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Who Speaks? Pointers about Attribution in Dialogue
by Victoria Grossack
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March 7, 2013
He Said, She Said: The Most Common Approach
The most frequently used method for signaling the speaker to the reader is some variant of the phrase he said, or she asked, if the piece of dialogue happens to be a question. Here are a few examples:
He said: "I want to go home now."
"I want to go home now," he said.
"I want to go home now," said he.
The first and the third variants are used most commonly, but I have seen the second and the fourth frequently. Which should you use? Honestly, there is little difference between these alternatives. My recommendation is for you to consider which is clearest and least obtrusive to the reader. For example, if the speeches are long, and there are more than two characters in the conversation, you may prefer the first or second variant so that your reader knows immediately who is speaking. Another factor in your choice is the rhythm of your writing -- you don't want to stick with one form too long in a single passage, for it becomes monotonous.
Modifiers for Said
The word "said" does not have to stand alone; as an author, you can often indicate how your characters are speaking. Perhaps they are speaking loudly or quietly; perhaps they are speaking hurriedly or slowly; perhaps they are speaking sweetly or nastily. This can be achieved quite easily by including the adverb next to the word said. Here are a few examples:
"No, I'm not going to eat the spinach," the pimply-faced teenager said firmly.
"I hate you!" the girl said passionately.
These adverbs modify how the speaker makes his or her speech. Now, I have a prejudice against adverbs, because I believe they can encourage lazy writing, in which the author tells instead of shows. Nevertheless, many novels that I like are littered with adverbs used in just this manner, so perhaps my prejudice is unreasonable.
Alternatives to "Said"
Often you can eliminate the said plus the adverb by using a single word that combines both meanings. For example, perhaps instead of said nastily you could write hissed.
Besides -- he said, she said -- don't you get tired of writing the word said over and over and over again? Aren't there other words that will do? Of course there are! So, here are some alternatives:
Now that I've given you additional options, here are some caveats:
First, this list is by no means complete. There are plenty of other possibilities.
Second, not all of these alternatives have quite the same meaning, so you have to use them according to the situation.
Third, and perhaps most importantly -- even though putting this list together was challenging and fun, and even though using the right alternative can be very effective -- these alternatives should be used sparingly in your replacement of the word "said." Why is this? Well, if you use them too frequently, they call attention to themselves. Here's a piece of dialogue to illustrate my point:
"No, it's not," she protested.
"We have to leave now," he insisted.
"No, we don't," she contradicted.
"If we don't leave now, we won't make it!" he exclaimed.
"You worry too much," she complained.
"Only because I'm with you," he grumbled.
There are many problems with this passage -- the content is dull and the rhythm monotonous -- and the dialogue is not being improved by the verbs being used to signal attribution. These verbs are, in my opinion, actually more interesting and more creative than the dialogue itself. Each one by itself might be considered acceptable, actually improving the conversation, but having so many is overdone -- rather like an ice cream with too many flavors, or a room cluttered with too many knick knacks.
In contrast, the humble "said" calls less attention to itself. Even though it may feel tiresome to type the word "said" over and over, you, as the author, are generally far more aware of this word than are your readers.
Still, there are several other ways to approach this problem; let's examine them.
It may be possible to skip attribution altogether. In short sections, especially when just two characters are present, you can do this without losing the reader. For example:
"No, it's not," she protested.
"We have to leave now."
It should be obvious to readers that the character speaking the third sentence above is again "he." In this instance, this is "obvious" for at least two reasons. First, this is a conversation with only two characters, and so when she isn't speaking, then he must be. Second, it is also obvious from WHAT is being said. He is maintaining that it is late, therefore the statement, "We have to leave now," only makes sense if he says it.
You can continue the conversation without attributions for a little while, relying on the reader to understand, from alternation and context, who is saying which piece of dialogue. However, this falls apart when more than two characters are speaking, and the reader can also become lost if it continues too long. (If the reader has to start counting lines to see who was last "attributed," you've gone on too long.) Also, you don't want your readers to be able to tell who's speaking from context all the time, because this means that their conversations contain no surprises.
Note that other clues within a speech may indicate who is speaking. These include the manner of speech, such as a tendency to use bad grammar or long words or other peculiarities (such as talking about "My Precious" -- generally uttered by Gollum/Sméagol of The Lord of the Rings); the perspective that the character has on the world; what the character's chief concerns are (if a character in a Harry Potter book makes a panicky statement about schoolwork, well, then, the speaker is probably Hermione Granger). These last few bits are straying into the topic of what people say, so this will be saved for a future column.
Names, especially used in a manner where one character is addressing another, can also tell you who is speaking -- or at least, who will speak next. Here's an example:
"No, Ricky, it's not."
"We have to leave now, Lucy."
"No, Ricky, we don't."
When the first character addresses Lucy, the reader assumes that the next character to speak will be Lucy. Then when Lucy replies, using the name "Ricky," we assume that the next character to speak will be Ricky.
The technique of using names -- although it seems to work fairly well in the example above, for I can hear the characters getting louder with each other as the conflict increases -- this technique should be applied with care. First, people don't use each other's names that often while speaking, especially when just two of them are around. So dialogue employing this technique can sound unnatural.
Second, when there are more than two participants in the conversation, this approach does not always work. Lucy may always address her words to Ricky -- but if Fred is around, does he interrupt? Again, you don't want to rely too much on this method.
Another way to let the reader know who is speaking without resorting to direct attribution is to imply it by combining a character's piece of dialogue with additional information about that character. This may sound complicated and confusing; it's easier to show than to explain further. So here's an example using conversational beats:
"No, it's not," she protested, grabbing the decanter of sherry.
He rose to his feet. "We have to leave now."
She poured herself another drink. "No, we don't."
The passage above contains only a single direct attribution, protested, but you had no difficulty determining which character was speaking, did you?
Using conversational beats is my favorite method of handling dialogue attribution. I like it because it gets away from having just talking heads, which can become dull for the reader. Injecting these conversational beats injects something more visual into a passage of dialogue (which would otherwise simply concentrate on the auditory sense for the reader). The conversational beats can also complement what the character is saying. The glancing at the watch and the rising to the feet are both acts of someone who wants to depart, while the woman's actions emphasize the fact that she wants to stay and have another drink.
The conversational beats connect your story to the dialogue in many ways. You can use them to convey the character's emotions or what the character is thinking:
She raised an eyebrow. "No, it's not."
The raising of her eyebrow signals that she does not agree, that she perhaps doubts his interpretation of the hour, or that she simply does not believe him. Characters can have many physical responses that could demonstrate how they are feeling, such as slamming doors, stamping feet, wiping away tears, clearing throats, or twiddling their thumbs.
You can also integrate your conversation with the story's action. Perhaps the conversational beats serve simply to move along an activity. Imagine that Stan and Stella are visiting the fair while having a conversation about another subject.
Stella scooted onto the hard plastic seat, and pulled in her legs as Stan climbed in after her. "I'm ready to listen to you tell me whether or not you know where the painting is."
"Do you really want to talk about that now?" As they swung gently upwards, Stan gestured at the vista before them. "It's too beautiful to waste words on an old painting. It wasn't even very good."
As their seat kept climbing higher -- the ground had to be eight stories below them now -- Stella experienced a wave of dizziness. What had possessed her to agree to meet this guy at the fair, when she suffered from vertigo? She clutched the bar that was holding them in, and willed herself to concentrate. "That painting may not have been very valuable -- but my grandfather was the artist. So, you see, I need to find it."
In the passage above, the conversational beats are moving along with the dialogue -- sometimes directly related to what is being said, at other times not related to it at all. But the conversational beats, besides taking us to a different setting and a different activity, also let the readers know who is speaking. You could insert dialogue attributions in the passage above -- it would not hurt -- but it is not necessary.
For attribution, there is no single best method. I believe you should mix and match according to the needs of your story. As you become more conscious of this part of your writing, you will develop your own sense rhythm and your own artistic approach.
A version of this article appeared at the Coffeehouse for Writer's Fiction Fix.
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.