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Group Dialogue

I enjoy writing dialogue. In fact, I’m one of those writers who lets characters call the shots a bit too much. Often, they just sit around and yak, instead of doing something to propel the plot.

Dialogue between two characters is basic and straightforward. But in my current work in progress, a group of five people is about to go somewhere and do something. (Let’s hope it’s something interesting.) Of course they’re going to talk about things, make plans, argue about details–and I’m already getting nervous about refereeing those conversations.

A few things come to mind right away…

  • If the whole group is there, or even just three of them, I’ll have to supply dialogue tags or other clear indications of who says what.
  • At least one person will be the silent type. When they do talk, they should say something important or at least funny.
  • Each character’s style must be represented in the way they express themselves, which means I have to know all of them better than I do now. I could conduct character interviews, or try this technique described by author Richard L. Pastore.
  • Dialogue will be easier if most scenes include three or fewer of the characters, which means thinking up how to get the others out of the way.

In fact, I’ve already decided someone is going to go missing. Which means the others will have to organize a search while dealing with a number of other issues. That will, of course, require more planning, discussions, and arguments, many of which will take place over meals. (Can’t starve the characters, after all.)

table, teapot, plates, candle

By the time I’m done, I’ll either have mastered the art of managing the multi-character conversation or killed off two or three of the characters.

All you writers out there must have ways of dealing with group dialogue. Any tips or tricks you would like to share?

Images from Pixabay. Featured image by Mary Pahlke from Pixabay.

36 comments

  1. Good post Audrey.
    I love dialogue, both external and internal (though the latter can go off on tangents at times), they afford wonderful opportunities to develop character, situations and plot. Also you make an important point about circumstances where dialogue takes place, such as meals, or meetings.
    It is important that the reader has an easy time following who is who; without the writer being dull by falling into the ‘Charles said’…. ‘Sue said’ syndrome. Giving an character a distinctive speech pattern or mannerism can allow the writer to work through a few lines of dialogue and keep the reader ‘in the loop’. And of course including someone’s name in the dialogue works.
    It’s a fun area to work in, my only problem is I don’t get to interview characters, they are more than willing to give me their opinions on….everything.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Dialogue is a great way to show characters’ styles and make them real for readers. And I love internal dialogue too, but it’s easy to get carried away with it, maybe because carrying on an internal dialogue with oneself is a “writer thing.” Then there’s the question of whether internal dialogue (also called Unspoken Thoughts) should be in italics. Long paragraphs of italics are not popular with readers. So it all has to be reined in and controlled.
      And meals! My characters are always eating and talking, drinking and talking. At least I don’t have to cook and wash up for them.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. “At least I don’t have to cook and wash up for them.”😄
        Apparently some editors get quite incensed if they see italics (which is one of many reasons why I self-publish). I like to pepper them about the place to emphasis say a single word or phrase, and love to use them for the internal ‘chat’. Sign me up for the ‘Italics for Internal Dialogue’ group. If you don’t use them the reader might wonder if the person is talking to themselves out loud in a public place.

        Liked by 1 person

    1. I think I rely on it too much. In the current WIP, I find myself automatically starting a new paragraph with quotation marks, even when they’re not needed. But it is a good way to show character and liven up a scene.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I love writing and reading dialogue ‘oh you look smart’ is easier on the reader than describing a person walking into the room and exactly how they are dressed! But thinking about five characters all talking at once – you would have to send someone off to make a pot of tea, have another dashing off to answer a phone call, another leaves when the doorbell rings…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Well, I’ve already removed one of the 5 from the scene by having her not accompany the others on the trip. But you’re right–they have to be juggled, whether they’re talking or not. And it’s not a good idea to forget all about someone only to have them pop up paragraphs later; you need to have them sitting there glowering or leaving the room or something.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. You’ve posed quite a challenge (at least for me!). I tend to use the Audrey Driscoll method of dealing with group dialog: kill off two or three characters. However, I’m going to have to figure it out because my current WIP takes place in a group home. I see a lot of trial and error in my future!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Well, I haven’t killed anyone yet in this WIP, but I did make someone stay behind from the Big Trip. The main thing is to account for everyone in every scene. I imagine it’s like dealing with a roomful of kids; you have to give everyone something to do.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I have confidence that you will figure it out! As I’m doing my regular reading for pleasure, I’ll have to pay particular attention to good models for group dialog. I’m glad you raised the question in your post today!

        Liked by 1 person

  4. In my current WIP (Part Eight of The Man Who Found Birds among the Stars) I have lots of group dialogue because the characters (both human and alien) hold a lot of briefings and debrieflings while the aliens are trying to learn English and also to figure out how to rescue the humans. Here’s a sample:
    Finally the Captain cut off the prattle by declaring, “I have a point I want to make! I am not going to allow this unfortunate outburst of fear and ill-will by one of the aliens to deter us from rescuing these ♫iskrisí’i’aidá [extraterrestrials]. Is there any reason to debate that fact?”
    “Not at all, !Arrukh,” said Skrov’t cheerfully. “Fortunately, nobody was seriously hurt, thanks to our excellent Security Officer.”
    “And the alien Security Officer, too,” said Karrkru. “Good old Fredi! I surname him ‘Hammer-Hand’! I must have a further demonstration! Korokoró!”
    The Captain, who was sitting next to the Gro’at, winced and patted his ear. “Well, what he did was protect the assailant, but I can’t really fault him for that – it’s his job.”
    “It was rather amusing to see you bested at your own game, Mormp,” said Pikei slyly, and the dipsy Security Officer cackled maniacally, as if the <Wagumát had just said the funniest thing in the world. [The big Grouse got whacked on the head and pain medication is making him dopey. Humor always helps to liven up this sort of conversation.]

