Indicating the Speaker in Dialogue

When dialogue is presented in a book, it needs to be accompanied with a sense of who is speaking. That way the reader knows who is saying a given phrase or monologue.

I'll say up front that it's not that I overwhelmingly mind at all dialogue-first phrasing when the speaker is clear. If Eileen is all alone in a room, looking out the window, and then the next line reads:

"I wonder what that red bird could be?" Eileen whispered.

That is completely fine. We KNOW it is Eileen who will speak. We read the dialogue in her voice. The scene is clear.

However, the issue is of knowing who is talking if there is a group, or if there's no clear indication of who is about to speak.

Imagine you have a dinner scene with four people sitting at a table. Eileen is an elderly woman who hates pornography. Mark is twenty-six and adores it. Sarah is a precocious teenager confused by it. Simon is a middle-aged man who is ambivalent. They're all eating dinner quietly. Suddenly there is this line presented:

"I want to bring up something very important. It's critical that we discuss the current state of pornography. What do you think?" Eileen said.

The reader has to read the entire sentence before they have any idea who is speaking. Should they read the dialogue in an old woman's voice? A young guy's? In an angry tone? A curious tone? The reader has no idea at all, because the author failed in their duty to lay out the scene well. How the reader reads the phrase - its inflection, tone, meaning - is very much dependent on who said it. The reader doesn't find that critical information out until after they've read it. That's far too late.

In a movie or TV show, that's not an issue. The watcher sees and hears the dialogue. It's absolutely clear who is speaking. In a book, the author has to create that same certain knowledge before the dialogue starts.

What the author therefore does is create a wrapping environment where it's signaled who is going to talk, so that when the dialogue comes the reader can read it in the right "voice". Yes, something has to come first. If that "something" is the dialogue, with no clue at all who is speaking, then the scene can't be read properly. The reader has no idea what "voice" or tone or anything to put to those words. Male, female, young, old, personality, it's completely unknown. All of those matter when hearing a voice.

If the name comes first, nothing is lost. The reader knows who is about to speak, and then hears the dialogue, and the pieces connect properly.

Again, if you're watching something visual - a play or movie or TV show - you KNOW the speaker's identity because of the presentation. We hear the voice and its tone. There's no confusion at all. But in writing, we only have words to rely on to create that full experience in our brain. If the dialogue come first, then everything "important" about the inflection and tone of those words is lost.

Let's use Tolkien as an example. I keep a five-volume set of Tolkien right by my desk :). So it was easy enough to pull one out.

What Tolkien does is provide the signals so we know who starts talking in a two person set, and then it's common sense as they go back and forth. So for example:

Frodo came in soon afterwards, and found him [Gandalf] sitting in the dark, deep in thought. 'Has he gone?' he asked.
'Yes,' answered Gandalf, 'he has gone at last.'
'I wish - I mean, I hoped until this evening that it was only a joke,' said Frodo.

So yes, absolutely, Tolkien puts the words first once the atmosphere is laid out. But he makes clear who begins the exchange, so that the voices can be "spoken" properly in our heads, and we connect them with who is speaking.

It's fairly straightforward if two people are in the room. The author gives an indication of who starts speaking first, and then does whatever they want. The sequence is clear from that point. I even prefer the Spenser for Hire style of completely removing all "outside indicators" so that the reader immerses fully in the dialogue.

This excerpt is from Sudden Mischief by Robert B. Parker. He gives us the clues about who speaks first, which is Susan, and then we launch into the conversation about her ex, with Spenser's response -

"Just across the line from Wellesley."
"Yes. Brad got a job with an advertising agency in town."
"I stayed home and wore cute aprons and redid my makeup every afternoon before he came home for supper."
Susan smiled.

It's like poetry. You immerse fully into it and aren't distracted by other things. You flow with it. There's no need for "saids" at all because clearly these things are being said. Saids would drag down the flow. You don't need to know whose "turn" it is to speak. The dialogue goes back and forth between the two like a tennis match. The only key is letting us know who begins.

The question is what one does when there's a group. In a group it's absolutely imperative we are told who is talking, because now it could be any of a number of voices. If we simply are given the dialogue first, and then afterward we're told who said it, we are at a complete loss as to which of a number of voices to read that voice "in". The speaker could change the entire meaning of the phrase.

What Tolkien and others do is use a signal phrase if we have a new speaker. In the Council of Elrond, which has a bunch of people in a room, Tolkien will use:

At this the stranger, Boromir, broke in. 'So this is what became of the Ring!' he cried.

If Tolkien had just written the phrase first, and then had Boromir's name afterward, we would have tried to guess which of, what, twenty people said it. We could read it in Frodo's voice, or Aragorn's, or Merry's, or who knows who. That would just be frustrating.

When Bilbo bursts in, we first get the descriptor:

Frodo felt Bilbo stir impatiently at his side. Evidently he was annoyed on his friend's behalf. Standing suddenly up he burst out: (and then Bilbo goes into a poem)

So yes the phrasing isn't always "Bilbo said ..." - but Tolkien deftly makes clear who is going to speak so we the reader can visualize it properly. This is especially critical when there are multiple options to choose from. It also adds "reality" to the environment we're immersing in, because we get that sense of how someone feels or what they are doing or the flow of time, in context with the dialogue. Bilbo's words aren't just "said". They don't just pop emotionless into the middle of the council. We have a vivid sense of how he says it, and his attitude, and his presentation, all from that wonderful lead-in Tolkien has provided us with.

The reader is walking in a completely dark room. He has no idea what is coming up ahead. He is relying fully on the author to lay out a safe, meaningful path for him to follow. That means sentences without ten commas in them, so that the reader can clearly visualize each new step as it approaches and get a "handle" on it to step onto it. That means avoiding adverbs, as my friend Tom says, because with an adverb you've already stepped onto a stone before you're then told it's moving or dancing or something else. You want to be able to clearly visualize what that next stone is.

Therefore, absolutely, with dialogue being the most important part of many scenes, that dialogue has to be crystal clear in how it is absorbed and interpreted. Again it's like poetry. How it falls on the ear is absolutely critical. We have to be able to hear the words in a voice, with inflection, with an understanding of the meaning behind it. As much as possible, the tone and meaning have to be set up before the words are spoken, so we can read the words with that tone and inflection. When Bilbo jumps up, we first visualize his agitation and worries and actions - and then he speaks. That lets us put his words into a frame of mind and context, so that that stepping stone we move onto is solid and clear and vivid in our mind.

And then we look for the next stone.

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