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“Writing dialogue is hard, Part 2” he said. “No it isn’t,” she asservated. “Which do you mean?” he rasped.

Most conversations will be two way. It makes it so much easier if a man is talking to a woman. Then it’s just a matter of referring to he and she. When two men, or two women, are talking, then it’s all too easy to get muddled as to who did what, who said what, who this is supposed to be about. However, if it’s just the two of them, then it gets dull very quickly when you have to use their names. Using descriptions – the Russian agent, the gambler, the spy, the American criminal – becomes too obviously contrived. I have no solution for this that fits all situations. I’ve found myself in a tangle over a brief exchange of words and actions where what’s going on is very simple, but the language gets itself into a tangle, and I can’t bring it out smoothly.

Here are some more example from real-life books. I’ve unpacked most of my boxes now, but I’ve stayed with the handful I originally selected. These are therefore reasonably random, apart from the selectivity inherent in picking books I own.

Next up is a John Grisham. He’s a plain man’s writer – nothing too convoluted there. The story, atypically, is about an NFL player who’s moved to Italy. He’s talking about another team with a couple of fellow players, both Italian, There’s a bit of setting up, then we kick off with a “Sam said”. Then a “Trey asked”. The next speech is an answer to the question, so we know it’s Sam – so we have no need to have any ‘said’ at all. Then there’s a “Rick asked”. Again, we know it’s Sam replying, so his phrase doesn’t need a ‘said’ attached. Then we get a “Rick said” and another block of text without attribution, that we know must relate to Sam. But then, cleverly, we get another block of text, and we know, because the last “said” was attached to Rick, that this must be as well. This is a risky strategy when it’s a three-way conversation, but we have no trouble following it. The sentence attached to “Rick said” is short, as is Sam’s response, so when the next sentence comes up, we know it’s Rick speaking. However, Rick has a lot to say – six sentences. By the time he’s finished, we need to be told who replies. We get a “Sam said” and the conversation finishes.

Here’s the actual segment.

Rick and Trey hung around, and when all the Italians had left, they opened another bottle with Sam.
“Mr Bruncardo is reluctant to bring in another running back,” Sam said.
“Why?” Trey asked.
“Not sure, but I think it’s money. He’s…four sentences total.”
“Why does he do it,” Rick asked.
“Excellent question… three sentences total.”
“The answer is Fabrizio,” Rick said.
“Forget him.”
“I’m serious. With… six sentence infodump.”
“I’m tired of that kid,” said Sam, and Fabrizio was no longer discussed.

The last sentence in a block of text, if followed by a “said” is terminated by a comma. If there’s no “said”, it gets a period. (What we in the East Atlantic call a full stop.) If the quoted text is a question or exclamation, it is assigned a “?” or “!”. The above shows how this is done.

The most important thing, of course, is that we always know who’s speaking – unless, for some odd reason, the writer doesn’t want us to know.

More examples next week.

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