1. Cowboy
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    Cowboy New Member

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    "I struggle with indicating the speaker of dialog" Cowboy said.

    Discussion in 'General Writing' started by Cowboy, Jul 6, 2012.

    Obviously you don't want to stick with "Cowboy said". That gets repetitive and boring quite fast.

    If it's a short piece of dialog exchange sometimes no indication of who said what is necessary. But for longer conversations you really need to indicate who is saying which line or it can become confusing, especially if there is more than one speaker.

    I think it's pretty much the same for first person or third person perspectives. Either way you need to indicate who is talking and I seem to get bogged down when I start writing dialog mulling over the best way to do that.

    Sometimes I just describe some action of the character speaking:

    "Why do you always get so defensive?" I took another sip of my lukewarm coffee while I waited for the usual evasive answer.

    Indicating of course it's our main character, first person. Or, John took another sip of lukewarm coffee as he waited, etc., if it's third person.

    But I find I'm making characters do stuff for no reason sometimes when they really just need to be talking.

    I"m just looking for some good tips for indicating who's speaking when you are writing dialog.
     
  2. Reptile Hazard
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    Reptile Hazard Member

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    You don't need constant indication of who's speaking when the dialog is between two characters.

    For more than two characters, you have to indicate who's saying what, or else the reader will get confused. You can avoid this if you can manage to give your characters a certain voice. That is to say that, the reader is so familiarized with your character that he (the reader) notices the way your character communicates, for example.

    You should also read this blog by Cogito, as I think you'd find it quite useful: http://www.writingforums.org/blog.php?b=294
     
  3. thewordsmith
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    thewordsmith Contributing Member Contributor

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    It seems as though you have pretty much got a handle on the subject of attributions. Yes, it can get to feeling like you are "He said/She said"ing overmuch. And, you may be. But you are also fully aware of the alternatives. Now, you compared the two alternatives of 1) No attribution necessary in short exchanges and 2) The need to clarify who is speaking in longer passages. So you are aware that longer passages need clarifiers. So, bear in mind that, if the passage is long enough to need that clarification of who is speaking, you probably will need some kind of action to break it up as well. Perhaps you feel as though you are just sticking actions in to have a cushion for your attributions but, if the actions you have added are not right, then you might want to take a second look and see if there is something more pertinent to the story you might have your characters do?
    In any event, If the passage is long enough to need attribution, you probably need the action, too.
    (This writing thing can really be a dog, huh?)
     
  4. TheTrain
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    TheTrain Member

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    I will actually rotate who is indicated next, also you can indicate with what is being said. As for me, my style is to never use any word that has been used recently. It takes quite a vocabulary, but if you can write a whole page without using the same word twice, then you'd really have something. Of course, it's unavoidable with some words, but still I strive for that. Instead of "he said", there's "he smirked", "he laughed", "he grinned", "he growled", etc. I realize "he" is being repeated, but at least "he said" isn't. I also recommend not indicating for at least three lines, but for me, any more than four is pushing it without something to tell the reader who's talking. Just my two cents is all. ;)

    Edit: Oh, and yes, adding actions in with the dialogue is really good, especially if its something that character would do.
     
  5. Cowboy
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    Cowboy New Member

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    This actually goes against the advice in teh link above. The advice there is that this can be overly distracting whereas a simple "he said" allows the reader to instantly identify the speaker without thinking about it since "he said" is practically invisible.

    Neither method is correct, but they are diametrically opposed to each other.
     
  6. TheTrain
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    TheTrain Member

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    Yes, I read that and its right; a very good article on dialogue actually. I wish I could post some of my work to show you what I mean. I use the "he said/she said" more than anything, but just constantly doing that doesn't seem right. I actually do notice (a lot) whenever anything is repeated too frequently. Of course, we all have our unique styles... ;)
     
  7. killbill
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    killbill Contributing Member

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    The problem in your example is not the action itself but the explanatory "while I waited for the usual evasive answer" part. You are kind of ruining it for the readers because instead of letting the readers conclude for themselves if the answer is evasive or not you are spoon feeding it to the readers. Anyway, I agree that too much actions in between dialogues can be tiresome to read specially if the writer starts depending everything on it in the name of "showing". It usually indicates not so great dialogue body (mind you it may pass as okay dialogues most of the time and got published without any edit) because in great dialogues I can usually imagine what the characters are doing from what they are saying. And that is why GREAT dialogues use minimal action beats, mannerisms, facial expressions, exclamation marks etc and depends 90 percent of the time on the invisible "he said/she said". If I say this in reverse it would be: when you use the simple "he said/she said" you have to make the dialogue, context, subtext very strong and that is a much better way of writing dialogues.
     
