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9 Tips for Writing Dialogue Between More Than Two Characters
In a scene with several characters engaged in conversation, it’s important to make the conversation easy to follow. Learn how to shape a conversation between multiple characters with these dialogue tips and techniques:
- Format your dialogue for clarity. When you write dialogue, format it so that it clearly stands out from the rest of the text. The most common way to do this is with quotation marks. When a character speaks, use double quotation marks. If they quote someone else, use single quotation marks for the quote within their dialogue. Know how to punctuate dialogue properly within double and single quotes. Begin a new paragraph of dialogue when you switch characters. Formatting helps dialogue stand out on the page and makes it easier for readers to interpret as speech.
- Use dialogue tags sparingly. Writing “he said” and “she said” is a universal way to identify the speaker in literature. It’s particularly helpful when there are more than two characters in a scene. After that first line, make sure to mix dialogue tags with other ways of identifying the speaker. Have characters refer to one another by name.
- Stage your characters. In visual mediums, like film, television, and theater, it’s easy to see who is speaking. In theater, actors are positioned in front of an audience and move so they are in plain view at all times. When you establish the setting of your scene, stage it—even if you’re writing a novel. Create a visual of where each character is in relation to the setting and in relation to one another. This makes it easier for the reader to track the conversation in their mind.
- Write dialogue with action. In a scene with dialogue, give every character something to do that creates movement. This further establishes them physically in the scene for readers. It also continues the momentum of the plot. Movement can include body language and facial expressions. Actions differentiate multiple characters, and they can also reveal emotions through subtext. Giving each character a physical role helps set the scene and allows the reader to track who’s speaking during a tense exchange.
- Create a unique voice for every character. Every character should have a unique voice that identifies them. Make characters’ voices unique through accents, word choice, or speech patterns. This helps readers recognize who’s speaking with just a single line. A character’s voice can reveal a lot about them, like age, culture, and where they’re from. A high school student talking to their best friend will use different lingo than a CEO running a business meeting.
- Keep it real. When you write dialogue in fiction, make it believable. Listen to your own dialogue when you speak with other people. Take that and filter it. Eliminate the common mistakes people make when speaking. Real life dialogue often uses filler words like “um,” “like,” and “uh.” In creative writing, craft lines of dialogue without those unnecessary fluff words that slow the scene down. In a character's dialogue, don’t ramble, keep pleasantries to a minimum, and skip the small talk. Keep every piece of dialogue deliberate so that it supports the scene and the overall conflict.
- Read dialogue out loud. The best way to know if your dialogue works is to read it out loud. Choose dialogue examples from your story. Read those lines of dialogue to yourself or someone else. Does your dialogue sound like real people conversing? Good dialogue should sound natural. Bad dialogue will sound clunky and awkward. As you read, listen to cues for who is speaking to see if you can follow the different voices and tell who’s who.
- Avoid introducing new characters during a conversation. When you create a scene with multiple people in conversation with one another, only use characters readers are already familiar with. Introducing readers to new characters in a group setting can be confusing. They’ll spend time trying to figure out how this new character is relevant to the story rather than following what the characters are talking about.
- Give characters opposing views. Every character in a scene should have goals that conflict with one another. It’s easier to follow characters when they have a unique point of view and they’re passionate about the views they’re expressing. Contrasting characters also build conflict. If there’s no sense of conflict or tension in a scene, make sure it serves a purpose in your story.
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