The Skill List Project: Dialogue Attribution

This is another post in The Skill List Project: an attempt to list all the skills involved in writing and selling fiction, particularly science fiction and fantasy. Last time, I said we’d look at the skill of attributing dialogue, including the abuse of said-bookisms and dangling adverbs. So let’s do it.

Said-Bookisms

The term said-bookism is generally attributed to the Turkey City Lexicon which arose out of the Turkey City Writing Workshop many moons ago. The name implies that there is a book of words people think they can use instead of “said” when attributing dialogue: “He exclaimed, she expostulated, they chorused, I intoned, etc., etc.”

The purpose of the name is to ridicule these alternatives and to assure all writers that “said” is the best choice almost all of the time. “Said” works, and it’s so ordinary that you can use it a lot without sounding repetitive. It’s like “the” or “and”: effective, but practically invisible.

I certainly agree: you should think twice (or more) before you use anything other than “said”. In my own writing, I allow myself a few substitutions—”whisper” and “shout”, “ask” and “reply”, and once in a long while “murmur” or “mutter”—but I only use these words when I think they’re so indispensable that the pros outweigh the cons.

Some very good writers never use anything except “said”. I’ve met some people who are very doctrinaire about it…but I think you do a disservice to your art and your brain if you think that any aspect of writing is cast in stone. Recognize the value of “said” and the sugariness of most words that are used instead; then, cut yourself some slack. There are important differences between

“Leave me alone,” she said.

“Leave me alone!” she shouted.

“Leave me alone,” she whispered.

“Said” is the best choice most of the time, but sometimes you need something with more color.

Cue Words

When reading scripts for movies and plays, actors hate when the writer tells them how to deliver a line, especially with adverbs like “playfully”, “seductively”, “angrily” and so on. If a particular emotional flavor is important, the wording of the speech should convey that flavor. Otherwise, actors demand the freedom to deliver the line in whatever way makes sense to them, or makes the line interesting.

The same applies to prose. Adverbs tagged onto a speech attribution are usually not an improvement; instead, they’re a sign of weakness. To pick a blatant example, consider

I said jokingly

If you have to tell the reader that something was a joke, the joke sucked. Fix it or lose it.

The same applies to ninety-nine percent of all adverbs you may consider adding in such contexts: if you think the reader won’t understand how the character delivers a speech, rewrite the speech. A tagged-on adverb is a poor excuse for a Band-aid.

Once in a long while, there are exceptions. For example, very short speeches don’t give you a lot to work with; if you want a line to be delivered contrary to its “natural” tone of voice, you may need a cue word.

“Go away,” she said quietly.

Again, some people develop a kneejerk hostility to any such adverbs. I don’t think that’s justified, but usually, the temptation to use an “actor’s cue” adverb should be considered a red flag.

The same applies to other directorial embellishments: “She said with a smile…he said grinding his teeth…it said in a robotic voice.” Every time you’re tempted to use something like this, ask if it really adds anything to the reader’s experience. Sometimes it does; if so, great. Often, however, it’s evidence that you don’t think the speech is strong enough to do the job. In that case, improve the speech, don’t just clutter up the attribution.

When Less is More

Often you don’t need any attribution at all.

“Hey, Joe!”
“What?”
“You doing anything tonight?”
“Nothing that I’m going to share with you.”

Four lines, no attributions, but we follow the conversation just fine. We even get a slight idea of Joe’s personality. As a rule of thumb (but not a law cast in stone), four speeches is about the most you should go without some indication of who’s speaking, especially if the speeches are longer than a few words. However, it’s easy to find texts that don’t follow this rule, so don’t automatically condemn a piece writing because it goes longer without any attribution. If readers can easily follow who’s saying what, you have nothing to worry about.

And that’s the important point: readers should know who’s speaking. Direct attribution is only part of that consideration; ideally, readers should be able to tell who’s speaking by the speech itself, not by surrounding attributions. This means that each character’s speech should be distinctive in some way.

I don’t mean that every character should have a unique accent, or a lisp, or incessant verbal tics. Those schticks may be distinctive but they’re also simplistic and often annoying.

Distinctiveness comes from personality and content. As a simple example, consider two people discussing what to do for dinner. If Character A wants to stay home and Character B wants to go out, it’s easy to tell who’s saying what: even if a reader is skimming inattentively, when someone says, “Two hours ago you were dying for sushi…so fine, let’s get sushi,” the reader knows this has to be the person who wants to go out. The content is distinctive.

Implied tone of voice is also distinctive. For example, one character may be a constant complainer, another always conciliatory, a third a bit of a bully. Such qualities are reasonably easy to depict in dialogue just by choice of words and phrasing. In this way, you can make characters quickly identifiable, thereby reducing the need for frequent attributions.

That’s a Segue…

It’s a short step from “distinctive speech” to “distinctive characters” so let’s take that as a lead-in to a new area of skills: characterization. We’ll start on that next month; in the meantime, have your say about attribution and framing dialogue.

P.S. While we’re on this topic, it would be a shame not to mention Tom Swifties. Here: have a bunch.

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There are 5 comments. Get the RSS feed for comments on this entry.

  1. 1. Mary

    Cue words are most valuable when they contradict the content of the speech.

  2. 2. Lorie Steed

    Very useful post–helped me cut a lot of excess from my manuscript. Thanks!

  3. 3. Peter Last

    Thanks for the tips. I’ll definitely use them as I continue to write and hopefully they will make me better at it.

  4. 4. Karina Steffens

    Great tips!

    Another technique worth mentioning is the use of action tags instead of speech tags. When a charachter action comes directly before or after dialogue, it identifies the speaker and adds visual context at the same time.

    “Leave me alone.” She dug her fingernails into her palm.

    I also avoid combining speech and action tags:
    “Leave me alone,” she said, digging her fingernails into her palm.
    No need for that! The action tag does the work of both.

  5. 5. James Alan Gardner

    Good points, Karina. And since I’m writing here, I want to note the difference between actions which are closely related to the speech (like Karina’s fingernail example) and actions which just happen to be “adjacent” to a speech. Blatant example:

    “I like you, Freddie, I like you a lot.” She opened her purse and drew out a .38 pistol. “But business is business.”

    This may look like dialogue attribution, but it’s obviously an important plot-point, not just describing how a line was delivered. —Jim

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Author Information

James Alan Gardner

James Alan Gardner got his M.Math from the University of Waterloo with a thesis on black holes...and then he immediately started writing science fiction instead. He's been a finalist for the Hugo and Nebula awards, and has won the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award as well as the Aurora award (twice). He's published seven novels (beginning with "Expendable"), plus a short story collection and (for street cred) a Lara Croft book. He cares deeply about words and sentences, and is working his way up to paragraphs. Visit site.

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