Did you ever read a scene between two characters and not know who was speaking because they both sounded the same on the page? I have and it’s very disconcerting. Now, you can use speaker attributes,or tags, such as he said, or she asked, to denote who is speaking and this is a fine, tried and true method to delineate who is saying what. But no two people speak the same way, even members in the same family. They may use similar words or expressions, but the way they say the words is different. People are unique. Your characters should be, too.
I have a friend who always thinks before answering a question. There’s never any knee-jerking in any response she gives. And she uses a modicum of words to answer that question. I have another friend who – like me – always knee-jerks, never thinks and speaks in a rapid fire fashion using up more words in the dictionary than most people know the meaning to. If I were to write a dialogue between the two I would never need to write a speaker attribution. You would know who is speaking just by the way I’ve written the dialogue. Your characters should be recognizable as well. If you have done your job correctly, and have laid the foundation throughout the story of how they speak – slow or fast, their tone – loud or soft – and the way they use words, your readers should be able to identify them during a dialogue scene.
Certain frequently used phrases, slang and dialect are all individual tags to indicate who is speaking as well. Think of this statement: “I don’ know nothin’ ’bout birthin’ no babies!” If you are a Gone With the Wind fan, you recognize this as a sentence from Scarlet’s maid Prissy when Melanie goes into labor. Prissy is a slave. Poor, black and uneducated. If GWTW took place in the Regency period, you might expect the maid to be white, poor and uneducated, and her speech would sound something like this: “Oy dow’t know nuffin ‘bowt birthing babes!” Both sound uneducated. Take the same sentence and write it from Scarlet’s voice and it might sound like this: “But I don’t know anything about delivery babies!” Sounds different, doesn’t it? The well educated lady’s maid in England may sound like this: “I’m sorry, but I am not acquainted with the necessary knowledge to assist a baby into the world.” Sounds even more unique.
Where your story takes place, the locale or setting, will give you an indication of how the characters speak as well. The common ones are Y’all for the south, Mate for our neighbors to the north and Australia, Eh? for the upper midsection of the country, bloody and brilliant for our English friends. You can come up with many more individual phrases and words used in various sections of our world. If you have a Brit in your book, make him say common Brit phrases, and then try to have the Americans tell him the way they say the same word. That would surely denote who is speaking from who.
I am nosey. I’ve said this too any times now to try and deny it if asked. In my nosiness states I listen to how strangers speak. In a restaurant, at the mall, on airplanes. I enjoy hearing people talk because it is all fodder for my imagination and story telling. The next time you are somewhere pubic, listen to a few people have a dialogue. Note the speed – or lack of it – in the way they talk, the words they use – many or sparse – and any geographical dialect sounding words they say. See if you can translate that to whatever story you are currently working on. Write a couple of pages of dialogue without speaker attributes and have someone read it. Someone your trust and like. See if they can follow who is speaking without the tags. If they can, you have done a great job. If they can’t, figure out why not and how you can fix it. And I’ll bet you can fix it by doing any of the ways I’ve mentioned.