How To Write Dialogue: Keeping Your Speakers Clear

a mouth, open as if about to speak

Who said it? In most cases, your readers will want to know. In fact, when you fail to keep your dialogue clear, you risk your readers getting lost, distracted, or even annoyed. This post will explain how to specify who’s speaking and when to do so.

Tools For Keeping Dialogue Clear

Speech Tags

Speech tags indicate who is speaking and in what manner. They act as signposts to the reader, keeping dialogue organized so the reader can easily follow as conversation flows from character to character.

A speech tag can appear before or after the dialogue it describes:

“I’m going to the park,” Jonny said.

When she leaves, she shouts, “See you tomorrow!”

“I can’t believe it’s over,” says Sheryl.

“You need to take out the trash,” he said, “or it’ll stink up the apartment.”

At the most basic, speech tags are composed of a noun (the speaker’s name or a pronoun standing in for it) and a verb. Of course, you can spice things up with an adverb or an adverbial phrase or add more details with a conjunction if you want to, but the simple formula remains noun plus verb of utterance.

A Note on Said

Speaking of simplicity, let’s talk about said. In school, many of us were taught to switch up said with a synonym or to replace it with a more “exciting” verb (shouted, whispered, shrieked, mumbled etc.). Unfortunately, this isn’t always great advice. Too much variation can create unintentional shifts in tone and result in jarring conversation, distracting your reader rather than engrossing them.

Strong verbs definitely have their place, but said is a workhorse that should not be eschewed simply to avoid repetition. (There are better ways to do this that we’ll discuss below.) Said does not draw attention to itself or distract from the actual dialogue. It’s a practically invisible way to give your readers the information they need.

Action Beats

Action beats are your next tool for organizing and directing dialogue. They act like speech tags, but instead of indicating who’s speaking, they show what the speaker is doing or what action is happening during the conversation.

“I’m going to the park.” Jonny walked out the door.

She turns back as she’s leaving. “See you tomorrow!”

“I can’t believe it’s over.” Sheryl frowns.

“You need to take out the trash”—he hands me the bag—”or it’ll stink up the apartment.”

Action beats are a great way to add variety and make your dialogue scenes more dynamic. Plus they give you a chance to show character behaviour, making them less like talking heads.

Beware Action Beats Masquerading As Speech Tags

Action beats can have a nasty habit of trying to be speech tags. They sneak in and mimic the punctuation of speech tags, resulting in sentences that don’t make sense or aren’t physically possible.

I see this happen most often with facial expressions (smiled, frowned, grimaced) and gestures (shrugged, waved, pointed). These are not verbs of utterance; you can’t physically say words by performing those actions. Thus, such verbs should appear in action beats or paired with a speech tag rather than in speech tags themselves.

Some verbs can be used in both action beats and speech tags, but you should be careful with these too. For example, you can sigh a word or maybe a short phrase, but sigh isn’t appropriate for longer dialogue.

“No,” she sighed. (Okay)

“No,” she said, then sighed. (Okay)

“No. That doesn’t work for me. I have a meeting that day, and then I have to go pick up my dry cleaning before I pick my daughter up from daycare,” she sighed. (Not okay. It’s silly to be sighing all of that.)

“No. That doesn’t work for me. I have a meeting that day, and then I have to go pick up my dry cleaning before I pick my daughter up from daycare.” She sighed. (Okay again! She speaks and then she sighs.)

Luckily, in many cases, a simple switch in punctuation can change a tag to a beat and vice versa. In other cases, a bit of rewriting will fix the problem.

Paragraphs

Aside from explicitly stating who’s speaking with action beats or speech tags, paragraphing is a key way to indicate that you’ve switched speakers.

Generally, when you switch from one character speaking to another, you start a new paragraph. So if you’ve already made it clear who’s in the scene, sometimes using paragraphs is enough to keep your speakers clear.

Let’s look at an example:

As John grabbed his bag, Julie looked at him.

“Are you going to the meeting later?” she asked.

“No,” he answered.

“But don’t you want to give your opinion?”

“They won’t listen anyway, so what’s the point?”

“The point is to try. You could at least try.”

In this example, the first line sets the scene. We know that Julie and John are both there. The next two paragraphs include speech tags. By the fourth paragraph, we already know that conversation is going back and forth between Julie and John, so we can assume who’s speaking (Julie, then John, then Julie again) without needing explicit indicators.

However, paragraphs won’t necessarily help keep speakers clear when there’s more than two speakers. Let’s add a third character to our example:

As John grabbed his bag, Julie and Andrew looked at him.

“Are you going to the meeting later?” Julie asked.

“We’re going to have cookies!” Andrew flashed a conspiratorial smile.

“No,” John answered.

“But don’t you want to give your opinion?”

“They won’t listen anyway, so what’s the point?”

“The point is to try. You could at least try.”

Once again, the first paragraph sets the scene. Then in the first three lines of dialogue, we know who’s speaking thanks to speech tags and an action beat. But by the fifth paragraph, it isn’t clear who answers John. Is it Julie or Andrew? Your reader might guess that John says “they won’t listen,” but the paragraphs before and after aren’t clear.

When To Specify Who’s Speaking

As the section on paragraphs suggests, you don’t always have to explicitly state who’s talking. In fact, always using speech tags and action beats can get repetitive and distract from the actual conversation happening on the page.

So, when should you identify your speaker?

The simple answer: whenever you want your readers to be crystal clear about who’s talking. Usually, this means identifying the speaker when

  • a conversation begins
  • a new speaker enters an existing conversation
  • a conversation includes three or more characters
  • a conversation resumes after a disruption

There are all kinds of exceptions to this list, so it might also be helpful to think of a few common situations in which you can usually forgo speech tags and action beats.

You don’t need to identify who’s speaking if

  • narration has already established who’s talking
  • the conversation goes back and forth between the same characters
  • you are deliberately trying to obscure the speaker or introduce ambiguity

If any of this doesn’t come naturally, it’s okay. It can take practice. When you’re the writer, you already know how your fictional conversations will go, so it’s easy to skip putting in the appropriate signposts. The good thing is—because confusing dialogue is so likely to make readers stop or slow down—it’s one of the easier issues for a good beta reader or editor to pick out and bring to your attention.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *