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He Said, She Said: Two Critical Aspects of Dialog Attribution

Some new and inexperienced writers make their inexperience obvious. They try to turn dialog attribution into a creative exercise. You may have encountered something like: “I heard the clock strike,” she hissed. Or, “Certainly,’ he harrumphed.

Not only are both these things physically impossible, but they will probably cause readers to stop reading and scratch their heads. And that’s the last thing you want a reader to do when you’re telling a story.  Nowhere in writing does the universal admonishment “keep it simple” apply more properly, and doing that is a matter of understanding why you are attributing dialog and how to do it.

The Functions of Dialog Attribution

Dialog attribution has two functions:

  1. To prevent confusion.
  2. To pace the scene. 

The confusion occurs when the reader doesn’t know which character is talking. Again, we don’t want the reader to have to stop loving our story to trace the conversation back to figure out who is threatening the life of whom. So long as your reader knows (not can puzzle out) which dialog goes with which character, you’ve accomplished the first objective.

The “how” is only a little more complicated. One widely used rule of thumb is that if you have to have attribution to prevent confusion and have no identifiable reason to use something else, just say “said.” It serves the purpose without calling attention to itself. Here’s an example from a scene in my novel, The Sing, with four people in it. Jim, Aaron, and Otha have just kidnapped Sister Bessie. 

She just sat there quietly on the seat, apparently staring straight ahead.

“No way we’re going to carry her,” Jim said.

“No way,” agreed Aaron.

“Just step back,” Otha said. “Sister Bessie, would you mind sliding this way.”

“Yes, I would,” she said. “Especially with this dirty old bag over my head.”

The second purpose of dialog attribution is pacing the scene.  If you’re writing a heated argument between two or more characters, you don’t want to slow the scene down with description, bits of business, or narrative, as in the following:

“You’ve never loved me,” she said.

“That’s crap. If I didn’t love you, why have I spent the last five years with you?”

“Just because you couldn’t do any better.”

It’s bare-bones, but if your purpose is to get to the end of the scene with urgency, it works.  

On the other hand, dialog attribution offers you another opportunity to give depth to the scene and to the characters. For instance, you could write: 

“I love you, Joanie,” he said.

or

“I love you, Joanie,” he said, his harsh breathing breaking the sentence into fragments.

Finally, if you find yourself adding adverbs to attribution (“Help,” he said loudly.) you’ve encountered a reason not to use “said.” You need another verb. In this case, you might use “screamed” or “shouted.” 

Understanding why and how you should use dialog attribution other than ‘said,’ helps you create a more clear, powerful piece for your reader to enjoy.