He said, she said, and who said?

Too often, when we think about dialogue, we think of two people taking turns in strict alternation. Today I’d like to look at expanding the dialogue, with some examples from Connie Willis, who has a genius for mixing it up, with three, four or even more people talking across each other and sharing information or, more likely, misinformation.

Sometimes it’s mainly for comic effect, as in this passage from Blackout: two people trying to talk to each other about times and places while a third person is on the phone, reading out a printout of, guess what, times and places.

“August seventh?” Phipps asked Badri. 

“That’s right,” Linna said, “1536,” and Michael looked over at her, confused, but she was back at the phone, reading off a printout. “London, the trial of Anne Boleyn—” 

“Yes, the seventh,” Badri said to Phipps. “The drop will open every half hour. Move a bit to the right.” He motioned with his hand. “A bit more.” Phipps shambled obediently to the right. “A bit to the left. Good. Now hold that.” He walked back over to the console and hit several keys, and the folds of the net began to lower around Phipps. 

“I need you to note the amount of temporal slippage on the drop.”

“October tenth 1940,” Linna said into the phone, “to December eighteenth-”

“Why?” Phipps asked. “You’re not expecting more slippage than usual on this drop, are you?” 

“Don’t move,” Badri said. 

“There shouldn’t be any slippage. I’m not going anywhere near—”

“Cairo, Egypt,” Linna said into the phone. 

“Ready?” Badri asked Phipps. 

Phipps said, “No, I want to know—” and was gone in a shimmer of light.

Sometimes she’s using the apparently irrelevant interruptions to set up reader expectations, as in this passage from “All Seated on the Ground”:

“I need to talk to your choir director.” 

“Mr. Ledbetter?” 

“Are you his girlfriend?” 

“No,” I said, trying to spot someone who looked like a choir director type. “Where is he?” 

“Over there,” one of them said, pointing at a tall, skinny man in slacks and a blazer. 

“Are you going out with Mr. Ledbetter?” 

“No,” I said, trying to work my way over to him. 

“Why not? He’s really nice.” 

“Do you have a boyfriend?”

“No,” I said as I reached him. 

“Mr. Ledbetter? I’m Meg Yates. I’m with the commission studying the Altairi—” 

“You’re just the person I want to talk to, Meg,” he said. 

“I’m afraid I can’t tell you how long it’s going to be,” I said. “The girls told me you have another singing engagement at six o’clock.” 

“We do, and I’ve got a rehearsal tonight, but that isn’t what I wanted to talk to you about.” 

“She doesn’t have a boyfriend, Mr. Ledbetter.”

I took advantage of the interruption to say, “I was wondering if anyone with your choir happened to record what just happened on a videocamera or a—”

Meg, the narrator, is focused on getting a video recording of what just happened. But the middle-school students are focused on fixing her up with their choir director… and by the end of this passage, the reader has to be thinking about that too!

And sometimes, she’s using the crosstalk to foreshadow, as in this bit from, what else, Crosstalk:

“Enya had it done with her fiancé. And Daniel Day-Lewis—”

“And if Enya and Daniel Day-Lewis told you to jump off a bridge into the river Shannon, you’d be doin’ that, too, would ye?” Aunt Oona said. 

“I think she should,” Maeve said. 

“Jump off a bridge?” Kathleen asked.

“Maeve, I’ve talked to you about the dangers of peer pressure—” Mary Clare began. 

Maeve ignored them. “If Aunt Briddey has the EED, she’ll find out what he’s like inside,” she said. “Like in Frozen, there’s this prince and Anna thinks he’s really nice and in love with her and everything, but he isn’t, he just wants her kingdom. And he tries to kill her.” 

“Which is another reason I don’t want you watching Disney movies,” Mary Clare said. “They’re entirely too violent!”

The key item there is, “The prince is not really nice,” but good luck disentangling that from peer pressure and jumping off bridges and violence in Disney movies. Thing is, the dialogue is enough fun on a surface level to keep the reader from noticing that a Dire Warning has just been dropped. The notion has been planted so deftly that nobody noticed it.

