Chapter 8 – Who Said That?

“Let’s talk about dialogue attribution!” exclaimed Kirk enthusiastically.

Haha, that’s a pretty bad one. If it’s not obvious why, hopefully it will be in a moment. But first, let’s make sure we all know what I’m talking about.

Dialogue attribution is simply assigning a quote to a specific character.  The most common form is “said,” as in:

“That’s one dull sentence,” Kirk said.

The “Kirk said” let’s you know I’m the one speaking (although you might have already guessed that from the brilliant dialogue).

Before I started writing a novel, I never thought much about dialogue attribution. It was just a couple of words after the quotation mark–what’s the big deal?

Well, apparently it is a big deal to many readers and writers. These could be the same people who will be judging your work some day. I’m not saying you should pander, but if you’re trying to get a book deal, you might want to know a few things that could turn these people off before they even give your book a chance.

I’ve searched the world over to come up with a few simple guidelines for the modern writer. I’m not saying you have to agree with the rules (I don’t always), just be aware of them.

Rule #1 – Use “said” and “asked”—period.

There are two basic types of dialogue: statements and questions. It follows that you should only need two words to attribute this dialogue: “said” and “asked.” These words are practically invisible to the reader; anything else is just distracting.

Furthermore, if your writing is strong enough, you shouldn’t need to inform the reader that something was exclaimed, whined, or yelled; the reader will already know it.

How do I feel about rule #1? Meh. I’ve read plenty of books that don’t follow this rule, and it didn’t bother me in the least.  That being said, now that I’m aware it irks some people a great deal, and these might be the very people critiquing my novel, I try to avoid alternate attributions like “cried” or “growled.”

Then again, sometimes “said” can just seem so dry:

“Your hair’s on fire!” Bill said.

How do you feel about the use of “said” in that sentence? I hate it. It just seems so flat. I mean, my hair’s on fire, and Bill is just saying it as if my shoe was untied? Shouldn’t he be yelling or screaming? Just how good of a friend is this Bill, anyway?

Well, I have to somehow let the reader know Bill is speaking, but if I can’t say he “exclaimed” it, what’s a writer do? I could just ignore the rule (and from time to time I certainly do), but maybe I can rewrite the whole sentence like this:

Bill jumped to his feet and pointed a bony finger at my head. “Your hair’s on fire!”

Ah, my faith in Bill as a friend has been reaffirmed. But you say I just avoided using dialogue attribution in the first place? Why, yes I did, which leads me to the next rule:

Rule #2 – Don’t Use Dialogue Attribution Unless Absolutely Necessary

Now here’s a rule I can get behind. Take the previous example but slightly modified:

Bill jumped to his feet and pointed a bony finger at my head. “Your hair’s on fire!” Bill said.

There’s no need to add the “Bill said” on the end there. We already know Bill is speaking–his bony finger is in my face!

This rule appeals to me because it speaks more to function than aesthetics. People can argue all day whether “exclaimed” is good dialogue attribution–it’s a matter of opinion. But if something is redundant, then it’s redundant. That’s a fact, Jack!

Besides, I prefer books that read fast; all those extra words just slow me down. If you don’t need the words, cut them like Freddy Krueger.

Rule #3 – Don’t Use Adverbs in Dialogue Attribution

Ah, the infamous Tom Swifties! You know, those old books where that spunky kid… um… you know, the one with the hair… um…didn’t he have a dog with a hat?

OK, I didn’t read those books either. But I have a pretty good idea what a Tom Swiftism looks like:

“Shut your trap,” Bill said angrily.

That adverb on the end is what makes this a Swiftism. Apparently the Tom Swift books were full of this sort of dialogue attribution. I don’t know for sure, but sometimes it’s just best to believe what you read on the internet.

Anyway, what do I think of this sentence? It’s not great, but I don’t think it’s horrible either. The “angrily” does seem unnecessary, but I don’t find it all that distracting. If every quote had this sort of attribution then it would probably grind on me.

My main beef with this rule is that sometimes that hated adverb can completely change the meaning of a sentence. For example:

“Your hair’s on fire!” Bill said merrily.

See? Now Bill and I are no longer friends.

Sometimes an adverb is the most efficient way to convey your meaning. Sarcasm, for instance, can be difficult to express unless you tell the reader someone is speaking sarcastically. If your writing is less clear because you’ve chosen form over function, you may have a problem.

My advice here would be to use adverbs sparingly, but if you feel it’s the best tool for the job, don’t be afraid to use it. After all, the rules are more what you’d call guidelines than actual rules, matey.

Rule #4 – Dialogue Attribution Order

This one’s interesting. There appear to be two camps when it comes to whether the noun or the verb should come first in dialogue attribution. The first camp believes the noun should always come before the verb like this:

“Your hair’s on fire!” Bill said.

The verb should never come first like this:

“Your hair’s on fire!” said Bill.

The second camp doesn’t think the order matters all that much; either order is fine, at least with proper nouns.

But with pronouns like “he” or “she” you should always put the pronoun first, unless you’re speaking the King’s English, said he.

Where do I fall on this rule? This is one of those things I didn’t even think about when I wrote the first draft of my novel. I found myself casually switching between the two forms.

But now that I’m aware that there’s a group of people who just can’t stand reverse-order, I try to put the noun first. I figure the second camp doesn’t care either way, so I’ll cave to the tyranny of the first camp. Unless it just sounds too awkward.  Then the first camp can go pound sand.

That’s my quick and dirty guide to dialogue attribution. Is there anything else about dialogue attribution that just drives you mad? Let me know before I make the same mistake!


About thewoodlander

Kirk Watson is the author of The Grey Tales series of novels featuring squirrel-of-action John Grey. He resides in Austin, Texas.
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2 Responses to Chapter 8 – Who Said That?

  1. emakeerny says:

    Seriously, there’s a “camp” of people that can’t stand “reverse order attribution?” I put it in quotes because I think it’s hilarious that they care so much they made up a term for it. I have never paid attention to anything like this… I just write what sounds best. Another technique you don’t mention is no attribution–I love long strings of dialog that aren’t interrupted by “he said” “she said”, AS LONG AS you can always tell who’s talking without having to go back and count the lines.

    • Yeah, that reverse order rule surprised me, too. Apparently they think “said Bill” sounds antiquated, like an old fairy tale or something. I can sort of hear it, but I never noticed it before.
      As for no attribution at all, that’s my rule #2! Maybe I cut too much for it to be clear, but no attribution is my preference as well.

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