    Liked by 1 person

      1. I’m formatting the paperback – the footnotes for all the language bits are the problem. The ebook is even more of a nuisance. But I have finished the cover. I’ve put it up on FaceBook, but I plan to post it on Twitter maybe this evening. I think you’re on Twitter, aren’t you?

        Liked by 1 person

        1. No, I’m not on Twitter. I should probably go there, but the time aspect is a deterrent. I struggle to keep up with all the blogs I follow, plus write a post every week (one post per week, pathetic, I know!) And of course now I have a work in progress and the garden to negotiate with.
          But I’m glad to hear you’re getting closer to publishing!

          Like

  5. Good luck. Better you than me. Well, actually I guess I did have four people in a couple of scenes in my latest story. I believe I had the people who were talking also doing something, so that they were identified by their actions rather than just by what they said. And everyone politely took turns doing and saying things.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. A bit more planning is needed for these group scenes, and having people also doing things is an excellent idea. And I’ve reduced the participants from 5 to 4. Someone had to stay home. On the other hand, there are all sorts of secondary characters too, and a party scene is upcoming. Lots of fun!

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  6. I always return to my personal theory of what a reader remembers about a story. Do we remember what was said? Or what happened? The dialog or the events? We’ve talks about this before. My conclusion is that dialog is both the glue that sticks parts together as well as the fluid that lubricates the story, neither of which we would note if analyzing a physical assembly. So, to me, the bare minimum of dialog to keep the bits (characters and plot) stuck together, as well as the least amount to allow the actions and settings to flow from scene to scene. A bunch of chatter by folks talking for the sake of blab might be a something I’d skip. (Although, when it comes to skipping bits of prose, I tend to look to where the dialog picks back up after a long section of block text.)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Well, it’s a matter of balance between dialogue and description. Let’s not forget that action in fiction must be described. Describing action is harder than describing something that’s standing still, like it’s harder to get a good photo of a cat in motion than one that’s snoozing. I agree that blab as filler can be as skipworthy as excess description. Going back to your machine metaphor, too much lubrication makes for a slippery mess, but not enough causes the mechanism to stick and fail. That’s why there’s no simple formula for fiction.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. lol…nothing like just killing a few of em off. Love it.
    Dialogue is definitely an art…espeically when you start getting into to tag or not to tag…being distinct enough etc. The thing is that you have to have fun with it.
    Everything in a story needs to propel the plot forward…every word. Every action.
    the one thing to be very careful of is using dialogue as an info dump.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, the old “As you know, Bob,” trap. In the first draft I think it’s okay to let the characters yak, debate, argue, etc. In the second and subsequent drafts a lot of that stuff can be deleted.
      Thanks for reading and commenting, Faye!

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Dialogue reveals so much about characters, but I prefer conversations between two or three characters. I try to keep group dialogue to a minimum because it’s hard for the readers to follow too many participants.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Thanks, Audrey. I know what you mean about dialogue. I get all sorts of tangents coming out and suggesting directions the characters want to go with the story, and you’re having to hold them back. I followed the link. That’s a useful technique and will give that a try some time.

    Large groups are difficult to handle and generally the most I like to have in a room at the same time is three. In my story Sea View Cafe, one of the main characters had an idiosyncratic way of speaking, English being their second language and that made conversations easier to handle – or at least to know who was speaking. It’s interesting, listening to see how different nationalities handle conversational English, which words they skip, and which they emphasize, and what idioms they pick up.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. I have, somewhere in the depths of a folder on my computer, a short story that is comprised entirely of dialogue between six women sitting around a campfire.
    Interesting exercise, drove me insane, but inordinately proud of it, I am! 😀

    Liked by 1 person

  11. I’ve done this a couple times, and like you recommended, having clear, distinctive voices certainly helps eliminate some excessive speech tags. Two other things that might help (might, being the operative word!) would be 1) having a very clear setting, in which characters can interact with the environment and show their feelings about things, even without speaking (“I think we should go right in the front door,” Mary said. Behind her, Seth peered out the grimy window, as if he already thought the police were onto us.–that kind of thing); and 2) having a strong POV interpreting the conversation. Rex Stout does a ton of multi-character (often 5 or more) scenes at the end of his mysteries–classic “closed room” finales with someone being the villain–and they might be a good source for successful and non-confusing examples? I love them. They’re clear, concise, and he uses a very distinctive POV in the form of the narrator, Archie Goodwin, to funnel all the information about the other speakers and their behaviors regarding the usually very tense conversations they’re having. Good luck with the scene! I’m sure it’ll be great!

    Liked by 1 person

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