July 14th, 2010


Maybe so much fiction has been written about male-female dynamics because because then the author can be clear who is speaking/acting/emoting with only pronouns. Every time I write a scene with two or more people of the same gender, I go insane for how many times I have to use everyone’s stupid names–pronouns are all but useless when multiple people are *he* or *she*!

Am I the only one who is still struggling with this sort of mechanical minutiae? At this point on a hot day, I feel like the answer to that is probably yes.

9 Responses to “Observation”

  • August says:

    I write a lot of single-gender dialogue (men rebuilding their sense of self after experiences that disrupt their previously unexamined masculinity is a common theme in my work, which I hope will become apparent once I stop getting those “excellent work, but we aren’t going to publish it” letters), and I’ve found the easiest way to deal with it is to establish a rhythm and then drop the pronouns almost entirely. Let the rhythm do the work for you. Like so:

    John and Steve sat on the bench with their coffee. Squirrels ran through the yard in front of them, scratching randomly at bare patches of earth. “Blah blah blah,” said Steve.

    “Blah blah blah,” replied John.

    “Blah blah blah.”


    “Blah blah blah blah,” said Steve.

    “Blah blah blah. Blah blah blah blah.”

    Steve took a sip of his coffee and stared at John.

    “Blah blah blah,” said John.

    “Blah blah blah,” said Steve.

    “Blah blah blah.”

    It gets harder with more than two speakers, but if you establish a rhythm with their names, then you only ever have to use “x said” or “he said” or whatever when you want to emphasize a particular line of dialogue, or if you’re going to disrupt and/or reset the rhythm. The reader will have no trouble following it, because the rhythm is doing the work of keeping everything in order, just like a sonnet or a villanelle or something.

  • August says:

    Reading my last comment over, I realize it may sound a touch condescending. Not my intention at all. Just wanted to share how I work around the problem. :)

  • Rebecca says:

    Thanks, August–you are right that the rhythm of conversation can make the speakers clear, and I do try to do that. The problem is if you introduce something physical where it’s complicated who’s doing what. That sounds dirty, but really it’s just stuff like

    “Mike sat up suddenly and looked deep into Sanjeet’s eyes.”

    And then in the next paragraph, “Mike took the muffin from Sanjeet’s unresisting fingers.”

    I don’t think I can get away without any of those names, but I also think having them all clumped up like that sounds pretty dumb. Maybe I should just have less sideline action in the dialogue.

  • August says:

    I find the sideline action really difficult to incorporate into the rhythm, so I don’t include it at all unless it’s either important to the plot or I’m using it to reveal something new about the character (or reinforce something we already knew). It’s definitely the hardest thing to balance, because I feel like I have to incorporate it into the rhythm too.

    The other weekend I wrote eight pages of dialogue, and incorporating the sideline action in a natural way was definitely the hardest part. (Although I had the luxury of being able to make the conversation largely about the actions they were performing, so that made it a touch easier.)

    This has made me miss having other writers in my every day social circle *so much*. I find it so useful and fulfilling to talk shop.

  • Scott Watson says:

    “Can you use dashes and quotes or is that frowned upon?”
    -I don’t think you are being clear.
    “I rarely am.”

  • Rebecca says:

    August, you’re right–it is fun to talk shop!

    Scott, I have *never* seen that before. Your could revolutionize dialogue, or invite the scorn of the grammar teachers, or both!

  • Kerry Clare says:

    Dialogue in stories is really dull. Just skip it.

  • AMT says:

    i am extremely worried about why there was any doubt as to whether sanjeet would share the muffin. who is this selfish with their muffins! what could mike possible have done!

    … in my world, i think the analogous mess comes from trying to refer to a previous author’s work, possibly in various different years, which all said different versions of the same thing. and you don’t want to ascribe the problems to the author, but rather the work, but sometimes it starts to sound crazy, like you think their paper had a great idea, not the author…

  • Scott Watson says:

    I cannot speak to the selfishness of muffins, but I would disagree that dialogue is boring. I think it depends on the story. I will concede that some stories are transformed into bad theatre plays by the use of too much dialogue.

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