He Said She Said We Said: simple rules of dialogue attribution

Writing trick: cards

“I love you,” Laura sighed.

Okay, what’s wrong with that sentence? You. Yes, you at the back: you have ten seconds to answer. Come on now, don’t be shy. I’m waiting…

Yes, that’s right. It’s the bit outside the speech marks: the dialogue attribution. I mean, who the hell in the real world ‘sighs’ dialogue? I know I don’t, even if I am in love. Or perhaps Laura has a problem with her lungs?

I see this kind of thing all the time in genre fiction (and also in mainstream or literary fiction, but to a lesser extent). There’s no need for it. What’s wrong with the following?

“I love you,” Laura said.

Nothing. There’s nothing wrong with that. Laura hasn’t sighed the words, or laughed the words, or even (God forbid) breathed the words… she’s said them. Just like I do. Just like you do. We say the words.

So when it comes to dialogue attribution, the worst thing we can do as writers is to insert these pointless melodramatic verbs. Often it’s better if you can leave out the dialogue attribution altogether. Certainly it’s possible to use it sparingly, merely to identify who’s speaking.

This brings us to redundant dialogue attribution.

Here’s an example:

“How are you?” Laura asked.

Do we really need to put “asked” at the end of that sentence? I think not. The question mark at the end of her dialogue tells us that it’s a question, so the attribution is superfluous. It’s just using words for the sake of it rather than using them as tools to convey meaning.

“How are you?” Laura said.

That scans much better. It’s neat and tidy, and it works.

We can go one further with this and use action and dialogue to express what a character means, what they are feeling. The old adage “show not tell” comes into play here.

Laura barged through the crowd, her fists clenched. “I hate you,” she said.

See what I mean? She said. She didn’t shout or yell or snarl or growl. She said. Her actions told us that she was angry. She barged through the crowd. She clenched her fists. That Laura: she’s one angry kid. Her emotions seem to turn on a penny. I’m glad she doesn’t love me. Or hate me.

  • Grumbled
  • Gasped
  • Cautioned
  • Lied

These are all examples of horrible, even silly, dialogue attributions that I’ve seen in books. There’s nothing that can’t be conveyed using other means. If someone’s grumbling, what kind of mood are they in? How can we get that across to the reader without sticking it on the end of a line of dialogue? This sounds like simple stuff – basic stuff – and it is, but it’s amazing how many writers (both established and beginners) forget about the simple rules, the ones we’re first taught at school.

My personal philosophy is that it’s part of my job as a writer to convey complex thoughts, emotions and situations in as simple language as possible. I don’t want to impress a reader with my vocabulary, and I certainly don’t want to jolt them out of the story to go and look for a dictionary. Also, I want my characters to be as believable as I can make them, to speak like real people rather than ciphers. This means that they say words, they don’t sigh them. They speak in a way that’s as close to real speech as I can create.

Writing is like literary sleight of hand. You try to distract the reader so they don’t notice how you do the trick. Simple rules like this one are all part of the craft; they make it easier for a writer to slip one past the reader. Writing isn’t reality, but good, careful writing can echo reality.

Writing is a lie, a cheat that’s used to expose or elucidate some finer truth. And as every good liar knows, you need to make the lie as close as possible to the truth if you want people to believe it.

GARY MCMAHON
PHOTO: KYKNOORD

Comments

  1. An excellent, well-written piece. It makes me want to go and edit some of my stories in progress …

  2. David Moore says:

    This. This is why I can’t get past page 33 of Twilight. Not that I’ve really given it the old college try, but this is what killed my one and only attempt to read it to date.

    I disagree slightly about said/asked; to me, “said” always precedes or follows a declarative statement. When I see a question with “said,” I always do a bit of a double-take. But I know others disagree with me, so I guess that’s style.

  3. Well, that makes a lot of sense, he thought.

  4. And I absolutely agree regarding the ‘he asked’ irrelevance…

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