Who Said What? - Identifying Dialogue Speakers

Who Said What? – Identifying Dialogue Speakers

Who Said What? - Identifying Dialogue SpeakersDialogue is one of the most interesting and useful parts of any story. As readers, we all love a witty conversation, but what we don’t love is when we have no idea which character is saying what.

Why Failing in Identifying Dialogue Speakers Is Sure to Give Readers a Headache

Having just finished a memoir in which the author used speaker attributions only once or twice throughout his long dialogue sections, I can attest the most likely reaction from readers will be their banging the covers shut and smacking themselves on the head with your book.

By the time I was four or five lines into a conversation, I inevitably lost track of who was saying what and had to retreat to the beginning of the scene and count down lines to figure out who was speaking.

Frustrating? Oh yeah.

Identifying Dialogue Speakers 101

Fortunately, giving readers this confusion-induced headache is an easy enough pitfall to avoid.

All you have to do is insert speaker attributions (he said or she said) or action beats (he took a swig of coffee, she opened the mail) every few lines to keep readers oriented.

The word “said” is almost invisible to most readers, so it won’t interfere with your dialogue in the least. And pertinent action beats will keep readers grounded in the scene and prevent talking-head syndrome, in which characters aren’t doing anything but sitting around talking.

Even more importantly, your readers will be much less likely to use your book as a self-imposed blackjack, and you can be sure they’ll thank you for their lack of a headache.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! What’s your go-to method for identifying dialogue speakers? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.


  1. Since agents and editors often reject simply by looking at your dialogue, and 50% of your book might be dialogue, learning how to write it well is critical.

    I’ve done workshops on dialogue, but there’s always more to learn. I’ve got a handout with some of my techniques on my website

  2. Great Vlog. Helpful info. I’ve had this problem in the past, but have since changed the way I do it.

    Thanks for the tip, you’re that is soooo frustrating!

  3. Thanks for the post!
    I really enjoyed it.
    I also hate it when there’s talking talking talking and no action or attribution tags.
    I get so confused and have to look back at who is saying what…grr.

    Nicely put.


  4. @Terry: Thanks for the link. However, I’m not spotting dialogue helper handout. Can you point me in the right direction?

    @Erica: This can be one of those blinds spots in our writing. We don’t even realize we’re doing it until someone points it out. Happily, it’s easy to correct!

    @Kelly: Dialogue is one of my favorite bits – both to read and to write – but talking all by itself can’t carry a story. There’s got to be some variety!

  5. I love your sense of humor! Oh yeah!

  6. My sense of sarcasm. :p

  7. I really appreciate this post. I joined a blogfest where we posted dialogue. It seemed there were a lot of different opinions about dialogue tags. Some people think said is boring, some thought the comments should be able to stand alone if written properly, and so I just didn’t know what to think.

    Is it okay to leave off dialogue tags every other statement per charater? (my comments on the blogfest were that I used too many saids and could have left them off.)

    -Thanks K.M.

    • Nora Spinaio says

      I’ve always heard that if there are only 2 people speaking you can leave off some of the saids. It just has to be clear who is talking. Personally, I have to watch my own writing so that I don’t have Sally at the piano and then suddenly in the kitchen without any indication of how she got there.

      Just me I’m sure.
      Have a good one.

  8. Great vlog! Sometimes I think we try to avoid “he/she said” because it seems dull or pointless sometimes, but it’s necessary.

    I think another problem people have is trying to avoid saying “he/she said,” and opting for something more dramatic. Not that I think have your character whispering or shouting is a bad thing, but when every tag you use is dramatic and you never just say “said” I think it takes away from the scene. You’re not showing any more; you’re telling.

    Thanks for sharing! 🙂

  9. @Patricia: Ultimately, the use of tags and action beats depends on the flow of your piece. Writers eventually develop a sense for what needs to go where. In my opinion, variety is the key. Mixing up dialogue with action beats (or inner monologue) allows you to indicate who’s speaking in a natural manner that flows with the scene. But, by the same token, too many action beats or tags can definitely feel forced. Unless you have more than two speakers, you’re not likely to need a tag on every line of dialogue. Every three to four lines is usually good. I would recommend studying the rhythm of the dialogue in some of your favorite books.