What feelings, or expectations, or information would you like to sneak into the next bit of dialogue you write? And how sneaky do you plan to be with it? Would several people talking over each other distract the reader from what you’re planting?

28 thoughts on “He said, she said, and who said?

  1. The art of slipping important bits of information into seemingly casual dialogue is one of my favorite writing techniques (or writing devices or whatever the proper term may be). I really enjoy reading stories in which an author does this well and I try to make good use of it in my own writing when I can. I’m not sure if this is a particularly good example, but here is something from my latest short story – a lighthearted conversation between two characters that does a fair amount of world building:


    Bear sat back in his saddle and turned to Ilse. “Arbiters don’t play chaperone… or bodyguard… if your parents have sent Arbiters, then… then they are letting us know that this will be our last adventure.”

    Ilse closed her eyes and nodded. She was smiling, though, when she opened them again. “Well, since we know this will end with Arbiters, Bear, perhaps it’s a sign the rest the tale will be worthy of such an ending?”

    “Perhaps,” Bertrand agreed as they urged their mounts forward. The Tower of Keys was one of several dozen such structures built by the Founders for reasons that had long since been lost to time and, like just about every other ancient abandoned structure, it was rumored to be haunted. While these facts made the Tower irresistibly intriguing and worthy of a visit, the Tower of Keys was essentially nothing more than a large, empty building with an interesting history. “The first floor of the Tower is supposed to be quite roomy… with a vaulted ceiling… perhaps we shall find that a dragon has decided to make its lair there?”

    Ilse wrinkled her nose. “A dragon? This far from the mountains?”

    “Good point… what about one of those… sea creature things? Like in that book we read a few years back?”

    “Really, Bertrand,” Ilse said with all the gravitas she could muster, “if you are going to be bringing monsters from children’s stories into this then you are just playing the clown. We are vraal riders in the service of the Ra’ak.”

    “Pirates. My grandfather rid the Inland Sea of pirates for your grandparents when they were on the throne,” Bertrand said and motioned in the general direction of the Tower. “If a new generation of pirates has set up their den here… well, that would certainly be a threat to the Ra’ak – and a stain upon Grandfather’s honor!”

    Ilse gasped in mock outrage. “Oh! That would be a stain upon his honor – we couldn’t allow that to stand. It seems clear that duty would require us to-” Ilse went silent when her vraal dropped into a fighting crouch.

    “Magic,” Bear whispered to her as he uncased his bow.


    From that I hope readers would note little details like: dragons are thing, but only in the mountains; sea creatures are not a thing; books, children’s books even, are also a thing – this is probably a very literate society; Ilse is a member of the ruling family with close ties to Bertrand’s family that go back at least three generations – this is a fairly stable society (and one that enforces its laws) despite there being things like dragons and the occasional spot of trouble with pirates.

    1. And vralls are (probably) a predatory species, big enough to ride, and can sense magic. And people who ride them are (in some cases, at least) Big Damn Heroes.

  2. A clue that (in story world) amber reveals lies, and that certain kinds of amber can force the truth from people. Which is why the Great Northern Emperor gives gifts of amber to his courtiers and others as special signs of his favor…

    Once I get to that book.

    1. Turning them all into True Thomas. I wonder what creative excuses they’ll find for not wearing the emperor’s gift.

      1. Ah, that’s the key, Most people do not realize that amber has that property [shamelessly stolen from folklore, I must confess]. And the Great Northern Emperor himself masks most other magic…

      2. It might get tougher if the amber is in their official seal needed for them to exercise any authority…..

  3. *chuckle!* One of the things I remember doing rather well back in that old fanfiction, Dragon’s Cycle, was how I could do group discussions with a large cast of characters, all with their distinct voices and speech patterns. It was an exercise in schizophrenia but it was also loads of fun. My readers loved it too.

    1. Second Attempt – of course.

      I think of it as a radio play. Wrote one called Planning Meeting Number Nine as an exercise. All dialog. The only way to distinguish the speakers is how they talk and what they say. Had it on the web at one time. Here’s a snippet, and no I’m not trying to drum up business – it’s not even for sale:

      “Bagels. I thought there were going to be bagels. Has anyone seen the bagels?”

