Monday, August 14, 2006

Writer Tip #12 -- Speech Attributions

We talked a little bit about speech attribution in the book analysis I did last week. I’d like to delve into it further in today’s blog.

A speech attribution is what tells the reader who has just spoken or who is about to speak. The most common, popular, and generally used attribution is “said.” A few years back there was some debate as to whether or not to use the word “said,” and it became the thing to do to use it as little as possible. Lately, though, the trend has shifted back the other way, and I, for one, am glad.

Throwing in too many unusual speech attributions can bog down the dialogue. The reader’s attention gets drawn to the attribution, and they become distracted from what’s being said. The dialogue should be the star of the show, not how someone said it.

Whatever you do, make sure that the attribution is physically possible. For instance:

“What do you mean?” she sniffed.

I don’t know about you, but my nostrils don’t talk. It is impossible for me to sniff a sentence. Unless your character is super talented, I would suggest that she sniff after she’s done talking, or that she get a tissue.

Taking a drink from her glass, she asked, “What do you mean?”

Wow! She’s good! I know ventriloquists can talk and drink at the same time, but I didn’t know this character could. We should get her on a talent show!


“Said” is one of those invisible words. You can use it a number of times without getting in trouble for it. But let’s take the example a bit further with a little picnic scene.

Doug sat the picnic basket down on the riverbank. “I’m so glad you came with me, Laura,” he breathed.

“Me too,” Laura exulted, spreading the blanket down on the grass.

“It couldn’t be a more perfect day,” he agreed.

“Wait! What’s that?” Laura exclaimed.

“It -- it appears to be a dead body floating on the river,” Doug stuttered.

“How could that be?” Laura questioned.



Let’s back this up and take a look at it. I’ve taken every care not to use the word “said,” and it’s extremely obvious, isn’t it? In fact, it’s so obvious, it sticks out like a size 12 shoe at the prom. I say some fixing is in order. Compare the sentences above with the sentences below.

Doug sat the picnic basket down on the riverbank. “I’m so glad you came with me, Laura.” (Notice that he just performed an action and we’re still in the same paragraph. Anything said in this paragraph will be said by Doug. If she wants to talk, we have to make a new paragraph. Therefore, we don’t have to point out that he’s the one talking. Additionally, there are only the two of them and he just called her by name. Therefore, we know he’s the one talking.)

“Me too,” Laura said, spreading the blanket down on the grass. (There’s a “said.” It’s not so terrible, now, is it?)

“It couldn’t be a more perfect day.” Doug took a seat beside her. (Again, there’s an action performed by Doug, so we know that’s Doug talking. These actions are called “beats.”)

“Wait! What’s that?” Laura jumped up and pointed to the water. (We already know from the exclamation point that she exclaimed. Handy little device, that.)

“It -- it appears to be a dead body floating on the river,” Doug said. (We also already know that he stuttered. It had something to do with the fact that we saw the word “it” twice. That would be called stuttering.)

“How could that be?” Laura reached for her cell phone and began to dial. (Again, we already know it was a question – the question mark gave it away. So let’s give Laura something to do that’s a little more meaningful than gaping like a fish.)

In summary, don’t bog down your dialogue with speech attributions. A lot of the time, they aren’t needed as frequently as they’re used, and they distract from the story.

4 comments:

Annette Lyon said...

You're brilliant, Tristi. I may have to use these examples next time I teach about dialogue. This is one of the best explanations I've ever seen about attributions and beats.

Annette (said) :)

Tristi Pinkston said...

Why thank you!

Keith Fisher said...

I love it but have a question, what about when the character is thinking a conversation with themselves. should you always use the word thought? and wouldn't it be confusing for the reader if you don't indicate that the conversation is happening in the characters head.

Tristi Pinkston said...

Fabulous question, Keith.

A thought attribution is different from a speech attribution because one is thought, the other is speech. You definitely should use "thought" whenever someone is thinking. It doesn't get overused because (hopefully) your character isn't thinking all of the time. They should be feeling and having dialogue as well.

Another way to show thinking is to put the thought in italics, but you still definitely want to use the word "thought."

Clear as mud?

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