Who Said That? Making Dialogue Crystal Clear

Recently, I was hunting for a book that would simply entertain me. I didn't want to have to ponder about 'who dun it'. I didn't want to have to think about the meaning of life. I just wanted to sit back with believable, likeable characters and 'watch' while their story unfolded. Something light. Something humorous.

Eventually I plucked a likely candidate from the shelf. The cover art signalled that it was probably the kind of book I was looking for. I turned it over. Yes, there were two short testimonials on the back cover; one from another author (I never place too much credence in those - I know how easy it is to get fulsome praise from other writers) and one from "Hello" magazine. The latter said "Will make you laugh out loud and tug your heartstrings."

Good, good! I was feeling pretty brain-dead. Something to make me laugh out loud sounded just the ticket.

I opened it and read more reviews. "Too clever for chicklit" said TIME OUT.

Okay. I was sold. A quick glance at the first page confirmed that it wasn't written in the present tense (a pet hate of mine) and that it hooked me right away, so I happily paid up and tucked it into my bag.

Later that day, I began to read.

Did I like the heroine? Yes. Not only was she funny, but she seemed to have a brain.

Did I like the storyline? Yes. It got me in from the first page, with hints about the heroine's precarious financial position, a dire reason that she parted company with her ex-fiance, and her need to get her new business off the ground.

But then... it happened. In the midst of an exchange of dialogue, I found myself frowning and going back to the beginning. Huh? Who said that? I re-read the section, worked out who said what, and moved on.

Then it happened again.

And again.

At various points through the book, I found myself stopping, going back to check, and then moving on. It was annoying but more than that... it continually reminded me that I was reading, instead of living inside the heroine's skin.

The worst thing was that it could so easily have been fixed.

I'm going to quote a few examples from the novel to show you what I mean.

EXAMPLE #1 "He's desperate to dominate," I explained, as we sat on the terrace, watching him with the other two dogs.

Caroline put her cup of tea down. "Is he?"

"Yes. This might sound harsh, but what he needs is to be knocked off his pedestal."

"Really?" she said. I nodded. "But how?"

"By you taking far less notice of him. He's a chronic show-off - if he's got your attention he's thrilled." What went wrong?

Did you spot the place where this jarred?

It was in the third paragraph: "Really?" she said. I nodded. "But how?" Because Caroline's response "really?" was followed by an action on the OTHER person's part ("I nodded") the reader is cued to expect that the words which follow belong to the speaker who performed the action. So I read this as: I nodded. "But how?" ...as though the viewpoint character was asking a rhetorical question of Caroline: "But how can we achieve this?"

Sometimes, when we come across a section of dialogue that can be taken two ways, the brain interprets it correctly the first time - which means we read on, blissfully involved in the story. But if we misinterpret, the whole passage stops making sense. Your job as a writer is to make sure there's no chance that the brain will decode the message the wrong way!


We are going to move the action "I nodded" right away from the words spoken and turn it into a response on its own: "He's desperate to dominate," I explained, as we sat on the terrace, watching him with the other two dogs.

Caroline put her cup of tea down. "Is he?"

"Yes. This might sound harsh, but what he needs is to be knocked off his pedestal."

"Really?" she said.

I nodded.

"But how?"

"By you taking far less notice of him. He's a chronic show-off - if he's got your attention he's thrilled."

EXAMPLE #2 I stopped folding the chairs. "You want a photographer?"

"Yes, sorry, I was just thinking aloud. Don't worry," she put her diary away. "The picture editor will sort it out." I looked at her. "We'll be off then - my driver's waiting - and I've got to get this little baby into her bed." She snapped on Jennifer's diamante-studded lead, then smiled. "See you next week."

"Can I make a suggestion, Lily?" She turned around. "For a photographer?"

"Yes, okay."

Adrenaline surged through my veins like fire. "How about... David White?" What went wrong?

Same thing as in the last example... a lack of clarity about which speaker the words can be attributed to. In this case, the words "Can I make a suggestion, Lily?" and "For a photographer?" are spoken by the same person. Again, because the words "For a photographer?" come after the action "She turned around", the words could have been spoken by the person who turned around.

It's only a moment or two before the reader realizes who is actually speaking - but a split second is all it takes to remind the reader that she is not 'living' the story.

You can easily avoid this momentary lapse in the reader's focus by changing the layout. Always make sure that the words are 'attached' to the right person - or, at the very least, are not associated with the wrong person!


**This time, to remove all ambiguity, we are going to move the action "She turned around" right away from the words spoken and turn it into a response on its own: I stopped folding the chairs. "You want a photographer?"

"Yes, sorry, I was just thinking aloud. Don't worry," she put her diary away. "The picture editor will sort it out."

I looked at her.

"We'll be off then - my driver's waiting - and I've got to get this little baby into her bed." She snapped on Jennifer's diamante-studded lead, then smiled. "See you next week."

"Can I make a suggestion, Lily? For a photographer?"

She turned around. "Yes, okay."

Adrenaline surged through my veins like fire. "How about... David White?" You'll notice that in this example, we also moved the words "For a photographer?" to follow the viewpoint character's previous sentence, so it's all quite clear. Lily's words "Yes, okay" were also put directly after "She turned around" for the sake of clarity.

Similarly, the words "I looked at her" were set off in a paragraph of their own.

These are small changes - but they're worth doing. We have moved the character's reaction ('she turned around') so that it occurs slightly later - but we gain more than we lose. Now, the reader has no chance of getting confused about who said what.

And no chance of losing the sense of being part of the story - instead of just a reader!

Isn't that what all authors hope for?

(c) copyright Marg McAlister

Marg McAlister has published magazine articles, short stories, books for children, ezines, promotional material, sales letters and web content. She has written 5 distance education courses on writing, and her online help for writers is popular all over the world. Sign up for her regular writers' tipsheet at http://www.writing4success.com/

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