Writing dialogue between multiple characters

by Jordan
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The Oxford dictionary defines dialogue as ‘a conversation between two or more people as a feature of a book, play, or film’ (OED). Yet the ‘or more’ (dialogue between more than two characters) is often confusing to write. How do you write and format dialogue well in a scene involving more than two characters? Here are some tips:

1. Place your characters clearly within your scene

In a stage play, it’s easy to tell who’s speaking most of the time because the characters are positioned on the stage so that we know where each voice is coming from. We don’t have this aural (hearing) element in a book, of course. To write clearer dialogue between multiple characters, begin by placing characters clearly in a scene.

For example, imagine a tense exchange in a kitchen. If you seat one character mid-activity (e.g. chopping onions), and have the other two standing by a sink, you can show who is speaking by dropping in these elements of ‘staging’:

Sarah was chopping onions, scrunching her eyes tight and trying not to remove a thumb.

  “Could you two stop bickering for a second?” She put down her knife, glaring over to where Tom and Judy lounged against the double sink.

  Tom turned to wash his hands, grumbling, “I only came in to wash my hands. Why do we always end up talking politics anyway?”

   “Because yours are so freaking shitty,” Judy said, her voice soft as Sarah caught her eye, showing with a withering stare her displeasure at her daughter’s casual cursing.

Here the simple actions and objects in the scene – the table with the vegetables, the sinks, give us a sense of characters’ position in relation to each other.

Note how you don’t need endless ‘he said’ and ‘she said’ (dialogue tags). There’s only one ‘said’ (Judy’s) in this piece, yet it’s clear throughout (through character placement and action) who is saying what.

Writing dialogue quote - Mark Twain | Now Novel

2. Practice writing dialogue with and without closeups

Another convention we have in film and TV that we achieve differently in writing is the ‘close-up’. In a show, we might see a close-up of a character’s face as they deliver a particularly emotional, funny or beguiling line. In dialogue in books, we have to achieve these effects using character description.

As is the case in TV and film, be sparing with visual closeups of characters in dialogue. Showing characters’ faces is a useful way to describe how characters react to conversation when there are more than two in a scene. Yet if every new line of dialogue is an animated facial description, your story could start to read like a soap opera or children’s book. For example:

Sarah stopped chopping.

  “Will you stop this continuous bickering?” She glared at her children.

 Tom glowered and turned his back to wash his hands, grumbling, “I only came in to wash my hands. Why do we always end up talking politics anyway?”

Judy rolled her eyes. “Because yours are so shitty,” she smirked, but Sarah caught her eye and glared, showing her displeasure at her daughter’s casual cursing.

Although this isn’t ‘wrong’, balance is key. Here, the continuous focus on characters’ facial expressions is at least broken up and given variety by Tom washing his hands.

Practice rewriting a piece of dialogue with facial descriptions for every line of dialogue. Then try rewrite the same dialogue and make characters’ words communicate the emotions their faces showed before. Take out any narration describing their faces. Which works better?

3. Give each character a distinctive voice

‘Voice’ is a crucial element of writing dialogue. In stage, film and TV we have the sound of individual characters’ voices and their identifying features (the way they laugh, if they sigh a lot when they’re sad or bored, etc.) to tell characters apart. In writing, dialogue needs to convey these differentiating elements with words.

When we talk about characters’ ‘voices’, we don’t just mean the sound of a voice. It’s also the character – the personality – that shines through their speech. Details such as:

  • Favourite subjects (for example, a Charles Dickens character might humble-brag a lot about how poor they were growing up to show others they’re a self-made man)
  • Striking vocal features (a high/low/soft/loud voice, speaking fast, speaking slow, slurred speech)
  • Vocabulary (does a character speak mostly in elegant, complex phrases, or is their speech rough around the edges?)
  • Accent – this is something that’s easy to overdo. Read tips on writing accents and dialects without stereotyping characters here

Here’s an example from George Eliot’s classic novel Middlemarch illustrating the above. The character Sir James wooing Dorothea, yet she’s more interested in the dry, pious Mr Casaubon and is annoyed by Sir James’ attention. Dorothea’s sister Celia is more interested in Sir James herself. Sir James starts:

‘I saw you on Saturday cantering over the hill on a nag not worthy of you. My groom shall bring Corydon for you every day, if you will only mention the time.’
‘Thank you, you are very good. I mean to give up riding. I shall not ride any more,’ said Dorothea, urged to this brusque resolution by a little annoyance that Sir James would be soliciting her attention when she wanted to give it all to Mr Casaubon.
‘No, that is too hard,’ said Sir James, in a tone of reproach that showed strong interest. ‘Your sister is given to self-mortification, is she not?’ he continued, turning to Celia, who sat at his right hand.
‘I think she is,’ said Celia, feeling afraid lest she should say something that would not please her sister, and blushing as prettily as possible above her necklace.

The tone of Sir James’ voice is chivalrous. Single-minded Dorothea’s voice by comparison is curt, abrupt. Her sentences are short and full of purpose (‘You are… I mean… I shall not’). Compare to Celia’s voice, which is more uncertain, and shows how the younger sister tiptoes around her older sister because of Dorothea’s high standards regarding people’s words and behaviour.

James’ subject (lending Dorothea a horse to ride) is typical of the character. He appears generous and affable. Solicitous (aiming to please) suggestions are typical of him. Celia’s uncertainty and hesitance in her dialogue is similarly typical. Through the kinds of things characters say, we tell them apart in dialogue easier. Eliot also uses small elements of staging (Celia sitting at James’ right hand) to clarify the focal character for each line of dialogue.

Writing dialogue quote - Sam Shepard | Now Novel

4. Use dialogue tags where necessary to keep dialogue clear

Dialogue tags are a necessary evil – use too many of them in one conversation between characters, and your reader becomes too aware of the author’s presence.

For example, you could solve the problem of how to write dialogue between multiple characters simply by putting ‘[character name] said’ after each utterance:

‘I want to go to the beach,’ James said.
‘Ugh, too much sand,’ Jane said.
‘You’re such a killjoy,’ Sarah said.

This isn’t completely bad. The characters’ voices are at least differentiated clearly: Jane is clearly dramatic and perhaps a little negative. Sarah’s accusing tone makes her sound like the scolding, judgmental one of the group. James simply states a clear desire, thus his voice is more neutral.

Even so, the end-placement of each dialogue tag is clunky. You could rewrite the same better, thus:

‘I want to go to the beach.’
‘Ugh, why, James? Too much sand!’ Jane shuddered.
‘You’re such a killjoy,’ Sarah said.

Here’s why the above is better:

  • There’s more anticipation and delay: We wonder (until the next line), who spoke the desire to go to the beach
  • The author’s presence is subtler (there’s less of a sense of ‘here the author is using dialogue tags to show who’s speaking’) – dialogue tags are less intrusive
  • Some tags are replaced with gesture and action, emphasizing the emotion behind characters’ words (‘Jane shuddered’)
  • We know who said the first line thanks to another character using the speaker’s name in response – context supplies some of the information

Try write a piece of dialogue using ‘he/she/other pronoun said’ after every utterance. Then leave some lines without dialogue tags, change others to gestures or actions, and think carefully about where a simply dialogue tag (‘said’) would make the most sense.

Need help writing better dialogue? Enroll in How to Write Dialogue, our 4-week course, and learn how to write subtext and context in dialogue, illustrate your characters through speech and more. Learn more here.

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