On Hugos and Nebulas, Part 11: Speaker IDs

If you put 5 writing experts in a room and ask them to explain the best way to identify speakers in dialogue, you’ll end up with
6 opinions. Variations on the theme include…

  1. Don’t bother unless absolutely necessary. Most people ignore tags anyway, and if you do a good enough job developing your characters, people will recognize them by the way they talk.
  2. Use “[name] said” at the end of the line. Anything else is redundant.
  3. It’s perfectly okay to use whispered, yelled, asked, or any other variant of “said” that will better communicate the action to the reader.
  4. ID the speaker with whatever technique you want, but make sure you do it within the 1st 6 words of dialogue, even if you have to interrupt the speaker to do it.
  5. In a long conversation, ID the speakers once at the beginn­ing of the exchange. The reader will know they alternate the rest of the way.
  6. Have the characters address each other by name once in a while during a long conversation
  7. Use the “[name] said” ID sparingly and only at the beginning or end of the line of dialogue. Never interrupt a speaker with a short ID tag. The rest of the time, use an action to ID the speaker and build up the scene to avoid “talking heads.”

There were examples among the Hugos and Nebulas that used at least one of those conventions. Many used more
than one.

So, which is the-right one to use? Use the one that makes the most sense in your story at that point and results in the least amount of confusion. I personally favor the last one after Terri Pray, the editor at Under the Moon, suggested it. I liked the result.

Your editor may also have some input for you, but if you feel strongly about a particular type of ID be ready to explain your choice clearly. Most of us editor types — and certainly all the ones I’ve dealt with — are reasonable sorts. We have opinions, of course, and sometimes they’re very strong opinions, but we do listen, so be ready to hear us, too. We might have a good idea or two.


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