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For Aspiring Writers

Dialogue/speaker attribution

By David G. Woolley

Here are a few suggestions that I put forth as gospel. You can disagree with everything else I say, but not when it comes to speaker attributions. Dave is the KING of locutions. Speaker attributions are such a simple thing, but they can make or break your dialogue scenes. Give King's advice some thought the next time you're working out some dialogue:

(Excerpt from Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King. Quoted parts are in italics.)

Unless your dialogue consists entirely of one character talking to himself or herself, you will need to include speaker attributions so your readers know who is saying what. Bear in mind that the only reason you need them is so your readers know who is saying what. Don't use speaker attributions as a way of slipping in explanations of your dialogue ("he growled," "she snapped"). As with all other types of explanations, either they're unnecessary ("I'm sorry," she apologized) or they are necessary but shouldn't be ("Do you consider that amusing," she whined.)

What this amounts to is your using the verb "said" almost without exception. ("I feel terrible about it," he said. "You always keep me waiting, you never call," she said.) Some authors get a little

nervous when they see a long string of "saids" spreading over the pages—they hear the voices of their creative writing teachers telling them to strive for variety and originality in their verbs. So they write:

"Give it to me," she demanded.
"Here it is," he offered.
"Is it loaded?" she inquired.

Or, even worse:

"I hate to admit that," he grimaced.
"Come closer," she smiled.
"So you've changed your mind," he chuckled.

To use verbs like these last three for speaker attribution is to brand yourself an amateur—and to stick your character with an action that is physically impossible: no one outside of hack fiction has ever been able to grimace or smile or chuckle a sentence.

We're all in favor of choosing exactly the right verb for the action, but when you're writing speaker attributions the right verb is NEARLY always "said". The reason those well-intentioned attempts at variety don't work is that verbs other than "said" tend to draw attention away from the dialogue. They jump out at the reader, make the reader aware, if only for a second, of the mechanics of writing. They draw attention to your technique, and a technique that distracts the reader is never a good idea. You want your readers to pay attention to your dialogue, not the means by which you get it to them.

"Said," on the other hand, isn't even read the way other verbs are read. It is, and should be, an almost purely mechanical device—more like a punctuation mark than a verb. It's absolutely transparent, and so is graceful and elegant. Which, actually, is another reason to avoid explanations and adverbs. Even when you use them with "said" (I said sternly), they tend to entangle your readers in your technique rather than leaving them free to concentrate on your dialogue.

There are other ways to keep your speaker attributions transparent. Don't open a paragraph of dialogue with the speaker attribution. Instead, start a paragraph of dialogue and place the speaker attribution at the first natural break in the first sentence. ("I don't know," he said, "I've always felt plungers were underrated as kitchen utensils.") This is an especially good idea when the paragraph is fairly long—the ear seems to require a break near the beginning.

David G. Woolley's comments on the excerpt above:

The point here ("he growled" and "she snapped") is that if you remove them and let the dialogue sit there on the page without the explanations, you may find that the dialogue doesn't really snap and doesn't have enough growl to scare a sparrow from its nest. And then most authors use the simple justification to put "growled" and "snapped" back into the locution and call it necessary when it may not be. What I am suggesting is that by avoiding a simple explanation of the dialogue, you are forced to find the dialogue that really has bite, that growls and snaps and when you find those words for your characters to speak, you can lean back on your chair, bounce your baby on your knees and enjoy a moment of silence in honor of a run of dialogue that gives you a thrill, that says, wow, that's exactly what they would say in that situation and I don't need to tell anyone what they're feeling, it's all been said very eloquently by the characters themselves, without any help from the author. I'm certainly not suggesting how anyone SHOULD write, I am only suggesting that removing the explanations is a wonderful test of the strength of your dialogue and when you search for another solution, it is nearly always better. As an experiment,after you have had your character snap or growl or whatever, remove the explanation and then search for a better way to say what they said, something that really snaps:

"I don't think you really mean what you're saying," he growled.

Doesn't have a fifth the bite as say:

"Have you lost your mind?" David snatched the pen from her hand and pushed the manuscript off the desk. "You can't write something like that."

The same test is true of -ly adverbs. I don't mean to be the evil adverb monger, especially when you think of the many adverbs that are floating out there to be plucked out of the air and put down on the page, and when I suggest that you NOT use them, it's as if I were limiting your writing; ripping out pages of your dictionary and throwing them in the trash. But I do believe that if you apply the -ly adverb test to your writing that you will find that it forces you to find a much more powerful way to get the emotion across and that in doing so you find your "writer's voice," that elusive style that allows you to bring the characters right off the page. Ly adverbs throw a cloud over a good voice, hide the characters behind explanations and create a solid divide between the characters voice and the authors voice—a line that we are all trying desperately to blur so that our voice is the voice of the character.