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Writing dialogue for groups

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by T B Carter, Feb 10, 2019.

  1. T B Carter

    T B Carter Dreamer

    Is there a trick to this I don't know? Unless the conversation is brief and to the point I find the x said, y asked, z said and so on feels very clunky. Is it just a matter of editing until it feels right (which is what I've done in the past) or is there special secret I don't know about?
  2. Svrtnsse

    Svrtnsse Staff Article Team

    One thing to do instead of using tags (he said, she said), is to use beats.

    Simply put, a beat is an action that accompanies the word someone says. Like, for example:

    "I'm going to go make myself a cup of tea." Rob stood up and headed for the kitchen.
    Lisa stared after him and then got to her feet. "Wait for me."
    Steven sighed and shook his head. "Seriously, tea?"

    Not particularly exciting but it serves as an example.

    I wrote an article about planning and outlining a conversation a while back, and it's got a few more examples and tips on how to use beats and tags, or even nothing at all. Here: How to Plan and Write a Conversation
    Thoras and T B Carter like this.
  3. Devor

    Devor Fiery Keeper of the Hat Moderator

    I always write out the dialogue, like a script, before I write the scene. I find it to be ten times more effective than plowing through it as I go.

    More importantly you've got to get a handle on the dynamic between your characters. It's true that characters have goals, that the dialogue has to be concise and develop the plot, and all that stuff. But if you have four people in a room, every set of two has a kind of relationship between them. They have baggage between each other, or longstanding friendships with in jokes, or secret feelings like romance or bottled up anger that seep out. They have a relationship arc that inches forward in most conversations, or at least plays out an iteration of its little game.

    "I think we should go back."
    He's always so easily scared off. "Let's think of going back as the backup plan, huh?"
    "That's enough you two." Roben marched ahead like he knew what he was talking about. And then he stopped to look back at her. "Wait, did you just make a pun?"

    Look at the way each relationship shows itself in the dialogue. Character A is timid, character B thinks little of that, and character C tries to keep the peace but finds B worthy of a little extra attention. Getting a grasp on that dynamic, even creating your characters around building a worthwhile dynamic, is a big part of getting the story right.
  4. K.S. Crooks

    K.S. Crooks Inkling

    Think about real group conversations. Often a large group even though everyone is sitting together breaks into smaller conversations or even pairs. This would allow you to use a dialogue tag only at the beginning of each group. Or it may be the type where one person is the main speaker and everyone else is occasionally asking them a question or making a comment.
  5. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

    The secret is: you must create your own secret.

    Seriously. There are many different ways to approach a group conversation. Write however it seems right to you. Get feedback. Don't ask specifically about dialog tags, just get feedback on your story. If you readers mention your dialog, then you probably need to adjust. The tags should be invisible. And don't be put off by a single comment, because no matter what approach you take, there's a reader out there who absolutely hates that particular approach. Or at least will say they hate it.
  6. Peat

    Peat Sage

    Might be worth reading this article on conversation topic patterns - C.S. Pacat - I quite like it as a way to add dynamism and verisimilitude to a group conversation in fiction
  7. MrBrightsider

    MrBrightsider Scribe

    It also helps to establish clear voices for each character. If only one character in your group uses the word 'aint', for example, then they'll rarely need a tag to go after their sentence. Readers are smart! Give them a few good clues, and they can figure it out.
  8. A. E. Lowan

    A. E. Lowan Staff Leadership

    Here's an example of pretty much everything above from our second book...

    The headlamps carved out his path through the moonlit night up the I-5 through Washington State, the tires gripping the road remarkably well at two hundred and twenty kilometers per hour. Alerich came up behind a lorry and an SUV just as one was moving to pass the other and floored the gas, darting between the other vehicles like they were standing still. His passenger gripped the bar and made a small squeaking noise. All he had to remember was to stay on the right and the wide median helped with that.

    Bloody Americans. Madness.

    Moments later another sports car shot around the slower lorry, engine screaming, and a voice sounded through Alerich’s speaker phone. “Rick, suicide is not going to get you out of marrying Celia.”

    Alerich laughed at Thomas, sweet adrenaline coursing through his body. “I didn’t know that was even an option.”

    Elspeth let out an elegant snort of the sort Celia was famous for. “Thomas is right. I don’t think even killing yourself would save you.”

    He glanced at his twin as she unwound her fingers from the passenger door’s grab bar, her short, chic, black hair barely brushing her ears. “I think you two are envisioning a zombie version of me shuffling down the aisle.”