      “Did you look by the coffee, luv?”

      “Don’t bother, old chap: there aren’t any. He’s forgotten the coffee and sugar, too.”

      “No bagels, no coffee, no sugar. What kind of meeting is this?”

      “Now, don’t get all in a thither, luv; you know it makes you molt something awful, and I don’t think he wants scales all over his living room.”

      “Well, if I’d known there’d be no bagels, I’d have baked some.”

      “You can make it through one meeting, old boy. It might do you some good. You are getting a bit pudgy, you know.”

      “Says the knight who can’t squeeze into his armor.”

      “Haw, haw, haw, he’d done got you there, governor. What’s this about, anyway?”

      “No idea. Beth?”

      “Not a blessed thing. All I know is the duke came by the tavern and said there was going to be a meeting.”

      “Well, Lord Henry?”

      “I haven’t the foggiest. He only told me to round up everyone on the list, immediately.”

      “I say, that was abrupt. It must be something of major importance.”

      “‘E better not take long. I ain’t got all day. I’ve got a Party meeting tonight.”

      “Eh? What was that?”

      “Is this tape recorder supposed to be on?”

      “Shhh, everyone: he’s here.”

      “An’ there you go off again, Beth, like you were some kind o’ lady. Who went and made you queen?”

      “Hold your tongue, knave, before I give you the flat of my sword.”

      “Just you go and try; I’ve brought my stave for the likes of you.”

      “Quiet, now. The poor dear is opening the door.”

      It is fun to do.

    2. I had one character whose language got very precise when she was being careful. That included all elimination of contractions from her speech as well as slightly formal language (“this is the way in which you shall do that,” sort of phrasing, instead of “this is how you do that.”) It’s probably way too subtle for anyone to notice, but it’s one of those weird little defensive techniques, and the best way I could illustrate going from being wary of someone to their friend.

      1. Mercedes Lackey made a point that Weaponsmaster Alberich spoke with deliberate, perfect grammar and syntax when he had a Very Important Point that needed to be made because of Very Great Danger.

        1. I had a bilingual character in the Adelsverein Trilogy, who when he was speaking in English was colloquial and casual – but when he was speaking in German, was very formal. I don’t know if any readers picked up on it, though.

      2. One of the odd things I noticed about myself when I was a teenager was that I tended to NOT contractions unless I felt I was in company where I could relax- probably part of the reasons why people thought I was so formal. So I can totally see that!

  4. This is a bit from my serial novel “Bad Dreams & Broken Hearts”.


    “What did you dream?” I asked her.

    “I had a bad dream,” Karin said guardedly. “About somebody I used to know.”

    “Someone you knew back when you were in the shade trade?” I prompted.

    I could see her thinking it over. She looked at me, then at Jake, who nodded encouragingly, and finally to Marji.

    “We’ll get you through this, Karin,” Marji said, “but you have to be honest. We have to know what we’re facing.”

    “Okay,” Karin admitted at last. “Yeah. I used to be freecaster. Years ago, when I was a kid. But I swear to you I left all that behind me. The guy I worked for got sent up and I walked away. Never looked back.”

    Marji’s look was warm and sympathetic, but her words were practical. “But it didn’t walk away from you, did it?”

    Karin looked down, her expression grim. “No,” she said simply. “I guess not. It’s been years. I never figured on seeing any of them again.”

    “Any of whom?” I asked. “Your gang?”

    Karin looked at Marji, jerked her head at me. “How is he part of this?”

    “I asked Sam to help out, and he agreed,” Marji answered.

    “You a straight magus?” Karin asked me, “You with the blinders?”

    I shook my head, uncertain what she meant.

    “The cops,” she clarified.“You a witchfinder?”

    “Sam’s not a cop,” Marji said, indignant on my behalf. “He’s a musician.”

    I shook my head. “No, I’m an oneiroi.”

    Karin let out a bark of laughter, then her expression grew serious. “No. On the level? You’re a demon?”

    “Oneiroi,” I repeated.“Yes, I am. I am a child of Nightmare.”

