Few things will give a reader whiplash faster than dialog.
The back-and-forth of “he said, she said” exhausts the eye. And the patience. And the execution of that element essential to any story reminds us of one of the greatest skills a writer can bring to the page.
Each spoken sentence, each entry in a dialog, must have qualities as distinctive as the character who speaks it. Each must be different, individual, unique. We’re not talking about mannerisms, here. Not accents or verbal quirks. Instead, this is the representation of the character’s individuality that is revealed in speech.
As it is in Life, so shall it be in Fiction.
Can the “who is speaking here” challenge hold up without the continual signposts that point to the speaker’s identity? That’s the test. Two characters: not so tough. Especially if they are man and woman. Add a softness to the man’s personality—or a toughness to the woman’s—and the challenge becomes apparent.
Add a third character to the conversation, and the playing field changes. Three personalities to represent on the page. Landmarks are permitted…but how much more interesting to let the instant awareness of “who’s talking” do the talking for itself. In “The Spiritkeeper”, a lunch conversation between the three main characters never leaves a moment’s doubt about who the speaker is. That was a toughie.
Four, characters; five…that’s a dare. My first novel had ten characters. Seven of them were present most of the time; often, the seven were in one room at the same time. Each line of dialog had to make the identity of the speaker instantly clear, without the constant reliance on the “XXXX said” repetitions that would soon have made reading the scene like trying to peer in at it through a picket fence.
Surprisingly, the qualities of the characters’ voices can also further the story arc. Again using “Spiritkeeper” as an example, the female character’s speech takes on the tones and rhythms of the male character’s words as the tale progresses, an evidence of how she has changed and grown through the course of the story.
Can “he said, she said” go away? Maybe. Should it? Hell no. The need to identify a character needs that help from time to time. But the minute the Whiplash Factor appears…time to rewrite.
A test for the writer. A benchmark for the reader. The place where voices in the head aren’t entirely a bad thing.