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.
- 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.)
- SIGNAL 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.
- 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.