Dialogue (Part 7): Attribution

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A notebook for fiction writers and aspiring novelists. One editor’s perspective.

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Writing Great Dialogue:
Attribution

Dialogue is perhaps the most essential, the most versatile, of any writer’s tools. One could conceivably write a novel without dialogue (or monologue)—although I wouldn’t recommend it—because dialogue is the humanity that brings a novel to life. Plotting may be its backbone, but dialogue is a book’s heart and soul. However, clarity is paramount, especially in crowded scenes when multiple characters speak. So be certain that you properly identify those characters to the reader.

…..“I love you, Bruce,” Tanya said.

Attribution—that is, to attribute speech to a specific character, e.g.; he said, she said—is a placeholder of sorts, a metaphorical blinking arrow indicating the speaking party. One can also use attribution to depict a specific character’s (either the speaker or the listener’s) visual prompts during a conversation. A nod, a shrug, a thoughtful pause, for instance. About the only advice I can suggest is: Integrate these markers as clearly and as discreetly as you’re able. When attribution (and/or any attached descriptive modifiers) become obvious on the page: “I hate every bone in your body,” Jeanette screeched in that loud, obnoxious, maniacal way she usually did when she drank too many Lambrusco wine coolers. …you’ve perhaps tried too hard.* However, as a rule of thumb, allow your characters’ personalities to define each character, not attribution. When in doubt, err on the side of simplicity. 

If your scene depicts only two characters chatting, you can use attribution (or ‘tag’ a character) sparingly. Readers will understand that two people are taking turns speaking, and that’s usually pretty easy to determine. Something like:

.….“Where’s the vodka?” Steve said.
…..“Over there on the bar,” Linda told him.
…..“No, that bottle’s empty.”
…..She pointed. “There’s another bottle in the kitchen.”
…..“Okay, thanks.”
…..“No problem.”
…..“Hey, would you like another drink?””
…..“Yeah,” she said. “Thanks. A vodka tonic.”

Yes, a new paragraph must separate each character’s spoken words. It’s an important visual indication to the reader.

This is incorrect:
…..“How are you feeling?” Ted asked. “Pretty well, thanks,” Alice replied.

This is correct:
…..“How are you feeling?” Ted asked.
…..“Pretty well, thanks,” Alice replied.

If only two people appear in the scene, this is also correct:

…..“How are you feeling?” Ted asked.
…..“Pretty well, thanks.”
or
…..“How are you feeling?”
…..“Pretty well, thanks,” Alice replied.

Because Ted’s question or Alice’s reply will be intuitively understood.

Attribution can be fine-tuned to include descriptive modifiers as well.

…..“How are you feeling?” Ted asked.
…..Alice shrugged, absently touching the bruise on her shoulder. “Okay, I guess.”

Alice’s visual response is sufficient to enable the reader to decipher who’s speaking, and also feeds readers subtle clues about a character or plot. You can tag Alice’s comment as well, although it’s not necessary, and may actually feel repetitive:

…..“How are you feeling?” Ted asked.
…..Alice shrugged, absently touching the bruise on his shoulder. “Okay, I guess,” she said.

Too much? (S’up to you!)

Attribution becomes a bit more complicated with three or more characters depicted in a conversation. But the same rules (usually) apply. Use only sufficient attribution necessary to avoid confusion, or to give slight visual cues that can add clarity to the scene that would otherwise look like:

…..“How are you feeling?”
…..“Pretty well, thanks.”
…..“Not me. I bruised my shoulder.”

Okay, so who’s saying what? The simple fix is:

…..“How are you feeling?” Ted asked.
…..“Pretty well, thanks,” Alice replied.
…..Richard shrugged, absently touching the bruise on his shoulder. “I’ve been better.”

Numerous variables apply when considering attributes, and you’ll quickly realize what sort of stylistic cadence best suits your needs:

…..“How are you feeling?” Ted asked.
…..Richard stared forlornly at the overturned bus and said nothing.
…..Alice touched the bruise on her shoulder. “I’ve been better.” She shook her head, wondering how the hell the accident even happened.

Another concern is avoiding repetition that might quickly lead to reader fatigue, such as when resorting to this sort of attribution overload:

……“How are you feeling?” Ted asked.
……“Pretty well, thanks,” Alice said.
……“I think I bruised my shoulder,” Richard said.
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…..“I should take a look,” Ted said.
……“I bandaged him up last night,” Alice said.
……“I think I’ll be okay,” Richard said.
……“Let’s see if we can fix this thing,” Ted said.

.It’s perfectly acceptable to add longer snippets of visual clarity during a conversation as well. Typically during conversations—especially longer conversations—one’s characters can subtly continue to move the plot forward.

…..“How are you feeling?” Ted asked.
…..“Pretty well, thanks,” Alice said. She shook her head, wondering how the hell the accident had happened. The last thing she remembered was Richard’s cry of alarm as the bus suddenly swerved off the road and began to tumble down the embankment. “I don’t even know what happened.”
…..“A deer ran out in front of us,” Richard said, shaking his head. “I’m sorry. I guess I overreacted a bit. Is the bus totaled?”
…..Alice nodded. “Yeah, we’re not going anyway soon.”

