3 techniques to reduce dialogue tags and cues in group scenes #AuthorToolboxBlogHop

3 techniques to reduce dialogue tags and cues in group scenes

With only two characters, we can get away with less dialogue tags (“You need to brush your teeth,” Kate said) and cues—also referred to as character, emotion, or action beats—(Kate crinkled her nose. “You need to brush your teeth.”), because if we know who’s speaking first, we can intuit that the next pair of quotes encloses dialogue from the only other character in the scene.

But with groups of more than two speakers, scenes can become cluttered with dialogue tags and cues, which can make a passage more stilted than it needs to be.

Yes, there are helpful distinguishing techniques such as 1) using a nickname or term of endearment that only one character uses (“You need to brush your teeth, Jakey.”), or uniqueness in speaking patterns among characters (“You need to brush your teeth right quick.”), or context clues (Maybe we know from earlier in the story that Jake has an aversion to teeth brushing, and that Kate nags him about this.) but there’s also this:

With one sentence, you can signal an immediate reduction in the parties to the conversation, even if they’re still technically in the scene.

  1. SIGNAL THAT ONLY TWO CHARACTERS WILL BE ABLE TO HEAR ONE ANOTHER: I noticed this technique most recently in Magpie Murders (I think.) In the scene, four characters are walking together. It could have been a jumble of dialogue tags and cues, but (presumably) Mr. Horowitz simply had two of the characters move a few steps ahead of the others, and right away, I knew the remaining dialogue was between two instead of four, and I could easily intuit who was speaking. Examples: Kate and Jake lagged behind the others. Or, Once inside the minivan, Kate turned on the kids’ monitors. Or, Kate leaned in to Jake. (You could also add something about them lowering their voices, or you could decide it’s implied by the action of leaning in.)
  2. 3 techniques to reduce dialogue tags and cues in group scenesSIGNAL THE POV CHARACTER’S INTENTION TO INTERACT WITH ONLY ONE OTHER SPEAKER: Kate’s field of view narrowed to Jake. Her remaining competitors all but disappeared behind blinders; he was the only horse that mattered in this race. (Sorry for the cheese, but you get the point.) Or, Kate tuned out the chatter around her and zeroed in on Jake.
  3. SIGNAL THAT ONLY TWO CHARACTERS WILL BE SPEAKING: Kate raised a hand to tell everyone else to be quiet. In this moment, Jake’s voice was the only she wanted to hear. OR, Kate clamped a hand over Julie’s mouth. Or, Julie opened her mouth to speak, but a nudge to the ribs, and she closed her lips over a sigh.

This post is part of the #AuthorToolboxBlogHop. So many great blogs to keep hopping through. Click here to join the hop and to see what other writing tips you can glean from this month’s edition.

Have you ever used any of these techniques, whether consciously or unconsciously? Are you thinking about trying them in the future? Can you think of any approaches I’ve missed? Please share in the comments.


68 thoughts on “3 techniques to reduce dialogue tags and cues in group scenes #AuthorToolboxBlogHop

  1. Great post Raimey – (strokes an imaginary beard) too many cues slow the pace (nods in agreement then frowns as he re-reads latest draft.)

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Th trick is to watch your attributions and don’t let any of them talk too much. I had a boss once, long ago, who, when thing got a little conversational, would say “One meeting!” Give your characters the floor, if they need it, and keep everyone else’s manners on, nail your attributions quickly. The deal with dialogue is that unlike the real world we can drive it where we want it to go, one person or nine, without a lot of superfluous bunny chasing and call and response. Isolating a character from a group might as well not have the group along. Talking over and interrupting is also good if you work on your timing and attribution. I don;t like group scenes but sometimes they’re unavoidable. Check this out. Bad guys, a kidnapped hot rod TV show host and an ex cop in his underwear on the bayou in Louisiana. See if it works.


    Liked by 1 person

  3. I’ve actually had a lot of trouble with dialogue tags. It seems like some audiences just really prefer a definitive “name said”.
    I do think that most of these techniques are generally good techniques for dialogue though.