  8. thewordsmith
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    thewordsmith Contributing Member Contributor

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  9. rogue writer
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    rogue writer Member

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    I agree w/ the others.

    Also, if you write your dialogue well, we will 'know' who said what (for the most part) by how and what they say.
     
  10. JoePetchonka
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    JoePetchonka New Member

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    I rarely indicate who said what more than once in the beginning of a section. If you've developed your characters well enough, you readers should know exactly who is saying what.

    If you're jumping from character to character in a section and feel it's confusing, you could include names right into the dialogue.

    "You should shut your trap, Anne!"

    Something like that.
     
  11. Shaun4
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    Shaun4 New Member

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    I often use a simple "he said" if there are more than 2 people. I might go with a specific word for the situation like "he whispered" but I try to never use non-speech words.

    Example,
    This bugs me because smirking isn't a form of speech, it's a verb or a facial expression.
    I'd much rather say:
    OR
    I personally don't get bothered by he said, she said, he asked, she answered unless it appears on every line of a conversation, but then everyone's different.
     
  12. Thumpalumpacus
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    Thumpalumpacus Contributing Member

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    Dialogue is about character, to me. If your characters have personality, their speech is going to be easily identifiable. That means that attributions can be reduced.

    Attributions can be reduced further by the inclusion of specific details in the speech -- and not simply direct address. People don't often use proper names in informal conversational speech, but other details can specify the speaker or the listener: "You never let me go out!" won't need attribution if the scene is between a mother and daughter.

    I try to avoid adverbs or adverbial phrases in attributions. The example above, "he said with a smirk", would be a fat target for a blueline in one of my drafts. Make the dialogue carry the weight -- just as it does in most communication.
     
  13. Ettina
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    Ettina Active Member

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    Make the actions communicate something, then. Read up on nonverbal communication and body language, and slip in things that hint at unspoken aspects of what the person is thinking. For example, someone who is nervous (maybe because they're lying?) will often fiddle with something. You can also hint at personality this way. A very energetic or ADHD person might be fidgeting continuously, a person with autistic tendencies (maybe very geeky) might rock slightly or do some other repetitive movement, a very sociable person might make more eye contact than usual, etc. You can use these little hints to suggest unspoken things about the dialogue.
     
  14. Youniquee
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    Youniquee (◡‿◡✿) Contributor

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    I disagree. Adverbs I can understand. But saying, 'as he smirked' isn't bad. When do you ever speak to someone without any expression on their face? 'Smirking' can add more attitude to the dialogue and even show the character's personality. O_O I don't see what's wrong with that.

    Personal preference, I guess.
     
  15. Thumpalumpacus
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    Thumpalumpacus Contributing Member

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    Indeed, personal preference. My preference is to lean out prose, and show rather than tell. Let that smirking character show his disdain with his actions in the story. If the smirk has an emotional impact on one of the characters, I'm fine with it. If it doesn't, my inclination is to toss it out as extraneous.

    As far as speaking to people without facial expressions, it happens often enough: either they have no expression because of the context (business meeting, say, or an impersonal interview), or they're simply not looking at each other as they speak, which is effectively the same thing, for our purposes here.
     
  16. Morkonan
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    Morkonan Senior Member

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    ... he said.

    ..... she said.

    There, done.


    In other words, dialogue can make writers a bit nervous because they're actually writing something they almost hardly ever read - Attributions. When you're reading a novel, if the dialogue is constructed well to begin with, you don't read the attributions very often and you hardly ever remember reading "said." But, it's usually there a great deal more than you thought it was. Go ahead, open a favorite book, turn to a page with dialogue on it and read. How many instances of "said" are there? It's very likely there are a lot more than you thought there would have been. That's because, as readers, we tend to skip the boring stuff and get on with the action! When it's present, that is. When there is no dialogue and no real action going on, we skip whole sections until we find some dialogue to read.. and skip remembering all the "saids." I call "said" the Invisible Word - We all know its there, but we choose not to see it when reading. How many times have you skipped a paragraph in a book, just to get to the dialogue you spotted in a following section? If you're an avid reader, you've done this lots of times and hardly ever remember reading the word "said."