Even during conversations, your characters should be physically or mentally active. (I mean, how many motionless conversations have you had?) If your characters are little more than limp stick figures throughout the conversation, with little or no visual stimulation or forward momentum, that scene may very quickly become a talking heads scene—and even if the information imparted is important, you may lose a reader’s interest. So, yes, while dialogue is important, active dialogue is crucial. In fact, it’s now a rule:

Rule #55: Don’t just write dialogue, write active dialogue. Avoid ‘talking heads’ scenes by maintaining visual stimulation or plot momentum during intense scenes of dialogue. In other words, if you depict two characters attempting to diffuse a ticking time bomb with thirty-seconds remaining on the timer, they don’t stop diffusing the bomb to carry on a conversation.

A few notes about structure.

Keep all punctuation elements (commas, periods, etc.) inside of quotation marks. 

This is incorrect.
…..“How are you feeling”? Ted asked.
…..“I’m feeling okay”, Alice said.
…..“So am I” somebody else said. (lacking punctuation)

This is correct.
…..“How are you feeling?” Ted asked.
…..“I’m feeling okay,” Alice said.
…..“So am I.” Richard slowly nodded. “I think I’ll be okay.”

This (front loading an attribution) is also correct.
.….“How are you feeling?”
…..Alice said, “I’m okay.”

Also, only use periods as final punctuation of attribution itself. Never: “How are you feeling?” Ted asked?

You can insert attribution (and/or descriptive modifiers) in mid-sentence if spontaneity or heightened drama is necessary.

…..“I don’t think it’s wise—” Paul jerked Andrea’s hand back from the ticking package. “—to touch that thing.”

In longer soliloquies (a soliloquy being a dense solo monologue) it’s okay to provide paragraph breaks in the same manner you’d format any sort of lengthy narrative structure. However, do not provide a closing quote mark between paragraphs. By omitting the interim closing quote, you’re visually alerting the reader that the new paragraph is a continuation paragraph; words spoken by the same person. Thus:

…..Paul said, “I haven’t seen Josh in nearly ten years. I’m not sure I’d even recognize him these days. Not since the accident. I heard the collision messed up his brain. His mother told me he would sometimes wake up at night and swear he could see ghost-like apparitions standing at the foot of his bed.
…..The strange thing is,” Paul continued, “Josh told me once that he used to see ghosts even before the accident. I didn’t tell his mom, of course. I think she’d rather blame his personality disorder on the crash.”
…..“I never knew that,” Andrea said.

Also take note of the two distinct schools of thought concerning attribution. Some writers believe that attribution should only consist of: he said or she said—or, of course, [NAME] said—but lacking any other sort of descriptive modifier. True fundamentalists won’t switch between said or asked, should a question be posed. Thus, one would write: “Is that gun loaded?” Mary said.

Such fundamentalists also loath assisted attribution, such as: “Don’t point that thing at me,” Paul said angrily. They insist (and perhaps with some validity) that the dialogue itself should define a moment’s potency, whether fear, cheer or excitement.

The more liberal group of attributionists (of which I’m a cautious advocate) feel that attribution can provide numerous modifiers to enhance a reader’s perception. “I didn’t think to check,” Gary admitted.

Thus, one can say, one can ask, one can query, one can admit, one can call, one can whisper, one can cajole, one can blubber, one can bark, one can wonder, one can insist

By providing additional descriptive modifiers, one can also ask quietly, one can admit freely, one can call loudly, one can whisper suspiciously, one can blubber uncontrollably, one can vehemently insist…as well.

For instance, consider the sentence: “Don’t do it, JoAnne,” Maria said. With minimal effort, a writer can fine tune a specific emotion or mood. For example, a single modifier can drastically change the nuance of the character speaking:

“Don’t do it, JoAnne,” Maria said excitedly.
“Don’t do it, JoAnne,” Maria said with a laugh.
“Don’t do it, JoAnne,” Maria said, horrified.

However, I do believe a writer should use these more effusive attributions sparingly, and I agree that simple ‘he said’ or ‘she said’ usage should be considered standard fare. Every once in awhile, however, I find it more aesthetically pleasing or dramatically astute for a character to admit or whisper or adamantly insist.

But, again, simplicity and discretion is the key.

“One last note about punctuation!” I belatedly screamed. While this point is somewhat off-topic, it bears saying: Exclamation points. Don’t use them. If you must, use them sparingly. Rarely. Seldomly. Unless you’re writing YA (because  you have more wiggle room when applying emphasis) I suggest using as few as one or two a chapter. Certainly no more than one per page. Just be aware an editor or publisher will remove 95% of these literary cockroaches. Why? Because readers expect you to use your writing skills to infer excitement. Repeated use of ! is the mark of an inexperienced writer, and almost as horrific as using emojis in a manuscript.

BTW: Rarely,  if ever, has a character of mine hissed. However, I don’t believe I’ve ever seen a fantasy novel where at least one evil wizard doesn’t let fly an angry hiss or two. My only suggestion is that one shouldn’t attempt to hiss if there are no inherent essss sounds in a sentence.

Thus: “Seldom have I seen such sniveling incompetence,” the evil wizard hissed.

But one cannot hiss out a sentence such as: “Where did you find that golden goblet, Conan?

“Make sense?” I ask.

* Although occasionally, the situation and/or style permitting, I can’t deny that the above sentence could possibly work! Although many of us would probably consider the paragraph somewhat reader-feederish. (Too much info, too compressed.) But never say never.
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