On Dialogue and Speaker Attribution

I’ve decided to place all posts on writing mechanics under one place. So now you can find them in the page entitled Writing 101. It’s under PAGES. Just right there—>

I’m the kind of gal who likes to make things easy. Simplify–one of my favorite words. When you are writing, editing, or exchanging crits with others, sometimes it is hard to process the feedback we get. Someone says, “Do this!”, while others may say, “No, do this instead.” From the comments I got from my previous post on Dialogue Mechanics and the “Said” Debate, one writer mentioned how she came across a blog/site telling writers to use creative writing tags, and even listed them as a writing resource. Yes, shocking I know. So what’s a new writer to do when we’re constantly bombarded with writing advices?

Three things: Read well-written published books, keep on writing, and listen to your gut.

Since “listening to your gut” doesn’t come as easily for others, this is where I can help you. I give simplified advice based on my own experience as a writer and a reader.

So. Dialogue and Speaker Attribution. Since we’re all about simplifying, I’m going to list the things we need to remember when attributing dialogue to a speaker:

1. Don’t start a paragraph of dialogue with speaker attribution.

e.g. Mary said, “I don’t know. I thought she was coming home with you.”

Do this instead:

“I don’t know,” Mary said. “I thought she was coming home with you.”

Why? Our goal here is to keep the speaker attributions transparent for smooth transitions between dialogue lines and the speaker. The reader gets to focus on the dialogue and at the same time know who’s saying it, without getting pulled out of the story.

2. Place the character’s name or pronoun first in a speaker attribution.

David said NOT said David

He said NOT said he.

3. Be consistent with how you refer to a character and stick with it for at least the length of a scene.

Consider this example:
       “I’ve lived here my whole life,” said Martha. She handed him a beer can.
       “Is that so?”
       “Yes,” said Mrs. Macey. “I’ve seen things happen around this neighborhood. Some pleasant, some not. I could tell you stories but I rather not.”

(A page later…)
       “You reckon I should stay and give it a try?” he asked, standing up to leave.
       “If you want to keep your head straight, you better not,” said the old woman.

“Martha”, “Mrs. Macey”, and the “old woman”–they’re the same character. If you keep switching names in a scene, you’ll end up confusing your reader. However, it doesn’t mean that you are only allowed one form of address for your entire novel. If the viewpoint changes for one of your characters, say, the man in the example above gets to know Martha Macey more intimately and later on calls her by her first name or a nickname, then that’s okay. Remember, we are talking about the length of a scene here.

4. Use beats to replace “said” or a dialogue tag, especially if you have three or more speakers.

Consider this:
e.g. “Let’s go to the mall,” Jessie said.
      “I’m tired of the mall. Why can’t we do something else for a change?” May said.
      “Like what?” Ryan said.

The “said” is no longer transparent here. But if we use beats, we can break the said monotony:

      “Let’s go to the mall,” Jessie said.
      May crossed her arms. “I’m tired of the mall. Why can’t we do something else for a change?
      “Like what?” Ryan said.

5. You can dispense with speaker attributions if it’s clear from the dialogue who is speaking. BUT do not overdo it. You can break it up with beats if you need to, especially if it’s long.

Ping-Pong dialogue:

“I just can’t believe you said that to him!”
“Well I did. And I’m not sorry for it.”
“I know he’s a jerk and he probably deserved it, but that was harsh.”

Breaking it up with a beat:

“I just can’t believe you said that to him!”
Rachel plopped on the sofa. “Well I did. And I’m not sorry for it.”
“I know he’s a jerk and he probably deserved it, but that was harsh.”

Questions? Comments? Rants? Feel free to discuss.

Reference: Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King (pp. 91-93)

P.S. I’ve just realized I have reached a 100 (and 1) followers. Hooray! A milestone worth celebrating for. So. I was thinking last night, wouldn’t it be great to have a little contest to show my appreciation for these wonderful folks who stumbled their way here and probably didn’t know what they signed up for? Hehehe. 

Tune in tomorrow for the details. It’s nothing grand or pompous. But there will be prize/s…hopefully something worth your time. =) 

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16 thoughts on “On Dialogue and Speaker Attribution

  1. Good tips! You know what really confuseses me? Dashes!! The different types and where to use them . . . ughh! Hmm . . . I wish I could find a good blog post on this . . . (hint, hint! hehehe!)

  2. Oohh, that's a good topic. Will get on it ASAP, Ms. Angela. Your wish is my command. lol! 😉 Really, that is a good one. I've seen a lot of misused double em dashes and dashes.

  3. This is good stuff. Dialogue can be really tricky to make realistic. It's just like in real life, though. Nobody is static while talking. That's what beats are all about.

  4. Wonderful post! I think dialogue is probably the most tricky part to balance. These are great tips, thanks!Oiy and btw when you get the chance stop by … I have something for you. 🙂

  5. Thanks for the great tips! From a reader's point of view, it drives me nuts when the dialogue goes on too long without beats.Congratulations on reaching 100+ Followers…great job!

  6. @Jen: Happy to help… ;)@Kayeleen: Absolutely! Beats are important.@Sophie: Yay! Thanks for the award, you Queen of Awesomesauce-ness you!@Kittie: Hi! Thanks 😉 Poorly written dialogue can definitely drive a reader bonkers. :D@Alex: Hey, thanks for following me. 🙂 I followed you too. Your place is happenin'. XD

  7. Oh man, don't you think you should be a professor somewhere? I had a lot of writing instructors who weren't as good as you are. I had one who drifted off during class. (Maybe I shouldn't have attended "Crapdoodle University.")

  8. YAY! You're at 106 today, my lovie. :)Great info. I think a few classical writers would be taking issue w/you right now, though. LOL! Especially on #1 and #2. So MANY of the classics have that style choice. And I think that's more what it is, and for contemporary lit, it just doesn't work, making the attributes obvious, you know? So good stuff!BTW, I like how you're posting all of your writing tip posts in one place. The journal style of your beautiful blog lends itself to that perfectly. Can't wait for the contest! SWEET!

  9. Very interesting and I agree with all, though the first one I'm a bit stuck on… I've had so many people say start with Mary said, so the reader knows who who is speaking??? Hmmmm I've always liked it the way you suggested – may stick to it.

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