    In most situations, if more than 3 are present, the others rarely get a word in. Often a conversation of any size is dominated by 2, sometimes 3, and the others only rarely get a chance to interject, if for some reason the main speakers become stumped or otherwise “lost in thought”.
    I think even with dialogue tags, some audiences easily get lost in all the different speakers.
    And too many speakers can create too large of a concentrated block of dialogue (unless it’s literally several people speaking in quick succession, or simultaneously).
    Dialogue is definitely 1 of the 3 big pillars of good scene writing.
    Thank you for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I love your post today. I haven’t seen many topics on multiple character scenes and cues. I like the one sentence shifts, especially the physical tip: “Kate and Jake lagged behind the others.” Have a great rest of your day Raimey 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Great tips 🙂
    I’m always conscious of how many people are around during conversations and hate the idea of forgetting about someone! I really like the idea of taking two characters off to one side so no one else can hear them.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Your mention of large groups in novels makes me think of The Westing Game. There were so many characters in that novel that it didn’t matter if two separated or not, I was confused about who was speaking.

    Another tip to add to your list is to try and avoid similar names of characters. If you do have to have a group speaking, then similar names could confuse the reader.

    Great post!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I really like this advice, because having more than two characters in a scene–and especially if there are a bunch of them–can get really confusing. Unfortunately, we can’t always write so we only ever have two characters in a scene! Thanks for the advice!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m still not sure I’ve got the right balance. This is probably the right attitude, though. As so long as we’re always paying attention to it, then we’re more likely to strike a balance that’s pleasing to most.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Dialogue tags are one thing I’m afraid of screwing up. An editor told me that ‘said’ and ‘asked’ were overused and had me remove most of them from my manuscript. I was allowed one each per so many pages. It hurt and took forever. Since then, I’ve been very wary of throwing down tags and tend to stick with stage direction or reactions to show the speaker.

    Lesson learned.

    Anna from elements of emaginette

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve been thinking about this, Anna, and I don’t say this lightly. Your editor gave you really bad advice. Try reading some books by traditionally published authors that came out within the past year or two. I think you’ll see that they don’t do this.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. These are great tips Raimey, I’ve used the first one quiet a bit in my novel The Fair Lady, as they’re often travelling on horseback in a group, but riding two abreast. I’ll definitely keep the other methods in mind now, as I can see I’ve probably relied a little too heavily on one method now!

    Liked by 1 person

  10. This is such a smart trick! I hadn’t even thought of it, but you are right dialogue tags can get sooo cluttery in larger groups, but this is such a subtle and neat way to avoid it!! Thank you so much for sharing!!!! (This is why you are our fearless leader ;D )

    Liked by 1 person

  11. My recent WIP has 5 characters that meet for coffee. Keeping up with who said what was a trick. One of my Beta readers added tags. I tend to be a tag minimalist. I hope I used some of your techniques above because I don’t have the energy to re-read now and see. I will save your post for my next read-through!

    Liked by 1 person

  12. I love these tips. I’m slowly learning the best way to write dialogue, and dialogues tags are my weak spot so I will definitely be utilizing your tips. It’s so clever to physically move your character in the story to make it obvious who is talking to who.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. This is phenomenally helpful! I definitely use some of those techniques incidentally in my writing, but I’ve never sat down and thought about what I was actually doing in so many words. I’ve added this to my list of tips and tricks for refining drafts! 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Katherine! I had been doing it subconsciously as well. It wasn’t until I noticed another author do it that it donned on me to sort out the logic and write a post about it.


  14. I try to focus on that one character who holds the floor. The one with the answer, or at least they think they have the answer. Sometimes the unreliable narrator mixed in with their followers makes a fun read.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. OMG, YOU are the Raddish Runner… Or, OMG, You ARE the Raddish Runner, better still… You are the RADDISH RUNNER? I don’t believe it. Thank you. Every now and again, I take a half page of Di-ee and try to those tags down to nil. If I don’t know who’s saying what, I feel it’s been a success. 😉

    Liked by 1 person

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