Who Said That?

Another day, another posting on dialogue tags! Let’s take a look at a few lines of text involving multiple characters:

Lloyd, Ray, and Susan sat by the hospital bed, where Shelli lay unconscious.

“How long do you think she’ll be out?”

“Who knows? The doctors aren’t sure.”

“Doctors. What do they know?”

“In any case, until she wakes up, we won’t know what happened.”

Four characters, four lines of dialogue. The reader will most likely rule out Shelli as one of the speakers, because the writer has specified that she’s unconscious. Of course, there’s another possibility:

Four little Indian boys going out to sea;

A red herring swallowed one and then there were three.

-Agatha Christie

Or in other words, it is possible that Shelli woke up to announce that the doctors didn’t know how long she’d be out. But even sticking to the probable, the reader has three speakers to choose from. Are the lines of dialogue up top between all three characters? Between just two? Are any lines of dialogue addressed rhetorically to the unconscious character? And why does it matter?

Let’s address the last question first. If you’re a writer, you’re director, producer, cast and crew of your story. You are in control of every letter of every line in your work. If it doesn’t matter to you who’s saying what, stop writing and go get a day job. Seriously, you don’t get behind the wheel of a car, turn on the engine, put it in gear, push the accelerator then take your hands off the steering wheel and say it doesn’t matter to you where you’re going.

Let’s leave the crazy drivers and car wrecks behind. Writers need to clarify who is saying what for two reasons. First, every line must move the story forward, and each line of dialogue must be spoken for a reason. This means that each specific character must be speaking that specific line of dialogue for a reason. The dialogue should reflect the thoughts, emotions, and motivations of each speaker. This is how the reader gets to know each character, and motivates her or him to keep reading the story. Let’s finish with an example of how the first piece of text can serve the purposes we need it to.

Lloyd, Ray, and Susan sat by the hospital bed, where Shelli lay unconscious.

Susan turned to Ray. “How long do you think she’ll be out?”

Ray shrugged. “Who knows? The doctors aren’t sure.”

Lloyd had started perspiring the moment they’d entered the room, and fidgeted as he stole quick glances in the direction of the unconscious woman on the bed. “Doctors. What do they know?”

Ray had an unpleasant thought crawling around in the back of his mind about Lloyd, who had been reluctant to come with the other two to the hospital. “In any case, until she wakes up, we won’t know what happened,” he said, wondering if she’d gotten a look at the person who’d put her in the hospital.

Dialogue tags are necessary to clarify who is speaking, but more than that, they give us thoughts and motivations. Make sure the reader can always tell who is speaking, and as importantly, why they’re saying what they’re saying.

Looking for more tips? Here’s what’s up so far. More to come!

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