Grammar for Fiction Writers: Busy Writer's Guides Book (2014)

Part IV. Special Challenges for Fiction Writers

Chapter 22. Orphaned Dialogue and Pronouns

The last special challenge for fiction writers that we need to look at is orphans. When I say orphans, I’m talking about pronouns that could refer to more than one person (and are thus unclaimed) and dialogue where we don’t know for sure who’s speaking.

You might occasionally run into a problem with orphaned pronouns when writing non-fiction, but, for the most part, these are both challenges unique to fiction writers.

ORPHANED PRONOUNS

An orphaned pronoun is a pronoun that’s placed in a sentence in such a way that it’s unclear which person or animal the pronoun refers to. It’s not always difficult to figure out which pronoun refers to which person or animal, but orphaned pronouns don’t really lend themselves to clear writing. They typically occur in sentences where two or more of characters in the sentence are of the same gender.

Example:

Jennifer’s mom told her that she couldn’t eat pizza.

Does the sentence mean that Jennifer’s mom is prohibiting Jennifer from eating pizza, or does it mean that Jennifer’s mom (we’ll call her Tracy) is saying Tracy herself is unable to eat pizza for some reason?

Orphaned pronouns often happen because we’re trying to avoid writing something awkward or wordy like…

Jennifer’s mom told her that Jennifer couldn’t eat pizza.

However, in most cases, if we look for a new way to write the sentence rather than just replacing the pronoun with a proper name, we can make it read smoothly and clearly.

Jennifer’s mom shoved the box of frozen pizza back in the freezer. “I’ve already told you twice. No pizza.”

Let’s look at another example.

Jack’s dad told him that his actions were unacceptable, and that he had to be more responsible in the future or he would be in serious trouble.

The end of the sentence seems to make it clear that Jack is in trouble, but we just don’t know because the pronouns himhis, and he are all used, and because both Jack and his father are male. But let’s look at it another way.

Jack’s dad made it clear that Jack’s actions were unacceptable, and that Jack would be in serious trouble in the future if he wasn’t more responsible.

The second example is almost the same length as the first example, but it’s significantly clearer and easier to understand.

ORPHANED DIALOGUE

Orphaned dialogue is a common problem for fiction writers who switch from writing scripts to writing novels, but newer writers also struggle with it because it’s largely a problem of formatting.

If you’ve already read my How to Write Dialogue, then you’ll remember that, every time you have a new speaker, you need a new paragraph, even if the dialogue is only one word long.

I hope you’ll also recall that I recommended you usually place your beat (the action) before your dialogue or at the first natural pause in the dialogue. If you choose to break this rule, I advised you to make sure you had a good reason for it.

These aren’t arbitrary guidelines. They’re recommended because they make your writing flow better and sound more natural, but also because they help you avoid orphaned dialogue. I’ll walk you through the different ways dialogue can become orphaned, and you’ll quickly be able to see in some of the examples how following these guidelines could have avoided the problem.

Orphaned dialogue usually happens because, as writers, we know exactly who’s speaking. We forget that the reader can read only our words, not our minds.

Too Many Lines of Unattributed Dialogue

We can have a speaker “claim” their dialogue using either a tag (like said or asked) or through an action beat.

Action Beat: My brother patted Luna’s head. “Your dog looks like an alien.”

Tag: “Your dog looks like an alien,” my brother said.

However, not every line of dialogue needs a tag or a beat to identify the speaker. If you have only two speakers in a scene, you can leave up to three or four lines unattributed.

Frank tossed the apple to Mary. “An apple a day and all that.”

“I don’t like apples.”

“Everyone likes apples.”

“Not me. They crunch. I don’t like fruit that crunches.”

Frank held up a hand. “Give it here, then. No sense letting it go to waste.”

Orphaned dialogue can happen when we leave dialogue unattributed for more than three or four lines. Three or four lines is the most people can easily keep track of. Once you go beyond that, you risk the reader needing to count backward through the dialogue to figure out who’s speaking. (Three is a guideline, not a rule. Occasionally you can have more, but you need to be very careful that it’s not confusing.)

Scenes With Multiple Speakers

Scenes with multiple speakers are especially problematic because we need to be certain it’s clear who each line of dialogue belongs to. An unattributed line of dialogue could belong to anyone present. Let me give you an example to show you what this might look like. It will also demonstrate how following the two guidelines of a single speaker per paragraph and placing the beat before the dialogue makes sure we’re not leaving our dialogue orphaned.

In this example, we have three characters. Dorene, Dorene’s son Edgar, and the nun (Sister Mary Martha) who has come to speak to Dorene about Edgar’s behavior in school.

Dorene sighed and shuffled over to her stove. She fished around in the cupboards above.

“Do you mind if I have a cup of tea while we talk?”

She glanced at Sister Mary Martha.

“Would you like one?”

Sister Mary Martha shook her head. Dorene fumbled with the lid on the kettle.

“I would like one.”

Edgar peeked hopefully at Dorene. Dorene scowled.

“I didn’t ask you.”

It’s almost impossible at times to know for sure who’s speaking. We can guess, but it’s not clear, and as soon as something isn’t clear, you risk losing the reader. Here’s how it should have been written.

Dorene sighed and shuffled over to her stove. She fished around in the cupboards above. “Do you mind if I have a cup of tea while we talk?” She glanced at Sister Mary Martha. “Would you like one?”

Sister Mary Martha shook her head. Dorene fumbled with the lid on the kettle.

Edgar peeked hopefully at Dorene. “I would like one.”

Dorene scowled. “I didn’t ask you.”

I didn’t change any of the wording. All I did to make sure our dialogue wasn’t orphaned was follow the guidelines about beats and paragraphing. Now, even though we have multiple characters in this scene, it’s absolutely clear who is saying what.

Writing About Two Characters in the Same Paragraph

But the sneakiest of the forms of orphaned dialogue is when we write about two characters in the same paragraph and then tack on a line of dialogue at the end.

Ellen waved her arm above her head, and Frank sprinted toward her. “I’ve missed you.”

Who said “I’ve missed you”? It could be Frank or it could be Ellen, and the reader has no way to tell which one it really is.

Ellen waved her arm above her head.

Frank sprinted toward her. “I’ve missed you.”

Now we know that it’s Frank who says “I missed you.”

When it comes to avoiding orphaned dialogue, always ask yourself, “If I hadn’t written it, would I know who was speaking?