    Don't worry too much about having too many instances of the word "said." Above all, don't be too tempted to cover your attributions with the speaking character doing something. Sure, that's fine when you feel it's absolutely necessary, but it can make your characters appear spastic, desperate to do anything but talk to each other. That's bad. In a serious conversation where characters are working through a discussion that would require their full attention, you don't want to reduce the significance of that discussion in the reader's mind by having the characters fiddle with scissors or squirm around in their chairs. Don't do it.
     
  17. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    Re:

    I think that there's too much in this action. I'm saying this not as a writing critique (please don't delete this, mods!) but as an example of how adding actions to dialogue can go wrong by adding weight without information. I understand that that's probably the whole point of your question, but I want to go into this example in more detail.

    This action explains:

    - The fact that a little bit of time is passing. ("While I waited...")
    - The fact that the coffee is not hot.
    - The narrator's expectations for the answer, and his past experience with the person he's talking to.
    - The fact that the narrator already drank some of his coffee. ("another")

    I understand that you don't want the action to obviously announce, "I'm only here so you know who's talking," but you also don't want to weight it down with a lot of information that's there just to disguise that fact. You want the additions to provide information that's relevant to the action or the story.

    Now, any of those things could be relevant, and maybe they are in the context of the surrounding text. For example, maybe the narrator's in a tremendous hurry and therefore is very much conscious of waiting. Maybe the lukewarm state of the coffee reflects the halfhearted hospitality that he's receiving, or maybe it affects his mood and is therefore relevant to what he does next. If I wanted to stuff that emotional content right into the line, I imagine:

    "Why do you always get so defensive?" I reached for my tea. Lukewarm. Lovely.

    Or I could go into more detail, adding a mental dialogue for the narrator to tie his words to him:

    "Why do you people always get so defensive?" I reached for my tea. Lukewarm. Lovely. You'd think that even an American diner could master the concept of boiling water, but, no. This was, after all, the land where hot beverages were a matter for the courts.

    She said, "I'm not defensive. I'm angry."

    "What's the difference?"

    "Defensive is whiny. Anger is justified. You want the pie or not?"

    Has pie ever been a matter for litigation? You could choke on a pecan, after all. "No, thank you. But do you have a kettle back there?"

    You notice that I changed from coffee to tea. That was, frankly, because I was able to find more scope in mental complaints about tea. I had the handy dandy coffee lawsuit to refer to, and was able to attribute common misconceptions about that lawsuit to my narrator. And I know that the English brew tea with boiling water and American restaurants rarely do. So I switched. If I'd already established my narrator as a dedicated coffee drinker, I would have had to do something else. Or maybe I'd decide that he's more interesting as a cranky traveller just searching for a decent cup of tea--it certainly worked for Arthur Dent--and I'd go back and change his beverage preferences all the way through.

    That may seem like a lot of thinking for a simple dialogue attribution, but it also added texture, and texture that's relevant to the emotions and action of the story is, I think, almost always a good thing. With enough texture built up, I think that choosing actions associated with dialogue will get closer and closer to being obvious and effortless.

    So I have five paragraphs with just one "said". I should make clear that there's nothing at all wrong with "said", but we're discussing how to reduce them, so I'm focusing on that.

    The two characters here have established characteristics - she's female, probably American, local to the setting, acting as a waitress in this context. He's probably not American, possibly a stranger to the setting, acting as a customer, and he likes hot tea. The clearest boundary is the server/served relationship. That will pretty clearly identify all sorts of bits of dialogue:

    "You want some ice cream?" is her.
    "Do you have milk?" is him.
    "Sorry, we don't serve that. If you want a real cocktail, you need to go down to Jason's, two miles south of here." is her.

    So if you wanted to make a game of eliminating "saids", you could pepper the rest of their conversation with occasional customer/waitress exchanges, and realign the reader with each one.
     

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