Ninja Writer Academy is a weekly series. Every Saturday morning, I post a lesson here. You can do the work, then come share it on our Facebook group. I’ll be on Facebook on Sunday for Office Hours so we can discuss the lesson, or anything else writing related. If you’d like to join the Academy and get an email on Saturday with a link to the lesson, plus notification when Office Hours start, Click Here.
The Three’s a Crowd Assignment
Continuing our little series on writing dialogue, I thought that this week we’d talk about writing a conversation between more than two people.
There are some special considerations to keep in mind when you’re writing dialogue that involves more than two people. Attribution becomes more important. When two people are talking it usually looks something like this: A, B, A, B, and so on. Two people generally take turns talking, which makes it super easy for the reader to keep track of who is saying what.
But, add in even one more person and suddenly things are way more complicated. Because three people don’t usually take turns the same way. A three-way conversation doesn’t usually look like this: A, B, C, A, B, C. It’s more like A, B, A, B, C, B, A, C, B, C, B.
You’ll need to attribute more often. You can do that with simple attribution: “Dialogue,” she said.
Or with a beat: “Dialogue.” She did something.
Or with one character saying another’s name, which is something that happens more often in natural dialogue when there are more than two people involved.
Often there is a focal character in any round of dialogue. One person who both (or all) of the other characters are talking to. The cadence would look like this, then: A, C, B, C, A, C, B, C, B, C — and so on.
I will pretty much always fall on the side of less wordiness, so my advice is to use as few words of attribution as you can get away with. If you have three people talking to each other, but two of them have a back and forth, the reader should be able to follow that without attributing every line. Beats should always do double duty, attributing AND somehow moving the story forward with character or plot development.
Here’s a little bit of dialogue from my work in progress, a Robin Hood retelling. This is a confrontation between my Robin, Marion, and Guy of Gisbourne characters. Robin and Mattie arrive at Locklsey, Robin’s childhood home, and find Guy living in it.
This is a good example, because you can see how Guy is the center of this conversation. Rob and Mattie take turns talking to him. It’s more important for me to attribute Rob and Mattie’s lines of dialogue than Guy’s, because he’s speaking every other line. There’s also a part where Rob and Guy have a back and forth, which doesn’t need as much attribution.
“Stop it.” When Guy bucked again, Rob let go of one of his arms long enough to slap him across the face, once, hard. “Why do you have to be such an asshole?”
The slap did the trick. Guy went slack. Rob looked at him through a breath or two, then started to get up. As soon as he had his feet under him and was baring his own weight, Guy pushed him with both hands and sent him sprawling.
“Enough!” Mattie put herself between Guy and Rob again. “What’s wrong with you?”
“What do you think you’re doing, Guy?” Rob asked when they were both on their feet. Guy fought like he was protecting his home.
“Jack left this place to Philip. And Philip gave it to me.”
“What are you talking about?” Rob looked around, desperately trying to bring up something. Some memory. Anything that would verify to himself that Locksley was his to fight for. “The will was just read an hour ago. How long have you been here?”
“Your father left it to rot. I’m the one who’s brought it back to life.” He reached a hand toward Mattie. “I was going to show you. Soon.”
“Guy.” Mattie took a step closer to Guy, but stopped when Rob shot her a look. “You had to know this place wasn’t yours. Not really.”
“Jack left it to Philip.”
“Does that even make sense to you?” Rob asked. “My dad’s only been dead for twenty-four hours. Did he know you were living here?”
“You don’t deserve Locksley. You don’t deserve–” Guy shifted his gaze to Mattie, then launched himself at Rob again.
Rob was ready, even desperate for it, but Guy’s next shot was interrupted by Mattie when she stepped in front of him.
Here’s your homework this weekend, Ninja!
Are you in this week? Leave a comment here and let me know. Ninja Writers are ALL about the big A word: Accountability. Post here that you’re going to be part of the Academy this week, then do it, Ninja.
Write a piece of dialogue that involves more than two people. Pay attention to how you keep who is talking straight.
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