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I'm trying to write a long dialog with multiple exchanges between characters. How can I keep it clear which character is speaking without filling the story without repeating 'he said/she said'. Repeating 'he said/she said' a zillion times just seems distracting.

I was thinking that I should to left justify the first character speaking in a particular section of the story then indent the second. I can't remember seeing that done, however. Is it acceptable?

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    Is your dialogue between two, or more than two characters? – Alexander Dec 7 '20 at 17:51
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Usually, it will be obvious enough who's speaking without tags. Just make the dialogue show the sides of the conversation and who's speaking each side. Here is a very mundane and basic example of this:

Bob asked, "What's for dinner?"

"Steak and vegetables."

"Ok, thanks, mom!"

In the example you can see that Bob speaks the first time, someone responds in the second line, and Bob acknowledges the speaker and finishes the conversation in the third line.

In the example, there is 1 tag out of 3 sentences of dialogue.

Let's try a more complex imaginary conversation between an employee (Nicole) and a boss (Nick):

Nicole added to Nick's idea, "what if we...?"

"Interesting idea," responded Nick, "but you are missing the essential goal of this assignment, which is to ..."

"Oh yeah, forgot about that. Could I just tweak right here and...?"

"Just don't forget to include..."

"How 'bout now?"

"Yeah, I guess that works."

"Ok, I will work on that ASAP and get back to you by email. Could we talk about my promotion tomorrow?"

"Sure, thanks Nicole!" ended Nick.

You can apply this skill of conversation without tags to a variety of situations. You can apply them to questions and answers (like the 1st example), distinct conversations (like the 2nd example), 2 character interactions (like both examples), etc.

You want to minimize the number of dialogue tags you use, as you said, it clogs up a conversation and becomes repetitive.

You also should remember to vary your dialogue structure to avoid boring the reader. Be creative!

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Make sure the characters have their own voices. You can throw in accents, slang, formality, whatever. If they all have different voices, then the reader should be able to recognize the characters voice, even if there isn’t a dialogue tag.

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My Editor is Pretty Strict:

Every time the discussion is switched back and forth, it either needs to be understandable even to someone who hasn't been paying attention as to who is talking, or else you need to say who is speaking. So very short clips of speech can be stand-alone, and then only if there is NO possible way someone else said it.

Conversations between two people of the same gender make he/she problematic, so don't rely on it. Even then, he said/she said is terrible form. He can quip, she can mutter, he sighs and she yells, but you're right, saying said is dreadfully boring. Colorful language goes a long way towards breaking up the monotony.

Also, even if you can use a he/she, don't do it for two times in a row. So don't say he did, then he said, then he did, then he said. You'd say Ted did (making it clear who is involved/speaking and there isn't another guy in the conversation), then he spoke, then Ted did (again, reinforcing it is Ted) and finally he spit the words (being colorful).

But you can inform who is speaking in ways other than telling. You can describe what a character is doing or thinking, and in the same paragraph infer that that it is them speaking. Don't use dialog where one person speaks and someone else makes an action in the same paragraph. You can say:

Ted wrung his hands. "I'm really sorry. How was I supposed to know?"

Jan couldn't look at him. "I was drunk. I couldn't even stand up. What made you think it was okay?"

This way, you give a visual, or an insight into the character's thoughts (showing without telling) while still making it clear who is speaking. If you said in one paragraph:

Jan couldn't look at him. Ted said "I'm really sorry."

It muddles what Jan and Ted are doing and saying.

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Each switch of a speaker in a dialog is its own separate paragraph. Alice should never say anything in the same conversation as Bob, and vice versa. Keeping the speakers paragraph separated helps the reader parse who's side of the conversation it is. For dialog between two people, so long as the order is preserved, you need not repeat the said tag, though having the characters other actions contained in the paragraph is fine. If there are three or more, it becomes prudent to tag who is speaking in each new paragraph as order is not as easy to preserve, though if Character A and B start to have a conversation with each other and C stops speaking to listen, order is preserved until C resumes his part in the conversation.

"I said this," C said.

"Well, I said that!" A said.

"A," B interrupted, "What did you say?"

"That!"

"Oh!"

"Can we get back on track?" C asked

Notice that B and A have quick dialog between them where A answers B and B reacts. No tags are used because it's implied by the two paragraphs on either side that A will respond to B's question, and the second tagless dialog can't be A (he just spoke) or C (he's tagged in the following paragraph).

If the quoted text needs paragraph breaks (A is going on a monolog) then the paragraph should at most note he's continuing, but is not part of the same quote sandwich (i.e. Paragraph one should end with a closed quote and paragraph two should begin with an opened quote. It could be that A is going to do some non-spoken actions.).

Remember, dialog is an action and all of one character's actions in one instance should be contained to one paragraph. A character can speak and jump, but cannot speak, jump, summersault, speak, pour a drink, speak, speak, eat a hamburger, and speak in one instance.

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By varying your techniques. You can use, in some combination:

  • "he said."
  • Action tags: "He picked up his coffee and looked smug."
  • Distinctive patterns of speech
  • distinctive motives, where the readers can deduce who's who by who's arguing for what

Another factor that helps is paring down the number of speakers as far as possible. Two is best not only for clarity -- you can even leave some lines of dialog unattributed because they are responses -- but to sharpen the conflict.

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You could use a different font for each character.

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  • Have you even read a book before? How many times do you see each character getting their own fonts? – Nai45 Jan 29 at 20:51
  • That it hasn't been done before doesn't automatically mean it's a bad idea. A similar technique is by the way used in the book in the "The Neverending Story" scifi.stackexchange.com/questions/160425/…. Here different colors are used to make clear/emphasize which part of the story you are reading. – thieupepijn 2 days ago

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