Line Reading

Every medium has its scutwork. In painting, it’s those repetitive elements, scales or tiles or blades of grass. In film editing, it’s rotoscoping. (Just learned that one the other day.) But in text we get off relatively easy: we have to keep the speakers straight for the reader.

Martin has a lot of speakers, frequently all in the same scene. There are strings of ten paragraphs in which every speaker is a new one. One of Theon’s ADWD chapters features 33 different speakers. What do writers do to make sure the reader doesn’t have to squint for name tags?

Here are some of the basics. First, there’s the standard [X] said, which can be fancied up into a said [X] and perhaps a different speaking verb. I’ve talked elsewhere about how you might not want to get too unique with these verbs.

“Do they mean to try and blow our walls down?” japed a Flint when the warhorn sounded once again. “Mayhaps he thinks he’s found the Horn of Joramun.”

“Is Stannis fool enough to storm the castle?” a sentry asked.

“He’s not Robert,” declared a Barrowton man. “He’ll sit, see if he don’t. Try and starve us out.”

“He’ll freeze his balls off first,” another sentry said.

“We should take the fight to him,” declared a Frey.

If you don’t want a straight tag, the speaker can make a quick gesture beforehand:

Lady Dustin parted her lips in a thin, feral smile. “The north remembers, Frey.”

Aenys Frey’s mouth quivered with outrage. “Stark dishonored us. That is what you northmen had best remember.”

Roose Bolton rubbed at his chapped lips. “This squabbling will not serve.”

Or just after:

“As you say, m’lord.” Theon drew his gloves on over his maimed hands and took his leave, limping on his maimed foot.

These tags, when strategically placed, can serve as extra punctuation. It lets you play with the timing of a line:

“These dead were all strong men,” said Roger Ryswell, “and none of them were stabbed. The turncloak’s not our killer.”

“I am sorry to disturb you at your pleasure, my lord,” said Jaime, with a half-smile, “but I am in some haste. May we talk?”

“Seven bloody hells,” he started, “who dares—” Then he saw Jaime’s white cloak and golden breastplate. His swordpoint dropped. “Lannister?”

I have the feeling, and I don’t know if you agree, that the ideal dialogue exchange is untagged, back and forth. No narrator to get in the way, but seeing Martin use tags makes me wonder. All we’ve got to work with is our words and the pauses between them, and these tags can offer something beyond punctuation. Something to keep in mind.

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