Dialogue and Attribution
By Rob Preece, Publisher, BooksForABuck.Com
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(Note: this brief article was first composed for the Muse On-Line Writer's Conference. October 2007).
One of the most frequent problems I see in submitted manuscripts is in dialogue and attribution. I've found a few rules can be really helpful in streamlining dialogue and attribution, leading to a stronger and more readable manuscript.
- Although we may pretend we want natural dialogue, we really don't because natural dialogue is filled with empty words. What editors say when they ask for natural dialogue is something that reflects character and that isn't all in full sentences. Listen to the way people talk, interupt themselves and others, and try to build that into your dialogue
- The purpose of attribution is to make sure the reader doesn't get confused about who's talking. If there's no ambiguity, you can just have the dialogue.
"I'm going to the bar," Joe said.
"Please don't." Betty put her hands over her heart.
"Stick that. I'm going."
"If you leave, I'm going to--"
"If you cry, I swear, I'll shoot you."
You see the initial attribution to Joe and Betty served and the 'dialogue run' could go on from there.
- Said and the alternatives. Where attribution is required, always have a reason not to use 'said.' Readers can read through 'said' (as in, 'Joe said") seamlessly. If you use alternatives ('Joe moaned,' 'Joe exhaled,' readers tend to be pulled out of the moment, paying more attention to your writing than to what you've written.
- Action works. In the dialogue above, Betty putting her hands over her heart served as attribution since the action went with the dialogue. There was no need to have both her action and a 'Betty said.' Remember that action comes after a full stop. '"I'm going to kill myself." Betty sneezed.' is much better than "I'm going to kill myself," Betty sneezed. Don't have your character sneeze, laugh, or otherwise act words.
- Don't overdo the action, though. A whole string of dialogue followed by some meaningless action ('George crossed his arms,' 'Mary wiped her nose,') is distracting.
- Put the attribution early. "No," Mary said, "I don't." has more impact than "No I don't," Mary said. Either is better than: "No I don't. I'm not going to leave until i get an answer. I deserve it and you owe it to me," Mary said.
- 'John said,' not 'said John.' Maybe this is a private pet peeve, but for me, 'said John' sounds like something you'd read in your Dick and Sally book. "I'm leaving," John said works for me. "I'm leaving," said John, doesn't. (Note: I'm told that this is a US/UK distinction. That in the US we prefer John said while they prefer said John in the UK. I generally try substituting pronouns. "said he" sounds dorky. "He said" sounds sensible.)
There are a lot of tricks for improving your dialogue. Listening to the way people talk and then cutting it down to the essentials is a useful exercise. Use contractions because characters sound stuffy when they don't. A few 'uh's' and 'ah's' are okay to give character. Be careful with dialect. Remember, if you're in the south, the word you use that Yankees may think sounds like 'Ah' is still spelled "I".
'"I am no Yankee." Ashley's drawl had cranked up three notches after her second mint julip.' works ever so much easier to read than '"Ah ahm noh Y-ankee," Ashley said.' It's also less offensive to an important part of your readership.
I hope you found this brief tutorial interesting. Please let me know if you have comments.
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