Writing Hack #2: Dialogue attributions.

butlerAttributions should be like butlers, they’re there if you need them, but the best ones go unnoticed.

Here’s the thing. At school you may have been told to avoid repetition, and to use synonyms. While that is sound advice when trying to build a vocabulary, you can ruin good dialogue by following that rule. Let’s take a closer look.

Attributions

Attributions are where you want to ‘attribute’ a line of speech to a particular character. Like: 

‘Let’s go and see that movie,’ said Bill.

‘So you can just sit there and stare at pretty actresses all night? I don’t think so,’ said Carol.

When writing a novel, dialogue aerates the prose so you will end up writing a lot of it. The temptation to jazz it up comes to us all. Can I really just say he said, she said all the time? If you don’t, you might end up writing lines like this.

‘What!’ spat Bill.

‘You heard me and you needn’t look so bloody angry. I’ve seen you looking, don’t think i haven’t,’ Carol retorted. 

What’s happening now is, the argument is hotting up, it’s getting interesting, but i’m drawing a little attention away from it with a technical detail. I’m distracting you with flowery attributions. The interesting thing is the argument, its content and development and NOT the synonyms for ‘said’.

In a simple two way conversation like this between Bill and Carol, it’s actually better to not attribute at all once you’ve established the rhythm of who’s talking. If a new character enters, or there are more than two, you’ll find you need to use attributions more often.

‘When have I been looking? At who?’

‘When we’re watching the telly. When we’re out. All the bloody time. You’re staring at the pretty newscasters. You’re staring at the waitress at Orsini’s. At that trussed up–’

‘Guys?’ Samantha was at the door, holding her headphones, ‘I heard raised voices, is everything all right?’

‘Fine.’ Bill said. ‘Your mother and I were just arguing about what film to watch. Come on now Carol, grab your coat or we’ll miss the trailers.’

 Now you’re more focussed on the dialogue, rather than the attributions. And that’s how it should be. I’ll talk more about dialogue in other posts, like using action sometimes instead of attributions, but for now let’s do a quick re-cap;

  • Keep attributions simple and unobtrusive. He said/she said is fine, and a few variations (she replied/he yelled/she whispered etc. where appropriate.) Remember, attributions are like a butler – the best ones go unnoticed!
  • If you know intuitively who is saying the line of dialogue, either through their speech style or verbal tells, or simply because it’s their turn to speak, then you don’t need an attribution. It’s cleaner without.
  • The job of attributions is to make clear who is saying the line of speech. The reader shouldn’t need to work to figure out who’s talking.  The more people present in a scene, the more attributions you are likely to need. 

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