Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Talking about Talking

Both of my kids are grown. We’re blessed, though, that, so far, they've come home for Christmas. This past December, not only did both kids come home, they came Christmas Eve and spent the night. We broke a couple of traditions and started a few new ones.

For Christmas dinner, we had the four of us, plus four more – my sister, her son, her husband, and her husband’s mother. That made it fun – eight of us around the table laughing and trading stories. With that many people talking, you end up sometimes listening to one person, sometimes breaking up into two or three simultaneous conversations, and sometimes trying to keep up with two stories at once.

That makes for lively dinner talk. I’ve found, though, that it doesn’t work so well in a book. When you’re writing a scene with multiple characters, having that many people interacting is too confusing. More than about three people talking together is too many. If it’s a play, a movie or a TV show, you can do more characters – the audience can see and identify easily who’s talking. In a book, it’s either confusing or boring with constant tags to identify the speakers.

I might call this a general rule, but like all rules, there are exceptions. There are ways around a limited pool of three speakers. You could have three talking at a table or football game, long enough to establish who they are in the readers’ minds, then have one or two more come into the conversation, then exit. You could have six or eight at a dinner table, but have them broken up into three or four conversations, each going on separately with the main character focusing in on one interaction.

You want your reader to be a part of the conversation without getting lost and without being put off by constant tags like “Jack said,” “Mary butted in,” or “Grandpa exclaimed, his teeth falling into the soup.”

Fiction may imitate or mimic real life, but it’s not an exact copy. A book conversation, in fact, should be an understandable version of messy reality.

Helen Ginger is an author, blogger, and writing coach. You can follow Helen on Twitter or connect with her on Facebook and LinkedIn. Helen is the author of 3 books in TSTC Publishing’s TechCareers series, Angel Sometimes, Dismembering the Past, and two of her short stories can be found in the anthology, The Corner Cafe. Her next book, Deadpoint, is due out in Spring 2015.


  1. I love doing dialogue. It's a lot of fun making characters unique that way.

    Morgan Mandel

  2. I came across this problem in a manuscript I evaluated recently. The scene was a meeting of detectives involved in a murder case. There were at least six people talking and it was too hard to follow. Realistic, but unworkable in fiction. I try to keep my taskforce scenes to four detectives or fewer, with one of them usually not saying much.

  3. Helen if we wrote about real life no body would read what we wrote.

  4. Lauri, you are so right! (grin)

    Morgan, dialogue is a wonderful way of bringing out the personality of characters. So true.

    L.J., it would indeed be hard to have a 6-way conversation in a book. I'm sure you were able to make changes or suggestions as to how s/he could correct the messy situation!

  5. One of the most skillful authors whose works I edit tried to include about six people in a discussion, and it was a mess. When she reduced the number of three, she solved the problem, so I definitely concur with your point. Good post.

  6. Shelley, looks like 6 may be the tipping point.

  7. What a great exercise. I love it when we have big family gatherings, trying to keep track of what everyone is talking about. Dialogue is so fun to create.

  8. Dean Koontz and Stephen King are both adept at doing the multiple-character-conversations thing. They can get a group of people in dire jeopardy together in a room full of chaos and deliver easily followed dialogue. An enviable skill!


  9. It really is an enviable skill. I'm editing a book now where the author does a good job of writing conversations involving multiple participants.

  10. I get lost when the conversation gets past three people. When I write I have went as high as four speaking, when I reread I had no Idea who was saying what and I had only written it minutes before. I believe that writing good dialogue is difficult and the more people sitting around the table talking, the more difficult. Two people talking—He said—She said – still works for me.

  11. "when I reread I had no Idea who was saying what and I had only written it minutes before" - you totally made me laugh!

  12. I just read a wonderful scene in a Joe Lansdale book, The Bottoms, where a boy is eavesdropping on a conversation between his parents. He can't see them, only hear them, and the whole three or four pages of dialogue has no attributives. The dialogue is so well written that it is clear who is speaking. That is seamless writing. :-)


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