bill sighs" in the first example just because it reads better. But in the second example, I'd replace one 'he' with a name but not both, but it doesn't help the exchange.

    This gets cumbersome and confusing:
    Frank asks, "Want some cake?"
    "Sure," Bill replies. "Who made it?"
    He smiles. "My wife. She's got a new cookbook."
    He sighs. "Sweet. I wish my wife would bake once in a while..."
    This sounds tedious:
    Frank asks, "Want some cake?"
    "Sure," Bill replies. "Who made it?"
    Frank smiles. "My wife. She's got a new cookbook."
    Bill sighs. "Sweet. I wish my wife would bake once in a while..."​

    Goldilocks said this one is just right:
    Frank asks, "Want some cake?"
    "Sure," Bill replies. "Who made it?"
    Smiling, Frank answers, "My wife. She's got a new cookbook."
    "Sweet. I wish my wife would bake once in a while..." Bill lets out a sigh.
    I know you are just using an illustrative example. Technically the pronoun is going to refer to the character speaking. But given the exchange has issues regardless of who the pronoun refers to, it's hard to not want to change the exchange altogether.
     
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  7. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    I think that "he" will always be ambiguous here. So I'd find some other way:

    Frank asks, "Want some cake?"
    "Sure," Bill replies. "Who made it?"
    "My wife. She's got a new cookbook."
    A sigh. "Sweet. I wish my wife would bake once in a while..."

    or

    Frank asks, "Want some cake?"
    "Sure," Bill replies. "Who made it?"
    "My wife. She's got a new cookbook."
    Bill sighs. "Sweet. I wish my wife would bake once in a while..."

    or

    Frank asks, "Want some cake?"
    "Sure," Bill replies. "Who made it?"
    "My wife. She's got a new cookbook."
    "Sweet," Bill said with a sigh. "I wish my wife would bake once in a while..."
     
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  8. Mckk
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    Mckk Moderator Staff Supporter Contributor

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    That's the thing. I'm worried naming the character in every line will get tedious, but the pronouns are not clear in who it really refers to regardless of grammar.

    But yeah just wanted to know grammatically if my assumptions were wrong. So basically I am right, the pronoun would refer to the speaker of the paragraph. However, my friend was right in pointing it out as confusing, but wrong to say it was grammatically wrong. (is this even a grammar point?)

    So there's no way of really avoiding the constant names then...? :( in the actual scene in question, I name the characters in every paragraph it feels like!
     
  9. GingerCoffee
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    GingerCoffee Web Surfer Girl Contributor

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    First, tags with "said" look worse in your mind than they do to the reader.

    But just like getting rid of 'I did this' and 'I did that' yadda yadda, you can get rid of some of the dialogue tags in creative ways. Look at @ChickenFreak's examples and this one of mine:

    Frank asks, "Want some cake?"
    "Sure," Bill replies. "Who made it?"
    Smiling, Frank answers, "My wife. She's got a new cookbook."
    "Sweet. I wish my wife would bake once in a while..." Bill lets out a sigh.

    You don't need to use a dialogue tag if you put descriptions and actions of the speaker in with the dialogue.

    Bill sat down
    Frank scratched his nose
    Bill inhales the fresh baked scent of the cake
    Bill licks the frosting off his fingers
    Frank takes a big bite of cake and mumbles
     
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  10. PBrady
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    PBrady Active Member

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    In a long dialogue between two characters there will always be scope for the reader to lose track of who is speaking.
    Sign posting every line isn't necessary. Most readers can go for a few lines of dialogue before they start to lose track.

    As well as using actions as suggested above, you can also make use of any previously established props and environment.
    If one is wearing glasses, a jacket, or a hat; then you can refer to these to keep your reader synchronised with who is delivering the dialogue. Perhaps one is sitting in a chair and another standing?

    From the sofa Frank asks, "Want some cake?"
    "Sure," Bill replies, walking over to join him. "Who made it?"
    "My wife. She's got a new cookbook."
    "Sweet. I wish my wife would bake once in a while..."
    As he passes the plate up to Bill, Frank jokingly offers to lend him the book.
    "God no! She would just tell me to cook it myself".

    Use a range of different techniques to keep it interesting. In the above example it is fairly clear that Bill has spoken last as it has already been established that his wife is not very interested in baking. Using the developing dialogue to allow the different voices to indicate to the reader who is speaking allows the reader to become more engaged.
     
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  11. Flying Geese
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    Flying Geese Contributing Member

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    You should only use pronouns when it is clear who they would refer to. For example, in a conversation between a man and his wife, you can use he and she.
    In a dialogue where an old man is telling a bunch of kids a spooky story over a campfire you could use they (handled skillfully).

    People assume that when the line changes, the speaker changes. If a person does two things then go ahead and join the lines for clarity in who's speaking and action beats. Example:

    "Honey, are you ready?" Doug called.
    "Just five minutes," Margaret hollered from upstairs.
    "Dammit! We're late you stupid ass ho!" Doug yelled back. He looked at his watch as he paced back and forth. "Man, damn!"
     
