How to Write Dialogue

Have You Orphaned Your Dialogue?

By Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

Image Credit: Debbie Schiel (www.freeimages.com)

Image Credit: Debbie Schiel (www.freeimages.com)

Have you orphaned your dialogue?

You might think the question is odd, but orphaned dialogue is dialogue where the reader isn’t sure whose speaking, and it happens more than you might think. As the writer, we know exactly who’s speaking. We forget the reader can read only our words, not our minds.

Today I’m going to explain three ways we orphan our dialogue and how we can make sure it doesn’t happen. But first, some reminders.

If you’ve already read my How to Write Dialogue: A Busy Writer’s Guide, then you’ll remember that every time you have a new speaker, you need a new paragraph, even if the dialogue is only one word long.

I hope you’ll also recall that I recommended you usually place your beat (the action) before your dialogue or at the first natural pause in the dialogue. If you choose to break this rule, I advised you to make sure you had a good reason for it.

These aren’t arbitrary guidelines. They’re recommended because they make your writing flow better and sound more natural, but also because they help you avoid orphaned dialogue. As we walk through the different ways dialogue can become orphaned, and you’ll quickly be able to see in some of the examples how following these guidelines could have avoided the problem.

So without further delay, here’s how we orphan our dialogue.

#1 – Too Many Lines of Unattributed Dialogue

We can have a speaker “claim” their dialogue using either a tag (like said or asked) or through an action beat.

Action Beat: My brother patted Luna’s head. “You dog looks like an alien.”

Tag: “Your dog looks like an alien,” my brother said.

However, not every line of dialogue needs a tag or a beat to identify the speaker. If you have only two speakers in a scene, you can leave up to three or four lines unattributed.

Frank tossed the apple to Mary. “An apple a day and all that.”

“I don’t like apples.”

“Everyone likes apples.”

“Not me. They crunch. I don’t like fruit that crunches.”

Frank held up a hand. “Give it here, then. No sense letting it go to waste.”

Orphaned dialogue can happen when we leave dialogue unattributed for more than three or four lines. Three or four lines is the most people can easily keep track of. Once you go beyond that, you risk the reader needing to count backward through the dialogue to figure out who’s speaking. (Three is a guideline, not a rule. Occasionally you can have more, but you need to be very careful that it’s not confusing.)

#2 – Scenes With Multiple Speakers

Scenes with multiple speakers are especially problematic because we need to be certain it’s clear who each line of dialogue belongs to. An unattributed line of dialogue could belong to anyone present. Let me give you an example to show you what this might look like and how following the two guidelines of a single speaker per paragraph and placing the beat before the dialogue makes sure we’re not leaving our dialogue orphaned.

In this example, we have three characters. Dorene, Dorene’s son Edgar, and the nun (Sister Mary Martha) who has come to speak to Dorene about Edgar’s behavior in school.

Dorene sighed and shuffled over to her stove. She fished around in the cupboards above.

“Do you mind if I have a cup of tea while we talk?”

She glanced at Sister Mary Martha.

“Would you like one?”

Sister Mary Clarence shook her head. Dorene fumbled with the lid on the kettle.

“I would like one.”

Edgar peeked hopefully at Dorene. Dorene scowled.

“I didn’t ask you.”

It’s almost impossible at times to know for sure who’s speaking. We can guess, but it’s not clear, and as soon as something isn’t clear, you risk losing the reader. Here’s how it should have been written.

Dorene sighed and shuffled over to her stove. She fished around in the cupboards above. “Do you mind if I have a cup of tea while we talk?” She glanced at Sister Mary Martha. “Would you like one?”

Sister Mary Clarence shook her head. Dorene fumbled with the lid on the kettle.

Edgar peeked hopefully at Dorene. “I would like one.”

Dorene scowled. “I didn’t ask you.”

I didn’t change any of the wording. All I did to make sure our dialogue wasn’t orphaned was follow the guidelines about beats and paragraphing. Now, even though we have multiple characters in this scene, it’s absolutely clear who is speaking what.

#3 – Writing About Two Characters in the Same Paragraph

But the sneakiest of the forms of orphaned dialogue is when we write about two characters in the same paragraph and then tack on a line of dialogue at the end.

Ellen waved her arm above her head, and Frank sprinted towards her. “I’ve missed you.”

Who said “I’ve missed you”? It could be Frank or it could be Ellen, and the reader has no way to tell which one it really is.

Ellen waved her arm above her head.

Frank sprinted towards her. “I’ve missed you.”

Now we know that it’s Frank who says “I missed you.”

When it comes to avoiding orphaned dialogue, always ask yourself, “If I hadn’t written it, would I know who was speaking?

Do you have any tips you’d like to share for avoiding orphaned dialogue? Is this something you struggle with?

Want more help with dialogue? Check out my book How to Write Dialogue: A Busy Writer’s Guide. In it you’ll learn how to format your dialogue, how to add variety to your dialogue so it’s not always “on the nose,” when you should use dialogue and when you shouldn’t, how to convey information through dialogue without falling prey to As-You-Know-Bob Syndrome, how to write dialogue unique to each of your characters, how to add tension to your dialogue, whether it’s ever okay to start a chapter with dialogue, ways to handle contractions (or the lack thereof) in science fiction, fantasy, and historical fiction, and much more!

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Busy Writer’s Guides Come to Print

By Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

Since my first Busy Writer’s Guide came out, I’ve gotten one question more than any other–are these available in print?

Now, for my two most popular Busy Writer’s Guides, the answer is yes.

How to Write Dialogue and Mastering Showing and Telling in Your Fiction are now available in print. Click on the images below to buy your copy!

Mastering Showing and Telling in Your Fiction

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

How to Write Dialogue

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wondering what this blog is all about? On Tuesdays, I cover something science fiction or fantasy related. On Thursdays, I talk writing. I’d love to have you sign up to receive my posts by email. All you need to do is enter your email address below and hit the “Follow” botton.

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