Tips to tell who is speaking in novels?

Ive started reading more short stories with dialog and a problem Ive noticed is becoming more apparent. When there are multiple characters present its hard to tell who is speaking. Sometimes its easy when a character has a specific way of talking. Other times im stucl reading the same back and forth multiple times to try and piece together whoe said what.

Does anyone have any tips that you use to distinguish who is speaking? Or any resources I could read about it?

I tried googling for tips on it and everytime I just got japanese stories as a search result.

Its easier in manga since the bubbles change or have arrors but even their slmetimes its unclear…

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Hmm I remember having this problem when I first started, but I don’t really remember how I solved it. I think just reading more helps honestly.

Generally the biggest indicator is the pronoun that they use and just context in general. Also, the text that comes before and after the dialogue can tend to indicate who spoke. In situations where characters are using different levels of politeness, thats also one good thing obviously. If one is female and the other is male, certain things typically said by a female can help you distinguish like かしら.

Other than that, I think experience should take care of the rest honestly.

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Yeah thats what I was worried about. Was hoping other might have some tricks, so thanks for sharing a few things to look for.

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Is it bad if I occasionally have the same problem even when reading stuff in English or my native language… :sweat_smile:

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I’m not an expert by any means, but beyond recognising speech patterns and typically masculine/feminine speech patterns (as well as sometimes formality levels I guess? Like if one’s an employee and the other is the boss, the one speaking more politely is probably the employee) I’d expect it just boils down to comprehension and experience.

Just think about it, how do you do this in your native language when it’s not explicitly stated? Novels don’t tend to have a big slew of “X said this, Y said that, X responded with such, to which Y responded so” - it flows naturally, and you can piece together who said what because you understand the context and dialogue to such an extent that there’s really not much ambiguity - or where there is ambiguity, the specifics of who said what don’t matter much beyond excluding some people (like a king speaking to some councelors - it won’t matter much which counselor spoke, it just matters that one of them gave some advice or there’s disagreement between a few of them, for instance).

Same applies to Japanese I imagine.

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The convention for novels, in English at least, is that the first 1 or 2 lines of dialogue will have attribution and it will alternate from there with attribution thrown in again when it’s unclear.

One thing that you can try to look for is the point-of-view character in the lines before and after the text. That will usually indicate who’s speaking. And if there’s a second character, it will generally be a back and forth like in English novels as I said above.

Another way is that it will be someone who was mentioned previously, like if the point-of-view character is noticing some people working in a field they may be the ones to start talking first.

Wish I could help more, but I, too, have this problem sometimes. But it’s much better than when I started.

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Sometimes you also just have to accept that the dialogue isn’t written intuitively. Characters should have an individual persona that is distinguishable from others in speech and behavior patterns, ways of thinking or ways of addressing others. All of the comprehension in the world isn’t enough with poorly written dialogue. I have seen this happen in English during my bookworm phase. Even after reading hundreds of novels, I would just flat out get some poorly written dialogues wrong as to who is speaking, and that misunderstanding may take pages to unravel.

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I think you’ve summed up the way of identifying this. It’s always hinted at in the text itself. Or, it’s the continued implication of alternating replies. :slight_smile: You have to be careful when reading in picking up when it’s mentioned.

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Haha that was my thought as well :smiley:

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Another thing to keep in mind is that sometimes it gets clear when you have more context, so keep reading ahead. You could always jump back to that part with new information and thoughts.

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From a language learning point of view, I think this does kind of just get easier as you get more proficient. If you 100% understand all of the text you read, then it gives you the necessary cues to be confident in knowing who’s saying what. On the other hand, sometimes you don’t quite grasp 100% what’s going on and then that’s often when “who said what?” can be hard to work out. If the text provides obvious “X said” type cues then you know who said the line which in turn provides information to help you understand what the line means; but if the cues aren’t obvious then it’s a special case of the “too many things in one place that I don’t fully understand” problem.

For beginner to early intermediate readers, I think the auxilary verbs of giving/receiving (-te ageru/-te morau/-te kureru) can be an example of this. The grammar of these verbs tells you who’s on which end of the action, so it doesn’t need to be stated and it can make it clear who’s saying the line. On the other hand if when you read a sentence using them you’re still at the “er, somebody is doing something for somebody else” stage of learning them, then you’ve missed the information that’s in the grammar and the whole thing is then more confusing.

Also, occasionally it’s intended to be a bit confusing – the breakfast scenes in the Tokyo Bandwagon novels where everybody’s talking over everybody else are like this.

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If we’re talking explicit attribution, that’s a very loose convention that’s deviated from more often than not as the target audience gets older, and that attribution gets more and more implicit. Explicitly stating who’s speaking for the start of every dialogue has a bit of a “childish” feel to it, almost, and there tend to be options that read a lot more pleasantly. Children’s books will absolutely make it explicit who’s speaking all of the time, but I find adult-oriented works rarely do, in my experience.


You’ve been staring at the screen for what feels like a year now. The numbers have a pattern to them, you’re sure of it, but you’re stuck in the same loop - your brain begins to piece it together, getting closer and closer, noticing repeating sequences, until just at the last moment something doesn’t fit and it all comes apart. You’re sure that if you just keep at it a little more, think about it a little harder, you’ll get it eventually.

