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Writing dialogues with three or more people

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by Noxius, Jun 25, 2017.

  1. Noxius

    Noxius Dreamer

    What are your tipps for writing dialogues with more than two people participating, for example, a council meeting, or just a bunch of friends talking?

    I feel like this is particually hard, because it is so hard to tell the reader who is talking, without adding "said x" behind every sentence. So, how do you handle such situations to make them seem natural and well written?
    Lisselle likes this.
  2. Lisselle

    Lisselle Minstrel

    I try to give my characters their own voice, and their personality can shine through as well, so one may be louder, one is interrupted a lot, another might have a particular way of speaking, for example, saying "ahhm", or chewing a nail. I might also include a nickname, however I have no issues with using 'said so and so', or 'so and so replied' if there is any confusion. I never find it too jarring when I read, and it's better to be clear of who is speaking, rather than have the ambience broken by confusion in the matter.

    Sent from my iPad using Tapatalk Pro
  3. Penpilot

    Penpilot Staff Article Team

    First I usually have people doing things while they talk, so the scene isn't just talking heads. That tends to help because it makes it easier to combine dialogue tags with action tags.

    For example.

    Fred turned to his wife, Sue. "Don't forget to chop the carrots."

    "I'll worry about the carrots. You worry about stirring the chilli."

    "Do you two always have to bicker when you cook together?" Tommy sat at the kitchen table playing is game.

    "Hush." Sue began to cut the carrots. "It's not bickering. It's banter."

    Tommy rolled his eyes. "What ever you say, Mom."

    "You'll understand when you're older." Fred leaned over and gave Sue a peck on the cheek. "Banter makes up the spice of life."

    "Too much spice makes me feel like I'm pooping firecrackers," said Tommy.

    OK, I'll stop now with the silliness. But it's just to illustrate what you can do. Just like most things don't over do the action tags. It'll make characters seem twitchy. Let them come out naturally.
    TWErvin2, Noxius and FifthView like this.
  4. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

    In addition to the above, don't worry about using "said." It is virtually invisible to most readers.
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  5. FifthView

    FifthView Istar

    Dialogue between 3 or more people is much like any other narrative involving 3 or more people: keeping track of who is doing what—in this case, speech, but that's a lot like any other action in a scene involving many acting characters—and cluing the reader in to who is doing what.

    You'll want to use character names more often, for instance. If you use pronouns, you'll want to keep the antecedents clear; e.g., if you use "He said," you'll want to make sure the reader is clear on who "he" is.

    Using "said" a lot is typically not a problem because readers hardly notice. With multiple speakers, you may need to use it more often than you would for dialogue between only two characters.

    You can use action beats, or dialogue beats, to clarify who is speaking. This is where the character is doing something, or thinking about something, during a conversation. For example:

    Casper flew above Wendy's head and did a somersault in the air. "I rather like being a ghost."

    Wendy gave an exaggerated shrug and flicked her wand. Her broom rushed toward her, and she jumped onto it. "A witch can fly, too!"

    Across the foyer, Richie clapped his hands and laughed as Casper and Wendy flew circles around each other. He said, "Let's go outside. I can use my private plane and join you. Let's play the cloud game!" ​

    One thing I'd caution: If using multiple speakers in quick succession, leaving the beat or dialogue tag after the speech can confuse a reader. E.g.,

    "I don't know what those symbols mean, but they're pretty weird," Wendy said.

    "One looks like a bone—that one there. These others are tiny arrows, I think." Richie pointed at each symbol in turn.

    "Maybe it's supposed to be a skeleton," Casper said.

    "I don't know. Why would a skeleton have arrows? There'd be other bones, wouldn't there? And look at the shape surrounding all these. It's like a pear," Wendy said. She leaned in to take a better look. "Suddenly I'm a little hungry for some reason."

    "Lucky you. I haven't had a pear in ages." Casper frowned. He couldn't even remember what a pear tasted like.

    Ok, there may be some doubt about who is speaking until a name is dropped. The fourth one, especially, could cause some confusion. It could seem like Richie speaking for that first full length of speech until Wendy's name is dropped.

    The fifth could also seem like Richie...

    ...BUT, maybe a reader would instantly clue in on the fact that Casper is more likely to bemoan not having had a pear in ages, since he's a ghost. This possibility shows that contextual clues and character voice can be used to help keep the speakers clear. The first example above could get away with putting the dialogue first, for this reason:

    "I rather like being a ghost." Casper flew above Wendy's head and did a somersault in the air.

    "A witch can fly, too!" Wendy gave an exaggerated shrug and flicked her wand. Her broom rushed toward her, and she jumped onto it.

