Keeping Your Speakers Straight

When writing long conversations, indicating the speaker can get annoying but it is very important that readers know who is talking. Here are some tips for using simple mechanics to help keep things clear.


Use dialogue tags at the first natural pause

A dialogue tag is a phrase that contains a speaking verb. They usually are connected to the dialogue with a comma.

Hello," she said. "My name is Susan."

The most common dialogue tags are "he said" and "she said," but any speaking verb plus a name or pronoun can make up a dialogue tag.


When writing dialogue that is longer than one sentence, it is best to put a dialogue tag at the first natural pause. This can help prevent confusion that would occur if the dialogue tag showed up later on. It also often helps remove the repetitive feel of dialogue tags always being at the end of a sentence.

"This is why no one trusts you," he said. "You're always playing the victim. You never admit when you might be in the wrong. But that's not going to work on me."

is much clearer than

"This is why no one trusts you. You're always playing the victim. You never admit when you might be in the wrong," he said. "But that's not going to work on me."

One reason authors will put their tags too late in the paragraph is to use it as a pause. Pauses are a super important tool in writing dialogue. They allow readers to get a sense of time passing, of moods shifting, of attention drifting, and other important cues that help readers imagine the speaker's tone, mood, or emphasis on their heads. But it is important to know that dialogue tags aren't the only ways to create a pause.

One can be created with punctuation (such as an ellipsis) or by breaking up the dialogue with a beat.


Use beats

A beat in dialogue (not to be confused with a story beat) is a sentence that describes an action other than speaking. They can be a great way to indicate the speaker without directly telling the reader.

Lucy waved. "Hi!"

Beats are good when a character performs an action that cannot happen while speaking, such as eating or whistling. They also are a great way to show the speaker's emotion through body language. Additionally, many readers prefer a beat such as "she laughed" or "he screamed" rather than the onomatopoeia being spelled out.


When using a beat, make sure to be careful of your punctuation. A dialogue tag is connected by a comma, but beats need periods.

"Hi!" she said, waving.
"Hi!" She waved.

When using pronouns instead of names, you also need to be careful about capitalization. Beats are separate sentences and should be capitalized as such. Because a beat is its own action, it should be written where it chronologically occurs in relation to the dialogue. If a beat happens simultaneously with the dialogue, it usually should come before the dialogue.


Keep actions of other characters out of your dialogue paragraphs.

The basic rules of paragraphs suggest that a single topic belongs in the same paragraph, so many new authors mistakenly put reactions in the same paragraph as the dialogue.

"And that is why the chicken crossed the road," Todd finished. Hilary laughed. "I love a good chicken crossing the road joke."

This adds unnecessary confusion. It's hard to tell who is speaking that second line of dialogue, Hilary or Todd.


By keeping the actions of other characters in separate paragraphs, you can indicate the speaker using beats or even just a paragraph break (when there are two speakers in the conversion).


In this version Hilary says the second line of dialogue.

"And that is why the chicken crossed the road," Todd finished.
Hilary laughed. "I love a good chicken crossing the road joke."

And in this one Todd does.

"And that is why the chicken crossed the road," Todd finished.
Hilary laughed.
"I love a good chicken crossing the road joke."

Break up long speaches with listener reactions

While technically you can have dialogue take up multiple paragraphs, it's generally best to use that tactic as little as possible. Instead try to add at least one detail of their surroundings that has changed, such as a listeners reaction or their arrival at a new location, before starting the next paragraph of dialogue. This will help readers feel like the world hasn't frozen to listen to a monologue and help them remember the context of the speech. It also helps avoid confusion that a paragraph break indicates a new speaker, the way it does elsewhere in dialogue.


(If you do need to have multiple paragraphs, make sure to start each paragraph with quotation marks, but only end the final one with them.)


With these tools (dialogue tags, beats, and paragraph breaks), you should be able to keep most conversations organized and clear.


Happy writing!




About my coauthor:

Elestrei Engrei was a huge help at providing the author perspective for this post.


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