f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n: Day 2 of Dialogue – What’s the Point of Attribution?

f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n

Thursday, January 06, 2005

Day 2 of Dialogue – What’s the Point of Attribution?

There are no right answers on how to write. Most everything is allowable and even among big-time authors you’d get a hugely diverse opinion on what to put to page, how to go about it, and what it should look like. That’s why, in the end, reading writer’s guides is an interesting, but ultimately, wheel-spinning exercise. That’s why, in the end, this blog is only meant to engender conversation not speak from the mountain top.

Yet, even with that disclaimer, there’s one thing that I’ve seen more writers, more how-to books, more commentary agree on in novel writing than anything else—use the simplest dialogue attributions that you can.

Yes, you may know eighteen synonyms for “said” so that your characters can state and declare and exhort and extol and exclaim and all the rest…but I don’t think, for the most part, that they’re necessary.

The psychology and mechanics of reading are complicated things, but it seems that in the process of reading a novel, dialogue attributions essentially become invisible. Your brain takes the dialogue and the attribution together and you hear the dialogue in that character’s voice. Changing the attribution to “screamed” or “moaned” or a million other things affects how you’ll hear that dialogue. But you can make your attributions “visible” again by mixing them up too often. It ends up sounding overwritten and simply silly.

And if writing gurus dislike unnecessary dialogue attribution, then they really hate adverbial modification of dialogue attribution. Stephen King has an entire rant about it in his On Writing.
I’m not quite that militant, but I will try to explain why there’s such a dislike of adverbs. Simply put, an adverb is too often used when you’ve selected too weak or boring a verb. In the case of dialogue, an adverb is often used when your dialogue isn’t doing the work it needs to do.

Dialogue should, by syntax, punctuation, and diction, be read the way your character would say it. If you are constantly try to spice up or refine a line of dialogue with an adverb, (She said haughtily), it means you either don’t trust the reader or you haven’t refined your characters’ voice to a point where it’s distinguishable from narrative. Both cases are bad.

There are, of course, a million and one exceptions to this statement. That’s fine. If you want to boil this down, simply go with—“Use the LEAST amount of dialogue attribution NECESSARY.”—and you’ll be covered.
Continue to Day 3 of Dialogue.