Who Said What When How?

I said I was going to talk about dialogue attribution.  Right, then.

By “dialogue attribution” I mean those “he said” and “said John Doe” and (less fortunately) “he commented/answered/stated/retorted/other-verbed” tags that get applied to lines of dialogue so that the reader can tell who’s speaking.  And I have a few points to make about them, in my peevish way.

First, you don’t need nearly as many of them as you think you do.  If your dialogue is doing its job properly, you aren’t going to need to identify the speaker every time the talking-stick gets handed over, because your speakers will sound like individuals and not all like each other.  If you’ve got an extended stretch of two-person back-and-forth, you can throw in an attribution every few lines just to keep things anchored; and if you’ve got a multi-person conference you’ll need to identify people as they jump into the discussion, and as often as necessary to keep your reader up to speed; but even in those cases, you don’t have to tag every single line of dialogue.

(How often is enough?  How often is too many?  Sadly, I have to tell you that you need to play it by ear — and if you haven’t got an ear for it yet, you’ll need to work on developing one.)

Second, you don’t need to get fancy with your verbs when you’re tagging dialogue.  When in doubt, remember that it’s hard to go wrong with a plain vanilla said.  Beyond that, you mostly want volume indicators — shouted, whispered, murmured, muttered.  (And for the love of Mike, don’t have your characters hiss things that don’t have an s– sound in them!)  Anything more than that comes perilously close to over-writing, and sometimes crosses the line.

And third, you don’t have to place the tag at the end of the line of dialogue every time.  You can put it in front:  Joe said, “It’s time.”  Or you can break up the block of dialogue and put the tag in the middle.  “It’s time,” Joe said.  “Let’s get going.”  In fact, if Joe doesn’t just have a couple of sentences of dialogue, but an entire paragraph’s worth of inspiring speechifying or careful instruction or closely-reasoned argument, don’t undercut its effect by slapping down a Joe said at the end of it with a dull and leaden thud.  Break up the block of dialogue early on to slip in the tag, then let the rest of the speech roll on to its effective climax.

“That’s it, then,” she said.  “We’re done for the night.”

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