    Karin was staring at me, frowning. “You’re no morauxe. What are you, a rashling?”

    “No,” I told her. “My father is Lord Fellmonger of Messidor.”

    Karin still looked like she wasn’t sure if I was conning her. She looked to Marji, then Jake, then back to me.

    “Okay, then, Your Lordship,” she said, “what’s your angle? What’s a Knight of Hell want with a sewer kid like me?”

    “Karin,” Jake said sharply, “I don’t think that’s a very helpful attitude.”

    I held up a hand to him.“It’s a legitimate question.”

    I turned back to Karin. “I agreed to help you because Marji and Jake are friends of mine. I’m not a cop, and I’m not working for my father. I’m just a private citizen, a registered resident alien in the City. Maybe I can help you, maybe not. But if you’re not comfortable talking about your past in front of me, I’ll understand. No hard feelings.”

    “No, no, it’s not that. It’s just…” Karin scrubbed her face with her hands. “I’m still kind of overwhelmed.”

    “Understandable,” Marji said. “Just tell it in your own words.” Marji spared a sharp glance at me and Jake. “We won’t grill you.”

    “Okay,” Karin said, and sighed. “Just give me a minute.”

    Jake nodded. “Sure, take your time.” He ginned, “Right now we’re in one of the most secure facilities in the Midworld.”

    He got up and went to his desk, opened a drawer and came up with a bottle. “Anybody else want a drink?”

    We all did. Jake poured, and we sipped. It was fine whiskey.

  5. I had to do some “radio plays” for a con a few years ago. Forced me to focus on distinct character voices.

  6. (Some context-An and Beh are Servants. Think Luna from Sailor Moon or Kerebors from Card Captor Sakura. Each of them is a cat-ferret hybrid about the size of a large Maine Coon.)

    An opens up the passenger’s side door, and the both of them climb into the back seats of the car. I look, and they’re both bucking up as much as they can and I nod. “Everybody secured?”

    “Yes,” An replied.

    “Keep up your invisibility until we’re past the Golden Gate Bridge,” I noted, starting the car up. I drove out of the garage and in less than forty-five minutes I was out of SF and across the bridge without incident. I’m thinking about the entire situation, and ask, “Okay, what do we do next?”

    “We find your Companions,” An replied as they both appeared again in the back seats. “There’s a spell that will put you within five hundred riels of them, which will reduce the distance you need to search for them.”

    My mind translated riels to yards, and I groaned softly. “You’re telling me that they’ll be within about five hundred and sixty five yards of one location,” I replied and thought about this. “Why can’t I narrow it down further than that?”

    “Deus, when he created the Magos…he was, by your standards, a massive civil libertarian. There are a great deal of protections in the Magos, and one of them is that without a super-majority of the Solists and the Emperor agreeing, the Magos will not just give up the location of Solists, Sols, and Sos or their Companions. Five hundred riels is as close as you can get, then you have to look for them on your own,” An said.

    “Do you know where they are?”

    “Not close,” Beh sighed and did a shoulder-roll that counted for a shrug in her cat-ferret body. “We were surprised to find you here, and all we know about the Companions is that they will not be close to you, but they will be close to each other. Considering the age and circumstances of your base form, we can assume that they are all in the same location for a good period of time-the same school, the same church.”

    I groaned again and tried not to close my eyes and shake my head as I was doing 65 through San Rafael. “So, I have to go back to high school, find five teens with attitude, and lead them in battle against sentai monsters. I can almost hear the laugh track in the background. And, what about the Darkness?”

    “There is a resonance when new Solists are created,” An replied. “The Darkness can track and detect it…but not anywhere as close as you can. They were hunting in your general area because they had gotten very lucky, and your Companions will trigger a resonance in the area they are in. This resonance will mean that creatures of the Darkness will come closer, to find the threat. The Darkness will start to show up in the area and relatively soon, four to six months at most.”

    It was on the last few days of April, and would be May in less than a week. “So, we have enough time to find them. Just about when school starts,” I noted. “Wow, amazing plot convenience.”