    @Amanda: Strong dialogue rarely needs strong verbs to explain it, but there are definitely times when a definitive speaker tag helps get the tone across.

  10. Great vlog. As always. 🙂

    If you read a book by Dean Koontz, you can usually count on a scene or two with dialogue and no speaker identification, running half a page or more.

    Not only is it frustrating and confusing, but it stops the story cold when I have to go back and figure out who said what.

    But just as annoying: when every line of dialogue is identified, even when there are only two characters in the scene. I want to scream, “Yes, Beverly just spoke. I know it’s Janet speaking now. I get that. Thank you!”

    Thanks for the post, Katie.

  11. Yep, there’s always a balance. In fact, with every day that passes, I’m more and more convinced that balance is *the* watchword for writing fiction.

  12. Great vlog! 🙂 I’m starting to really study dialogue, and I’m trying to learn all that I can. I agree that ‘said’ is mostly invisible to a reader’s eye, and I don’t use many other speaker attributions. Occasionally, I’ll use words like whisper, yell, and mumble (because sometimes they do make the dialogue stronger), but I mostly use said.

  13. The only absolute in fiction is that there is no absolute. There’s always as exception to the rule, and speaker attributes like “whispered” are sometimes one of them. 😉

  14. Great points, KM.
    Thanks so much 😀

  15. My pleasure!

  16. Anonymous says

    Thanks for the video. Where I have trouble is in chapters where I want the reader to identify with the POV character – I don’t want to use that character’s tag unless absolutely necessary (because that takes the reader out of the POV character’s head).

  17. I wouldn’t worry too much about that. Character attributions are like “said”; for the most part, they’re invisible. That said, I do prefer to use pronouns when referring to POV characters (rather than their names) wherever it won’t lead to confusion. Pronouns have a more intimate feel when referring to a character who is narrating.

  18. You’re right. I really can’t stand being lost in dialogue, especially whn it’s between characters I haven’t really gotten to know yet.

  19. It’s even worse when the characters all sound the same. If the author gives them distinguishing verbal nuances, at least the reader has a fighting chance of keeping track of who’s who.

  20. KM – try the right hand sidebar, under ‘links’ “Dialogue Basics”

    Direct link if you can’t find it:

  21. Got it! Thanks, Terry. I love how you highlighted in different colors. Brilliant instructional device!

  22. Oh I lvoe this! Talking Head Syndrome! Very good. And excellent advice! It’s so frustrating to get lost in a dialogue.

  23. Dialogue is one of the easiest things to keep straight as a writer. There’s no excuse to let the reader get lost.

  24. Random question: how do you decide what will be a normal post and what gets to be a vlog? Or is it just a Wednesday thing and it doesn’t matter what’s talked about?

  25. The video posts feature the lessons I’ve learned from my own reading, hence the books you may have noticed sitting on the shelf beside me in some of the videos.

  26. Interesting. I noticed the books, just didn’t make the connection to the vlogs. You must get a lot of reading in during the week! (lucky)

  27. I read about 100 books a year. I believe reading abundantly is crucial to a writer’s learning, so I make the time for it.

  28. Belle L. says

    As a reader, I very much dislike having to go back and find who was talking at a certain point of the story because it was made unclear. Excellent post!

  29. And, as writers, we definitely don’t want to be alienating or annoying readers!

  30. I love action beats because they keep readers interested and they’re clues to the character’s emotions and their surroundings.

  31. All the good comments are said. I have a WIP with a good amount of dialogue. I received a critique that I used ‘said’ too much. So, now there are more beats to keep the reader grounded.
    I have given up reading books in the past that required I go back to figure out who is talking very often. Lately, most of my reads are revisions of my WIP except for some favorite bloggers.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Of all the writing commandments, “confuse not the reader,” is probably the most important. :p

  32. Great blog! Short and to the point! My manuscript is fast paced and full of dialogue, so I’ve researched and written a lot on the subject. I agree with you, nothing is more frustrating than losing track of who is talking. Also keep it simple. If you have your characters expostulating, disconcerted or ruminating, you are going to pull the reader out of the story as they attempt to visualize every action. It brings the story to a halt. Stick with he said, she said 🙂

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