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  12. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    Well, you can avoid the names by leaving tags out altogether. You already have one example of that in your own example. One of my examples kills another name. I continue to example:

    Frank asks, "Want some cake?"
    "Sure," Bill replies. "Who made it?"
    "My wife. She's got a new cookbook."
    A sigh. "Sweet. I wish my wife would bake once in a while..."
    "Appreciate what you've got. Your wife makes the best lasagna I ever had. Last potluck, I got in trouble because I ate seconds of that and didn't have room for Jane's pie."
    "Maybe we could do some kind of food exchange thing."
    "Yeah!" Frank reaches for the phone. "I'll call Jane."
    "I was kidding, I was kidding!"


    My very approximate rule is that I need to throw in a name every four to six exchanges.

    Edited to add: Of course, that doesn't save you in conversations with three or more people. I just picked up Brat Farrar by Josephine Tey, to see how she handles it. Here's the opening scene:

    "Aunt Bee," said Jane, breathing heavily into her soup, "was Noah a cleverer back-room boy than Ulysses, or was Ulysses a cleverer back-room boy than Noah?"
    "Don't eat out of the point of your spoon, Jane."
    "Ruth does."
    Jane looked across at the twin, negotiating the vermicelli with smug neatness.
    "She has a stronger suck than I have."
    "Aunt Bee has a face like a very expensive cat," Ruth said, eyeing her aunt sideways.
    Bee privately thought that this was a very good description, but wished that Ruth would not be quaint.
    "No, but which was the cleverest?" said Jane, who never departed from a path once her feet were on it.
    "Clever-er," said Ruth.
    "Was it Noah or Ulysses? Simon, which was it, do you think?"
    "Ulysses," said her brother, not looking up from his paper.
    It was so like Simon, Bee thought, to be reading the list of runners at Newmarket, peppering his soup, and listening to the conversation at one and the same time.
    "Why, Simon? Why Ulysses?"
    "He hadn't Noah's good Met. service. Whereabouts was Firelight in the Free Handicap, do you remember?"
    "Oh, away down," Bee said.
    "A coming-of-age is a little like a wedding, isn't it, Simon?" That was Ruth.
    "Better on the whole."
    "Is it?"


    I could just keep going. I am re-impressed with Josephine Tey as a writer. She manages to cut many, many tags in a conversation that involves four active participants, and I, at least, am not the least bit confused, and not the least bit aware of her juggling act, except when I go specifically to look at it, as I am now.
     
    Last edited: Mar 24, 2015
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  13. Mckk
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    Mckk Moderator Staff Supporter Contributor

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    @GingerCoffee - I call them tags, but I actually meant names sorry lol. "Said" irks me less than having to write: Bill, Frank, Bill, Brank... (lol that was a genuine typo, but kinda funny so I'm leaving it in there :p)

    @ChickenFreak - Tey's dialogue does indeed look skilful. I had to pause once or twice just to get the characters straight in my head but in general, it's very clear.

    Ok so here's the actual dialogue in question - Do the names seem distracting/clunky/unnatural or am I actually worrying over nothing? And of course, is it clear who's speaking and doing things throughout? I bolded the 3 lines I thought could potentially be confusing - is it clear in those lines who's speaking/acting?


    “Psst... Pssssst!”

    Arlia glanced over, her quill still in motion.

    Monique passed the note across the aisle.

    Arlia frowned, lips twisting in disapproval, but opened the paper to read. Irritation further creased her expression as she scrunched it up without a word and stuffed it into her pocket.

    “Oh c’mon!” Monique hissed.

    Arlia ignored her.

    “Miss Lomial,” Professor Hewe said, startling Monique to attention. “Is something the matter?”

    She shook her head. “Nothing, Sir.”

    “Very good. Maybe you could answer my question.”

    “Nothing’s the matter, Sir.”

    “No. I asked if anyone knew what Yumeer meant by his metaphor on page ninety-three, where he wrote, ‘Cream on biscuits and foamy seas, but I am too full of apples’?”

    Monique gaped. Glancing over at Arlia, she found her friend rolling her eyes and sliding her notebook towards the edge of the table. She could see Arlia had written two full pages on this already, and flitted her a despairing look.

    Her friend pointed at a particular line. Monique ran over the words and promptly replied, “He prefers the mundane over luxuries, perhaps?”

    Professor Hewe sighed. “That would be the most basic interpretation, but a valid one, certainly. Yumeer uses the sea as an analogy often in his works, and growing up...”

    Arlia shifted her notebook back in place.

    Monique leaned towards her. “Hey, thanks.”

    She didn’t react, eyes fixed on the professor.

    “So?” Monique whispered.

    “What?” Arlia snapped.
     
  14. Shadowfax
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    Shadowfax Contributing Member Contributor

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    Excuse me if I don't worship at Ms Tey's shrine.
     
    Last edited: Mar 24, 2015
  15. Shadowfax
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    Shadowfax Contributing Member Contributor

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    I think you're worrying over nothing, Mckk. I'm pretty sure that I understood who was talking and who was doing what throughout.
     
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  16. Skaruts
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    Skaruts Member

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    I agree with this. When writing I tend to go like "oh noooo! Look at all those cumbersome he-said-she-saids". But when I'm reading someone else's work, my eyes just glide over the tags as my mind automatically understands who's talking when, and it's fine and I barely even notice them. Regardless of it using a noun or a pronoun.
     

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