Both of my kids are grown. We’re blessed, though, that, so far, they've come home for Christmas. This past December, not only did both kids come home, they came Christmas Eve and spent the night. We broke a couple of traditions and started a few new ones.
For Christmas dinner, we had the four of us, plus four more – my sister, her son, her husband, and her husband’s mother. That made it fun – eight of us around the table laughing and trading stories. With that many people talking, you end up sometimes listening to one person, sometimes breaking up into two or three simultaneous conversations, and sometimes trying to keep up with two stories at once.
That makes for lively dinner talk. I’ve found, though, that it doesn’t work so well in a book. When you’re writing a scene with multiple characters, having that many people interacting is too confusing. More than about three people talking together is too many. If it’s a play, a movie or a TV show, you can do more characters – the audience can see and identify easily who’s talking. In a book, it’s either confusing or boring with constant tags to identify the speakers.
I might call this a general rule, but like all rules, there are exceptions. There are ways around a limited pool of three speakers. You could have three talking at a table or football game, long enough to establish who they are in the readers’ minds, then have one or two more come into the conversation, then exit. You could have six or eight at a dinner table, but have them broken up into three or four conversations, each going on separately with the main character focusing in on one interaction.
You want your reader to be a part of the conversation without getting lost and without being put off by constant tags like “Jack said,” “Mary butted in,” or “Grandpa exclaimed, his teeth falling into the soup.”
Fiction may imitate or mimic real life, but it’s not an exact copy. A book conversation, in fact, should be an understandable version of messy reality.
Helen Ginger is a freelance editor and book consultant, with an informational and interactive blog for writers and a free weekly e-newsletter that goes out to subscribers around the globe. She coaches writers on the publishing industry, finding an agent, and polishing their work for publication. You can also follow her on Twitter.