    "I can use my private plane and join you!" Richie clapped his hands and laughed as Casper and Wendy flew circles around each other. "Let's go outside. We can play the cloud game!" ​

    Edit: Was typing the above when Penpilot and Steerpike suggested much the same. Gah, who can keep track of who's saying what? Heh.
    Last edited: Jun 25, 2017
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  6. Demesnedenoir

    Demesnedenoir Auror

    The key, I think, is balance. In a prolonged conversation, too many beats can begin to feel forced and more hoakey than just saying "said". And the only real way to know if it works is to let people read it and see what they say. My editor has had a few extra "saids" stuck in for me to clarify, and she was right every damned time. LOL. This is probably one good area to err on the side of the reader is right, if they're confused, fix it.

    Screenwriting is easier on this account, there's no doubt to who's saying what, heh heh.
    Noxius likes this.
  7. Noxius

    Noxius Dreamer

    thank you all for the answers, they were really helpful! :)
    Lisselle likes this.
  8. Addison

    Addison Auror

    If I have a scene with two or more people talking, which I've found rare so far, I've found it easier to have two people talking first then one interrupts and it's shown by writing.....Jack shook his head and stormed over. "That's ridiculous blahblahbalh" he interjected.
    Then one of the first speakers engages him. Any time someone joins the conversation, or leaves, I've found it best to indicate so by a describing a physical action. If there a larger group, like a council, and someone says something poignant or awful then just say uproars or cheers, throw in a few "That's treachorous!" Yelled the....Cyclops Senator, and a few others.
    Bring it back with a primary speaker, or next speaker, holding up their hand and continuing their speech or whatever.
  9. Simpson17866

    Simpson17866 Minstrel

    "I normally despise 'he/she/it/they said' dialogue tags," said Simpson, "but I've found that putting them in the middle of a line is less obtrusive than putting them at the beginning or the end."
    Creed likes this.
  10. K.S. Crooks

    K.S. Crooks Inkling

    For a group of friends I will sometimes create pairs of dialogue for people in the group. This way I can have two characters banter back and forth in a quick succession then switch to another two or three characters. Then change the mix of who is talking to who. For something like a council there is usually a main leader so much of the dialogue can be directed at that person.
    FifthView likes this.
  11. Aurora

    Aurora Sage

    Hi. This is a tricky one for sure. Try to think of it like a mystery dinner party where everyone has their own agenda and they're pulling/pushing one another. The easiest way is to just show it and place tension in the dialogue. If I may, I'd like to post a sample from my work because writing with 3 characters is something I enjoy and hope it helps you get an idea of how to manage it:

    (context: the heroine and her brother are assassins. She has been sent to a castle to kill a prince, but ends up secretly marrying the prince's court wizard. Her brother finds this out right before this scene begins. 'Mother' references the matron of the assassin family.)

    The double doors of the mess hall swung open and Matthias entered the hallway. Cecilie froze.

    Not knowing who he was, Fabian ignored the mage and yanked Cecilie by the arm. “This ends now. You’re coming home right now, young lady.”

    She struggled to break free of his grip. “Stop it. You’re crazy.”

    Matthias called out to her and ran after them. “Hey, let her go.”

    Fabian spun around in a fury. “Who the hell are you?”

    “Brother, please, you’re hurting me.”

    “Did you not hear the lady? Release her this once.”

    “Look, mister. I don’t know who you are and I don’t care. I’m taking my sister home and you can’t stop me.”

    “She doesn’t want you touching her.” Matthias stood like a statue, stone-cold in the face, gaze piercing and threatening. “I can have the guards slice your hand off, if you’d prefer.”

    Fabian growled and let Cecilie go with a push. “Get your things, sister. We’re leaving.”

    She cradled her injured wrist. “I’m not going.”

    Matthias raised an eyebrow. “Is this your brother, my love? What kind of man abuses his own flesh and blood?”

    “Love?” Fabian scoffed and pointed at Matthias. “Is this him? Really?”

    Cecilie stood speechless, mouth gaped slightly open.

    Matthias placed his arm around her. “She’s my wife. And so she stays with me.”

    Fabian laughed. “Does he even know?”

    Now, if death really had come to her this very instant it would have been better than the first time she wished it. “No.” Her response was simple. Flat. “But maybe you’d like to tell him for me, if you’d be so kind.”

    “Tell me what?” Matthias asked softly.

    Fabian squared his gaze with Cecilie's. “Mother will be contacting you soon.”

    He started to walk away but she chased after him. “Wait.”

    “What do you want?”

    “Forgive me. Please?”

    “Why should I?”

    “Because we’re bound by red.”

    Fabian’s lip quivered. “We were bound. You’ve married outside the family. You can no longer be part of us.”

    He vanished around the corner and a piece of her heart went with him. Perhaps it would do her good to cry but no tears cme.

    She stared into the dark void of the hallway, feeling only momentary relief when Matthias rubbed on her shoulder.

    “Your brother is quite the character,” he said in an entertained tone.

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