Kathryn Page Camp
Dialogue can be tricky. First, there is the problem of how much or how little to use, which may depend on genre. An action novel usually has less dialogue than a love story. But in neither case should the conversation be true-to-life. The reader doesn’t want to hear the small talk that occurs around the breakfast table—unless that small talk betrays the protagonist’s anxiety or has some other link to the story. The same is true for the uhs and ahs of normal conversation—leave them out unless they show the speaker’s hesitancy to answer a key question.
But this blog post isn’t about those issues. Instead, it will concentrate on the question that troubles most writers much of the time: How do I make sure my readers know who is talking without interrupting the story’s flow?
Most writers default to using dialogue tags. Some writers are horrified at the very idea. Oh no, never! In their view, dialogue tags were created by the devil. But if you read their own works, you’ll be surprised at the number of dialogue tags that creep in. Still, since dialogue tags should be the last resort, I’ll address them at the end.
Action can be a good way to show who is speaking, although that should never be its sole purpose. When used correctly, action has the added benefit of providing information about the speaker or the setting. Consider these two examples:
Bob slammed his fist on the table. “He’s a liar.” (Showing that Bob is angry as well as attributing the statement to him.)
“I can’t lend you any money.” Mavis flung her mink stole across a Chippendale chair, barely missing the Ming vase on the stand next to it. “I’ll be going to the poor house soon, myself.” (Showing that Mavis lives a life contrary to her words.)—Okay, that one is probably over the top, but you get the picture.
The action must fit, however. Characters can only drink so many cups of coffee during a five-minute conversation, and even one may be too many. I’m guilty of this, but at least I know it. Some writers seem to think that any action is fine as long as the speaker is doing it. For example:
Tom buttered his toast. “I got fired from my job yesterday.”
If the only reason an action is inserted is to identify the speaker, it will sound that way. Find another way to show who is speaking.
The use of names in dialogue can identify the speaker by process of elimination. If John and Mary meet on the street, which character is talking here?
“How did the meeting go, John?”
Obviously, Mary must be speaking. But this technique can be misused, too. In real life, we seldom say another person’s name when talking directly to them. Once she had John’s attention, Mary would simply ask, “How did the meeting go?” So don’t use the name of the person being addressed unless it sounds natural.
If you have only two people in a conversation, you may not need attributions once you have identified the first speaker. Consider this:
Mary took Dan’s coat and hung it in the closet. “How was your day?”
“Boring, as usual. I wish I could quit, but we need the money.”
“Well, dinner should cheer you up. I made your favorite meal.”
This conversation is as boring as Dan’s job, but at least the reader can follow it. If it went on for any longer, however, we would need an occasional attribution to remind readers who is speaking. Action works well for attribution here because it also adds more life to the scene. (In this particular example, you might also want to ask whether you need it at all, but it gets my point across.)
Sometimes you can tell who is speaking just by how they speak or what they say. Teenagers talk differently than their parents, so in a three-way conversation you may only need to include attributions for the parents. Or if Karl has recently emigrated from Germany, we know that he is the one talking when we hear this:
“I can the question not answer.”
No attribution is necessary.
Although writers should avoid dialogue tags when we can, sometimes we do need them. Even so, they shouldn’t be too obvious. “Karen articulated,” “David exclaimed,” and “she cautioned” all make the reader stumble over the story. With rare exceptions, stick to “said” and “asked,” which tend to disappear on the page. (Unless you are looking for them because you are counting up the number of times they are used by a writer who disparages dialogue tags.)
The rare exception I recognize is where a particular dialogue tag is the most effective way of conveying a message, such as using “she whispered” to show that the character doesn’t want to be heard. Even so, it is better to have your character simply gasp than to have her gasp out her words. And if your character is lying, let the reader figure it out from the context rather than saying “she lied.”
Experiment with different ways to attribute dialogue to your characters. But if nothing else feels natural, there is nothing wrong with “said” and “asked.” Even the best writers use those words at time.
Just count them up.
Kathryn Page Camp is a licensed attorney and full-time writer. Writers in Wonderland: Keeping Your Words Legal was a Kirkus’ Indie Books of the Month Selection for April 2014. The second edition of Kathryn’s first book, In God We Trust: How the Supreme Court’s First Amendment Decisions Affect Organized Religion, was released on September 30, 2015. You can learn more about Kathryn at www.kathrynpagecamp.com.