Writers in the Storm

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February 22, 2013

Look Who's Talking~Dialog Involving Multiple Characters

Just a quick announcement -- Liz Flaherty won the Advanced Reader Copy of Anne Clelland's Historical, Tainted Angel.  Liz, you'll leave her a review everywhere, right?

Charlotte Carter is back, sharing with us her experience as the author of 57 books (no, that's not a typo!) When you talk, Char, we listen!

I was absolutely exhausted the first time I finished a scene with 5 characters on stage at once, and I hadn’t lost a one. Working with multiple characters can be tricky. It’s easy to confuse the reader. You may have more he said/she said than you’d like. And the mother-in-law sleeping on the couch in the scene may vanish amid all the chatter.

Fortunately, there are a few ‘tricks’ you can use to make the scene work.

1. Characters do not necessarily speak in order.

If you listen to a conversation around the dinner table, A doesn’t speak first followed by B and then C and D. It’s more likely that A speaks, then B, A again, C jumps in and D may be too shy to speak at all. So vary the order of speech and make every bit of dialogue work to move the story forward.

2. Characters can move without talking.

Shy character D (as seen by the Point of View [POV] character,) may get up from the table to get a glass of water, answer the phone or walk out in a snit. Or when D sits down again, she may have something profound to say.

3. When a character does talk, the dialogue needs a tag or action to identify the speaker, often by name, if there are several characters present.

Here are some examples. I’ve included the proper punctuation because, yes, in contests I have seen the punctuation done incorrectly. Ack! Talk about a dead giveaway that the author is inexperienced.

Dialogue tag - “I’m going to the store (comma)” Mary said (comma)

holding up her car keys.

Action - “I’m going to the store (period)” Mary held up her car keys.

“I won’t be gone long (period)”

Action first - Mary grabbed her car keys and said (comma) “I’m going

to the store (period)”

If you’re not sure of the punctuation, check any of your ‘keeper’ reference books.

4. The POV character can interpret what the characters are saying or thinking.

He can see that ‘shy’ D may not be speaking but her face is growing redder by the moment because she is so angry. Meanwhile, he recognizes that Mr. B, her boyfriend, is totally oblivious to how his words are effecting D.

5. Last, but equally important, Don't lose the baby or the dog or the mother-in-law.

The POV character may note that D glances at the sleeping baby to be sure she’s okay. Or the POV character may, in internal thought, be glad his mother-in-law is snoring away, or he may slip the dog a bite of meat under the table.

Another tip: Introducing a cast of thousands in the opening scene of your book is deadly. You may want to introduce all the major characters - brothers, sisters, cousins - but the reader does not need to meet them in the first ten pages. Start small. Give the reader a chance to get to know and care about one or two characters. Assorted relatives and friends can wait.

What problems do you have writing dialogue?

Happy reading and writing....


Charlotte Carterwww.CharlotteCarter.com

Char frequently visits Harlequin.com forums; watch for her comments and writing tips. http://community.harlequin.com/forumdisplay.php/12-The-Writer-s-Circle

0 comments on “Look Who's Talking~Dialog Involving Multiple Characters”

  1. Good tips. I'm writing my memoir, and often I sit quietly and do little actions as the adults talk around me. Sometimes they even say things I don't understand. I've learned that having a speaker do an action before saying something allows me to get rid of a he or she said line. The one I hadn't thought about was having someone only speak through actions. Good point.

  2. I'm a fan of 'beats first' unless it's clear who's speaking from the dialogue alone. (Mary grabbed her car keys. “I’m going to the store.”) I'll use the occasional tag, but I trim as many as I can.

  3. Great post, Char. You talked and I listened. Multiple characters was the hardest for me. I loved your example ... to mix it up and not only rely on "he said, she said." Thanks 🙂

  4. As a true Dialog tag hater, I angsted about having more than one character in the room at a time, but when I wrote a romance, and the protag's love interest had a brother living with him, it was hard to avoid.

    Great tips, Char, thanks! And I love Melissa's comment above - that technique saved the day for me!

  5. Loved the point about not forgetting the baby or dog or MIL. That always frustrates me when I'm reading. When I'm writing a scene that includes lots of characters, I'll jot down who is involved (including dogs or MILs) and everyone gets checked off at the end.

  6. Great advice, Char! And not surprising given your MANY books! You are one of my favorite authors. Your stories are always heart-warming and leave me with that "feel-good" ending. I'm looking forward to your next release.

  7. I've organically developed a style with no dialog tags. I find myself positioning things so it's usually obvious who's speaking. Leads to a little extra work now and then, but when I re-read my stuff, I can tell it's me.

    Watching the action in my mind like a movie helps keep people moving around, interacting, and not forgetting the kids in the next room.

  8. When I started writing, I used to get people out of the room so I only had 2 talking in a scene--sent a lot of them to the bathroom or to fetch something from outside. I like to think I've come a long way--am currently writing a scene with 4 people. It also helps to give some of them specific mannerisms or 'go to' expressions. I read a book by a best-selling author, part of a series, and she had everyone gathered around the dinner table and dumped back story as she "introduced" them. I was lost and never picked up another one of her books.

    1. Terry, I admit, if it's an emotional scene, I'd just as soon have only the h/h present. Multiple characters tend to dilute the emotion.

  9. Great blog Char. I love using body language instead of all the saidisms but admit you have to sneak them in once in a while. 🙂 It's difficult even for those who have written for years to remember who is doing what. 🙂

    1. Sharla, clearly I remembered belatedly that my blog was on WITS today. Sorry for the delay....nasty hard disc crash at my house. Sigh......

  10. Scenes with multiple characters are definitely tricky. The first time I wrote one, it took me days to construct. I've gotten better at it. Now it only take hours. LOL!

    One trick I use a lot: stage the scene (where each character is) and write dialogue between the scene's most important characters. Then I drop in dialoge for the secondary characters, make any small adjustments for the mains and add touches of movement, expressions, etc. This might not be the best method for everyone, but it works for me.

  11. Great post Char I enjoyed it. Funny I was trying to avoid those dialog tags but someone who went over the piece told me they were needed. So many helpers. Thanks for a great piece of information. 🙂

    1. The truth is, he said/she said become invisible to the reader. But variety also allows the reader to get farther into the head of the POV character.

  12. Thanks Char. I have four women in my novel and getting a bit lost. I feel ready to tackle it again now.Will definitely be mixing it up more, as you suggest.

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