Saturday, September 10, 2011

Attribution in Dialogue

Attribution is the tag that goes with dialogue to show the reader who said it. You know, he said, she whispered, she mumbled, and so on. An attribution must be a word that can convey speech. Laugh and smile are not among them.
Some writers go to great lengths to avoid said, a perfectly good, unobtrusive little word; however, some of its synonyms may not only be distracting but also incorrect. If a synonym is necessary to express some subtle undertone, be sure it conveys the correct meaning: say means to express; affirm means to declare as true; aver means to verify, prove, or justify a plea; declare means to express explicitly, particularly in a formal manner; state means to set forth in detail or recite.
A better way to achieve variety is to show who is speaking and what he or she might be feeling. Consider how the following sentences suggest Albert’s reaction to the envelope.
Albert wiped his brow. The envelope lay unopened on the desk. “It came today.” 
Albert, hands tucked in his pockets, stared out the window. “It came today.”
Albert picked up the envelope and smiled. “It came today.”
Albert waved the envelope and grinned. “It came today.”
Attributions should never distract the reader or make him aware that he is reading.  They should slide seamlessly into the flow.
Try to let the dialogue itself show how the speaker says it. Avoid the old “Tom Swifties,” such as “Watch that knife!” Tom said sharply. “Tom said” would be perfectly clear without the unnecessary adverb “sharply.”
If the building is on fire, Bart might yell “Fire!” but the writer needn’t tell us he yelled. It’s obvious from the dialogue. “Fire!” would be enough with no attribution, but if the writer needed to show it was Bart, he might show Bart’s action:
Bart burst into the room. “Fire!”

This may be a repeat for me, but it does come up frequently and bears thinking about.


una tiers said...

Great observations Ellis!
Una Tiers

Art Johns said...

Well done, Ellis. Reminds me of our writing instructor's explaining that we should "show" rather than "tell." Showing uses words to paint a picture. Telling is for news announcers.
Your comments on dialogue were interesting. I'll try to remember that.
--Art Johns

Ellis Vidler said...

Thanks, Art. Nice way to say it--telling is for news announcers.

Una, thanks for stopping by.

Nancy Lauzon said...

So true... too many 'creative' attributions like 'he growled', 'she hissed', 'he barked' and 'she purred' can make your characters sound like animals in the zoo. If you're in doubt, put 'said'. Less is more

Ellis Vidler said...

Nancy, how right you are. Those words stand out, and after a few uses, they can become annoying as well. I have a few pet peeves in there too. It's one of the best reasons for letting your book sit for a week or more and then reading it again. Reading aloud is even better. Amazing what you can hear that you missed reading it for the fortieth time.