    “The Magos is an amazing number of black boxes,” An noted. “Many of its systems are built in such a way that there can be no direct access to their process, outside of a direct super-majority of the Solists and the Emperor. It will literally do things because that’s how they should happen.”

    “Okay,” I reply and think about this for a minute. “I know you said that the Solists had promised not to be the secret rulers of the world, but…do we have any contact with the government? I don’t know about you, but the idea of having some heavy-duty backup when fighting monsters has an appeal to it. A couple of claymore mines or belt-fed machine guns could have turned every one of those rat-creatures in that alleyway into chopped hamburger. And the idea of turning a Ma Deuce or an M-1’s 120mm cannon on some big critters does make me smile.”

    It was disturbing to see worry on the cat-ferret face of An, and he said much too calmly, “I think you should be careful to avoid government entanglements, at least in the United States.”


    “Because,” An continued, sounding much too calm, “according to all the records the Servants have, we have some ‘friend of friend’ contacts in some places. Solists have made contact with parts of the intelligence community in the United Kingdom and Japan and a few other countries. There were a few contacts in the United States up until about the late 1940’s. After that…every known contact between Solists and the United States government has resulted in Solists dying. Or, at the very least, their mage core and their Servants vanishing, which is pretty much the same thing.”

    I think about this for a second. “Could…the Darkness be in charge of the United States somehow?” I ask, feeling fearful.

    “No,” Beh sighed. “I don’t think that has happened. What a lot of people on the Servant network think is that the United States government, or the part of it that deals with supernatural affairs, learned something about Solists that they either misinterpreted or didn’t understand. And, they have come to the conclusion that firepower is the only real reply to it.”

    “Yes,” An agreed. “There’s a lot of theories, but very little in hard facts.”

    I think about this for a minute. “To summarize, we have about four to six months before the Darkness starts to show up in large numbers. We have to find my Companions either before or when they start to attack, and they won’t be local. They’ll probably be high school age, around fifteen to sixteen years old. Most of the time, I need to be a teenage girl because that seems to be my new, default form. Which means that we need to figure out how to have a fifteen year old girl suddenly appear without raising a whole horde of red flags. Oh, and in the middle of all this, we need to avoid attracting government attention because their policy appears to be ‘shoot first, shoot again, and burn the corpses.’”

    An considered this for a moment. “And, the throne of the Empire is about to be filled again, so the Darkness will be more than willing to run risks that were previously considered insane.”

    “At this point,” I comment, “The phrase ‘if it was easy, they wouldn’t need us’ is popping into my brain. But, if that is true, that is a very scary thought.”

    “But,” Beh noted, “You were the one the Magos chose, which means you’re the right one for the job.”

    “And, that’s an even scarier thought.”

  7. I’ve always had a knack for dialogue; probably comes from loving to talk with people. (And years of theater and improv probably didn’t hurt.) One thing to note is that most people’s language is filled with null words—words like “um,” and “ah,” and verbal tics like “like.” The reason for these words is apparently to give people time to select the proper phrasing in a conversation, and it takes either training or sheer natural talent in order to cut those bits out of actual speech. You can use those in written dialogue, but you have to be careful lest it come across as mocking a speech impediment. The clerk in The Fifth Element spoke with a slight verbal tic, but Pratchett (naturally) didn’t let it get out of hand.

  8. I loathe verbal fillers. I try very hard to speak without “ah”s and “um”s. I’ll usually leave the like, you know, conversation, if, like, someone talks that way, you know. At the very least I’ll throw out a lot of “no, I don’t know”s. It’s an instant “no” in a job interview.

    I read much faster than anyone could possibly talk (one reason I don’t like audio books) so I don’t like in-dialect writing that must be read aloud to be understood. Shakespeare is like that, but since they are plays, reading them aloud is not such a big deal. I read something recently (no idea what) in which one of the main characters had a Scottish accent. It was horrible to read.

    1. Yeah. Dialog in dialect was popular in the Nineteenth Century at least partly because people would entertain themselves by reading aloud to each other. That, and their apparent love for picturing settings in their heads in detail. Now it’s usually just an affectation.

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