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I am an amateur fiction writer and a key feature in most of my pieces is dialogue. There are often 6-12 characters in the exciting scenes and a lot of the content depends on who said what and how the others reacted. At the moment, I normally clarify that by adding phrases like; "said Hitler", "Putin pointed out," and other suitable synonyms but it's plain to see that it gets rather humdrum and at one point I just wanna write the direct speeches but due to the abundance of characters it would get really confusing. I adopt this for a two-person dialogue but for three or more it's not practical.

Are there are more useful structures I could put to use? I am not a very big fan of the structure used in playscripts and screenplays. (Trump: We'll build a Wall)

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There are several possibilities.

  • Paring down the number of characters in the scene. Six to twelve means that most of them aren't doing anything most of the time.
  • Using action tags such as, "John threw his hands in the air. 'What else could we do?'"
  • Making their speech patterns more distinctive.
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  • This is a great point, as very rarely will people stand in a circle motionless while talking. – William Aug 4 at 22:34
  • It would be hard to keep track of all that, especially for more casual readers. But giving them distinctive voices can make it easier to keep characters separated in our heads. – Leviathann Aug 4 at 23:27
  • Actually most of the scenes are classroom so there are quite a few silent or inactive kids but yeah the action tags are a helpful idea. – Hardik Rajpal Aug 5 at 7:49
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If your plot really does require throwing 12 people in a room together, and most or all of them must actually talk at some point, don't try to write out the literal sequence of dialog word-for-word. Instead, give the reader a high-level summary of (at most) one to two paragraphs describing the conversation as a whole, and its result. If it's just "everyone brought character X up to speed on event Y," then this can be a single sentence.

For example, you might write:

With the twelve of them reunited, the bickering started almost immediately. Susan began throwing around her usual paranoid accusations in every conceivable direction. John responded with his trademark sarcasm, and the conversation deteriorated from there. Jane sank to the floor, head in her hands, trying to blot it all out.

(It is assumed, of course, that John, Susan, Jane, and the other nine characters all have established personalities that your reader will be familiar with. Otherwise, this would make very little sense.)

This sort of thing should be rare. Most of the time, you don't want 12 characters in a scene together. It's too hard for the writer to manage and also too hard for the reader to follow. To some extent, you can get away with it if there's some additional structure to help the audience keep up with the plot. For example, in Ocean's Eleven, when Danny describes the plan, he's doing most of the talking, and it almost feels like diegetic narration rather than dialog. If the film had instead tried to portray a scene of all the characters coming up with a plan collaboratively and organically, it would have been much harder to understand.

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One way to do this (which can be quite difficult to strike the balance on) is to ensure that your characters all have distinctive quirks and manners of speech.

"When talking together, Yoda, Jar-Jar, Hagrid and Sasuke Uchiha are, determine the speaker, you can."
"Take care you don' overdo it though. Yer gonna have ta keep it readable."
"Hn."
"Meesa think that too mucha-mucha eye-dialecta can be muy-confoosing."
"An' it can be hard ta keep it straight in yeh own head, or make 'em distinct enough from each other"

Obviously, I have deliberately chosen rather extreme examples for my demonstration, but the point is (hopefully) made. Some characters might be terse and to the point. Other individuals populating your scene will mayhap wax lyrical, eloquent and loquacious. Some of them might have, like, a verbal tick, ya know, that they, like, keep throwing into their sentences. Some will use words that are easy, while their contemporaries obfuscate the discourse with a philaverous volcabulary in need of vernacular elucidation.

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  • In this case, do you consider Hagrid's (TV Tropes warning) Funetik Aksent a verbal tick? – Dragomok Aug 7 at 14:16
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A few years ago, I came across this advice from Elmore Leonard:

Never use a verb other than "said" to carry dialogue.

It is perhaps a bit extreme, but since reading it, I've noticed that a lot of great dialog is simply attributed with "[character] said" or "said [character]", over and over. Rather than feeling humdrum, these scenes would flow very well, because the simple consistency of the attributions would allow my mind to breeze through them and keep the focus on what the characters were saying.

This article expresses the same idea:

But for professional fiction writers, said (and asked) are the gold standard.

Here’s why: they disappear.

The reader just registers which character is speaking and moves on.

Thus I suggest that, when in doubt, you tack on a simple "[character] said" or "said [character]" wherever it may be unclear who's speaking; it may flow more smoothly than you'd think.

Please note that I don't mean to imply there's anything wrong with action tags as suggested in other answers. (The above article calls them "beats" and also recommends using them.) I think having a mixture of these and simple attributions (where they're helpful) is very typical of good, smooth-flowing dialog.

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  • 1
    In a scene with 12(!) characters talking, keeping track of who is talking would be hard for me as a reader, so I would like it to be indicated in as clear and simple a manner as possible. In that circumstance I would definitely not get tired of reading "John said", "Fred said" etc. – Robyn Aug 4 at 17:13
  • 12 already-known characters (eg Avengers all discussing Thanos) this is fine. But 12 newly introduced characters would mean I'm very unlikely to remember which is Fred & which is John so there I would suggest using this only if it doesn't matter which one said it. – Dragonel Aug 5 at 15:06
  • @Dragonel Great point. I want to clarify that there's a lot of flexibility in what you substitute for [character], and you can use this to help the reader keep track. ("Well, I don't like it," said the town blacksmith, Fred.) That said, 12 is a lot, and it may still be better to use a different approach, like in Kevin's answer. – insectean Aug 5 at 15:59
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As Mary stated

Using action tags such as, "John threw his hands in the air. 'What else could we do?'"

Mixing acion is the approach I prefer both in reading and writing. The characters do not need to be involved in Hollywood style action, they may be drinking tea. People communicate a lot more with their body and tone than with words

Alice looked straight at him. "What do you mean?". The cucumber toast raised.
Over her book Jane's stare was firm. "Better spit it out". Poor fellow.
Paul saw himself cornered. Paused. Then, after a sigh, "I don't think I like cucumbers Alice". His shoulders stiffened, gathering strength. "Actually I never liked them".
The toast slipped from Alice's hand vaulted mid-air and fell to the floor. Cucumber face down.

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Think about how in real life what would happen if you put a dozen people in a room, all of them eager to speak.

One of two things would happen:

  1. It would be utter chaos. People would talk over one another. People would shout over each other to be heard. Feelings would escalate. At this point, nobody would know who was saying what.

  2. You would need to develop some sort of parliamentary procedure. This would require a moderator. John would interrupt Joseph, but the moderator would remind John to wait his turn. After Joseph finished speaking, the mod would give the floor to John. The presence of the moderator would make it very clear who is saying what.

Please remember that your characers are real people. Real people want their voices to be heard. Real people aren't willing to wait for eleven people to finish speaking before they can get a turn.

Of course, some people will be willing to wait. Some people are very patient like that. But to write a scene where all twelve of your characters are natural turn-takers would be unreasonable.

If you really insist on putting that many people into the conversation at once, include at least a little chaos. So, don't stress about how to make it clear who is saying what. Even if this was a movie, the audience wouldn't be able to remember who was saying what once the shouting started.

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