“Just what in the name of all that is holy do you think you’re doing? I asked you to run those tests an hour ago!”

This shrill voice you know all too well pulls you back to reality. You can only presume Bob is still soldering behind you regardless, undisturbed, as he always is. A look to the side shows what you expected - Mary, looking disappointed, arms crossed, with her icy cold stare pointed right at you. You’ve never liked that stare, it gives you the creeps.

“I’m working. I may not be working on what you want me to work on, but I’m working.” You sit up straight and turn your chair towards her. “Contrary to what you may believe, there’s more to this work than your tests.”

She inches a little closer to you, her disappointed look shifting ever so slightly into something else. Frustration? Anger? You can’t quite tell.

“Taylor, need I remind you I’m your boss? When I tell you to do tests, you do tests.”

You’re tempted to just give in, but not this time. “I’ll get to those tests, but I’m figuring out these numbers first. We need these numbers figured out, remember? All your tests amount to nothing without -”

“SHADDUP YOU TWO!”

A thunderous roar eliminates any intention you had of finishing your sentence.

“Ya both can bicker ‘bout numbers and tests somewhere else dangit, you’re making my hands shake and these components are darn tiny. And, might I remind you both, expensive. Run yer tests, run yer numbers, I don’t care, just stop. Frickin’. Runnin’. Yer. Mouths. Already.”

You feel a strange sense of relief as Mary’s gaze shifts from you to Bob. You don’t even know why you feel that unsettled by her, not that it matters. After a few seconds, she sighs.

“Fine. Run your damn numbers then. But if I don’t get test reports on my desk by tomorrow morning, we’re having a talk about your productivity.”


Not a bit of explicit attribution there, but you can (hopefully - I won’t claim to be the best writer) tell who says what. And sure, names are mentioned, things are implied, and you could call that attribution, but at that point we’re back to “comprehension of the context will tell you who’s speaking”.

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Thank you. Yeah thats soemthing I forget as well. That Ive been reading for years i english to the point it just flows and I can store large chunks of information loosly in my mind till I figure out who its attributed towards.

Thinking back onit its really like learning to read all over again where I cant read for hours on end because its too tiring. I dont know about others but I was reading for 2 hours and then needed a nap.

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Yeah, fair point. I was probably making too bold of a statement there.

For sure, but I was referring more to the start of a scene when the blocking and descriptions are usually setup. And when done well, the paragraph reads better too and it provides pacing.

“Stand,” he said. “Let me have a look at you.”

But I see your point.

I think we’re in agreement about comprehension.

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Reading 青ブタ the first time, I ran into this problem because the characters don’t speak differently enough that I feel like I can distinguish them. The main thing I noticed is if I didn’t understand who was talking, I tried to picture who would say it. Sometimes I would be right, sometimes I would be wrong, but in those moments don’t be afraid to slow down and read it again in different voice or think about the situation and who would benefit from saying what. Its still a big task, but you’ll get better with practice!

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I imagine 青ブタ can be especially challenging in that regard, considering it’s quite dialogue-heavy and many of the characters have (or claim, at least) a similar relationship to the main character, and aside from the main character they’re all girls so you’re not getting much in the way of differentiation there either. It’s been too long to remember what exactly the differences are in their speech, but at least in terms of pronouns and formality and such, I would indeed expect a lot of overlap.

I know the characters have very distinct personalities, but I imagine picking up on that can be quite something depending on your reading level.

How hard would you say it is overall? I’ve been considering trying my hand on a light novel, and I know I know and like the story (or at least the first few novels), so I thought it might be a decent enough starting point.

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One of the girls is from Fukuoka, so she says things Sakuta doesn’t understand, so the second book was a lot easier.

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I think it is actually very friendly if you don’t mind looking up about 3 or 5 words every page or so. I lessens after the first 100 pages. Once you read the first book, you don’t really have to look up much afterwards (this is kind of a general rule of most light novels). I read 1 and 2, then started the 3rd book but just watched the anime instead because it covers everything in less time. The 8th book hasn’t been too bad, just some words or expressions I didn’t know before, but its like 2 a page.

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I expect I’ll be looking up a lot more vocabulary than that, but that’s kind of the point :smile: Not too much in the way of obscure grammar and such to worry about then? That’s good. Think I’ll just give it a go, see how I get on. Worst case I’ll have a novel I can’t really read yet, I guess.

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I was able to get through a lot of it when I was N3, but I am sure a lot of the subtleties in grammar went over my head. I think manga is the best way to get into reading, but reading books is a skill that people only acquire with practice regardless if its your second language or even your mother tongue. Some books I “read” but barely understood, and it was only recently I could read books legitimately. I read 3 or 4 books this month, but it was the first time I could ACTUALLY understand what was happening, but it took practice to get there.

君の名は was my first book I read start to finish, and I only really understood it because I saw the movie, the next book I finished was 映像研には手を出すな! from the movie, and I had no context and felt like I barely understood anything. After reading 青ブタ, I hadn’t seen the show in almost 4 years, so I was going off a super rough memory of what things looked like and after reading the first 2 books I felt like it was validation that my work paid off, the 8th book is the first of the remaining books without an adaptation, so I’ll probably report back if it was all for not, but so far it has been pretty easy going.

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