Multiple speaking characters in fast-paced scenes


Well-Known Member
Jul 14, 2021

I wanted to ask some advice on how to tackle scenes where there are lots of characters saying things in a fast-paced scene.

I've tried to mix different styles of dialogue tags so the scene doesn't drown in monotony, like using the dialogue tag before and after the dialogue, alternating facial expressions and actions (she seems shocked - he grabs his head in pain), sometimes omitting the tag when the speaker is obvious (when somone asks someone a question, the next dialogue should be the person answering), and stating feelings and thoughts of the POV character (but not the rest to avoid head-hopping)

But still, the scene feels weird, specially when it's fast paced. I'd love some examples to see how I could make it flow better.

Some ideas.

The best way to make your dialog disappear for the reader is to make them all the same, i.e., a simple XXX said. I usually place the tag at the end of a short statement, where a pause or change in subject would appear in a longer statement, or a couple of words in for a long, single subject statement.

Consider whether all characters need to have an equal voice. Can two characters handle a majority of the dialogue with the other characters only interjecting on occasion. Another alternative would be a have one character poll the other characters sequentially.

If this is an action scene, even if you envision a lot of things happening simultaneously, present the scene serially, focusing on a the actions of a single character at a time.

I hope this may give a few ideas on how to address this part of your story.
The first question might be:
Do we need all these people in this discussion?
What is really happening opposed to what your writing needs to reveal to the reader and are you sure it needs to be done with a large group?

Once you are certain that they all have to be there--you can shoot the ones who you don't need--the next thing is:
What do you need to accomplish and can it be accomplished though the dialogue?

Once you figure that out then write the dialogue in the proper sequence without tags.

Making it as succinct as you can you should then proceed to identifying the speakers, where necessary and identifying where tag identifiers are not necessary because it is obvious--put place setters in for now.

Read it through to be certain the scene serves it's purpose.

Go back through and determine which one work well with simple 'saids', and leave them be.

(she seems shocked - he grabs his head in pain) these are ok--but be aware that you want things that match the character you've developed and match the scene and even the response the reader might expect.

Avoid saidism problems.

"When did you arrive?" she asked.
"This morning," he said.
"Why didn't you call?" she queried.
"I was afraid," he whimpered.
"You're afraid of everything!" she exclaimed.
"I am not," he protested.
"You are. I know you're a wimp," she accused.
"I've done nothing to deserve that," he reasoned.
"You never do anything!" she exploded.
"You're making me mad," he growled.
"Good. Good. Get mad," she screamed.
"It's too late," he shouted. "I'm mad already.

This could be alleviated by this.
"When did you arrive?" she asked him.

"This morning."

"Why didn't you call?"

"I was afraid," he whimpered.

"You're afraid of everything!"

"I am not,"

"You are. I know you're a wimp,"

"I've done nothing to deserve that," he reasoned.

"You never do anything!"

"You're making me mad,"

"Good. Good. Get mad!,"

"It's too late," he shouted. "I'm mad already."
Well, I reviewed some fragments of action scenes from my novels that include, among others, battles between space cruisers, a bombing to a civilian population or a street shooting and the truth, despite corresponding to the usual standard treatment, the action is equally frantic and does not decay at any time, in fact it does not give the reader respite. So simple that you read three pages in a minute and you don't even realize it.
Of course, there is something I learned from comics and since I later saw it in movies I also adapted it to my texts. This is that the dialogues in off, when they correspond to radio transmissions where in fact at most I use the scripts of annotation to, sometimes, say that the one who is speaking is off camera, the voice that is heard from a radio or a television, for example, I always put them in italics. Something like this:

"Eagle, this is Thunderer, where did the bombs fall? I repeat, where did the bombs fall?"

"They fell on band, Thunderer! New adjustment at 6-5-4-Victor Zulu. Charge at close range, I confirm, charge at close range. Burn the damn position! Eagle takes off into eternity, it was an honor to serve, gentlemen."

"Hold on, Eagle. Thunderer starts sweep at 6-5-4. Approaching contact point, leveling. There it goes with God, Eagle. That's going to be strong."
I've been trying to avoid using said and the usual dialog tags completely and use actions entirely I don't know if this is a good thing I'm having to many repeats
Aim for a balance between action and dialogue tags, I suggest, and remember that the reader should barely notice any of them but only “hear” the actual dialogue. In that sense, “said” is your safest bet because it’s almost invisible to readers. Too many exciting dialogue tags are like a thong: they draw attention to something they’re meant to hide.
Do as you please for now, then make the judgment call in the edit. For one thing, you might be tweaking said-isms for passages that get rewritten or deleted. For another, you ... well, I ... can't really make the call until I hear it. I have the manuscript read, either by myself or on a robo-read. That's when dialog tags start to jump out at me.