    Thomas chuckled. “Yeah, I wouldn’t put necromancy past her.”

    Alerich grinned, thinking of himself gray and green, flesh decaying, his black leather jacket the only thing keeping him intact… All right, that was disgusting. But anything to keep his mind off the wedding.

    Off Celia Carralond.

    He felt the smile slide from his face. Celia was everything a wizard could want in a wife. She was both politically and magically powerful, the only child of the Archwizard of the Wizards’ Council. She was brilliant. She was beautiful. But beauty wasn’t everything. “‘Sweetest things turn sourest by their deeds,’” he said with a bitter edge to his tongue.

    Celia was also a raging, unrepentant bitch.

    “Alerich, man, what was that, now? I can barely hear you.”

    Fitz, ironic as always, raised his voice just a bit louder than was needed to be heard through Thomas’s speakerphone from the passenger seat of the other car and still sounded vaguely intoxicated, the words enunciated with the razor’s edge his father had beaten into him. Of course, ‘intoxicated’ was Fitz pretty much at any given time—he avoided hangovers by staying piss drunk. He was also profoundly deaf.

    Elspeth leaned towards Alerich’s phone mic, knowing her voice would translate to Fitz’s phone’s talk-to-text app. “He’s quoting Shakespeare again, Fitz.”

    “Ah yes, the Bard.” Fitz sounded like he was pulling out his flask, his magical focus object and scotch transportation device all-in-one. He had enchanted it to refill from a source at Thomas’s family estate, so that it was never empty. An impressive piece of magic, indeed. They could hear the small, squeaky noise of the top being unscrewed. “To dear Will. May he always endeavor to inspire us.” The sarcasm in his voice carried loud and clear.

    “‘O God, that men should put an enemy in their mouths to steal away their brains!’” Thomas intoned, his voice filled with amusement.

    “‘In vino veritas,’” Fitz retorted as his app provided. Alerich knew Thomas would not be able to turn his head for his lips to be read at these speeds, and the interiors of the cars were dark, anyway.

    “Will never wrote that, Fitz,” Alerich said with a grin and changed lanes.

    “Oh really? The only thing the Romans ever wrote he never cribbed, then.”

    Elspeth burst into harsh laughter.

    Thomas and Alerich groaned. “No, no. No more about Shakespeare and Plautus from you.”

    “You’re ruining a perfectly good car chase.”

    “Have you two heathens ever read Plautus? Your Will was a bloody plagiarist. Now Kit Marlowe, there was an original writer for you!” He cleared his throat. “‘Was this the face that launch’d a thousand ships, and burnt the topmost towers of Ilium? Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss. Her lips—’”

    Cries of derision rang out from both cars, drowning out Fitz’s recitation and likely filling up his phone’s screen. “No, no, not that. Anything but that.” Alerich drummed his fingers on the driving wheel in time to his racing thoughts.

    “Do me better, then.”

    Alerich passed a sedan in a blur and rose to the drunken challenge. “‘I’m armed with more than complete steel—The justice of my quarrel.’”

    Elspeth cast her gaze at the overhead signs, navigating as they blew past. “‘I am Envy. I cannot read and therefore wish all books burned.’” Her voice was half-soft, half-defiant.

    Alerich glanced at his twin. Unlike the three of them she had not had the opportunity to go away to school. The reasons did not bear dwelling upon. Instead he said, “‘Honour is purchas’d by the deeds we do.’”

    “How about some advice for the ladies?” Elspeth turned to face the mic again, a crafty look in her midnight-blue eyes. “‘You must be proud, bold, pleasant, resolute, and now and then stab, when occasion serves.’”

    Alerich grinned, approving, as Fitz made sputtering noises, and added, “‘Fornication: but that was in another country; and besides, the wench is dead.’”

    Thomas’s voice sounded eloquent through Alerich’s speaker. “‘Till swollen with cunning, of a self-conceit, his waxen wings did mount above his reach, and melting, Heavens conspir’d his overthrow.”

    Fitz sighed melodramatically. “‘Accursed be he that first invented war.’”

    Alerich and Thomas cheered their victory.

    Elspeth rolled her eyes and smirked. “Si hoc legere scis nimium eruditionis habes.”

    The three men laughed, and Fitz made a mock scoffing noise. “Keep your modern jokes out of my quote battle, wench. You’re confusing my phone app with your terrible pronunciation. Next it’ll be ‘semper ubi sub ubi.’

    Thomas chuckled. “Our lives are not like other people’s lives…”

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