Monday, March 03, 2008

Rules, Rules, Rules -- Speaker Attributes

Use speakers attributes (SAs) as little as possible.

As with learning to limit my use of adverbs, I became aware of SAs around my fifth novel, when my editor of nix-the-adverb fame started cleaning up all the finer points of my writing. She started nixing the SAs right along with the adverbs.

Now we all know SAs are needed from time to time to tell us who's talking. Said is Old Reliable when it comes to SAs. Many authors advocate using said and eschewing the other, descriptive words such as screamed, whispered, etc. There's a reason for that opinion, and we'll cover that. (By the way, this is totally off topic, but don't you think the word should be exchew? Just seems a more apropos first syllable.)

I wholeheartedly support the SA rule. I now only use them as a last resort.

Mind you, following this rule will make writing harder. It's way easier to stick in a "he said" than to create an effective action beat. But it comes down to this: would you rather have a phrase whose only raison d'etre is to inform, or would you rather have one that heightens the emotion of the scene?

Some folks argue that readers skip right over "he said," so why worry about using it too much? It tells them who's speaking, and other than that, they don't notice it. My response is--that just proves my point. The phrase is doing nothing more than informing. It in no way enhances the scene. I'd rather write a phrase that both informs and enhances the scene.

Here are my choices, in order, for informing the reader of who's talking.

1. Add nothing. Just let the dialogue speak for itself.
2. Add an action, descriptive, or thought beat.
3. Add an SA when neither #1 nor #2 work best.

Let's look at these in more detail.

1. Add nothing. Many times when an SA is used, it's not needed at all.

"Stop it right now!" he cried. Why tell the reader he cried the sentence when the exclamation point makes that clear? (This is why many writers advocate sticking with he said.) You've just explained what the dialogue indicates by its own merit. All the phrase he cried does is add extra words. And if you hear me on nothing else, hear me on this: extra words ruin sentence rhythm and weight the action. Get rid of extra words whenever you can.

Okay, you might argue, so don't add he cried. But why not add he said? Well, that's a problem. Because he didn't just say it. He cried it. Said denotes no emotion. When you write dialogue that emits emotion, only to follow it with an emotionless SA--you've just diminished the effectiveness of the line.

So--how many dialogue lines should you write with no reminder of any kind as to who's talking? Depends on the conversation. If it consists of short, punchy sentences, you can have more lines of pure dialogue then if people are speaking in multiple sentences. You certainly don't want the reader to have to stop and count lines, so don't err on the side of confusion. Which brings us to ...

2. Add an action, descriptive, or thought beat.

An action beat can be a movement or facial expression.

A descriptive beat describes such things as the speaker's attitude, the way some part of his body looks (other than the face), or his vocal inflection.

A thought beat is something the speaker is thinking or perhaps perceiving about the other person. (Be careful that you're in this person's POV for the scene.)

This #2 is a great choice for heightening the emotion of the scene. Problem is, you can't use an action beat for every line of dialogue, because it'll sound repetitive. This becomes a problem of rhythm. When I write, rhythm is never far from my mind. So--how to break the repetition of too many beats? Go back to #1--add nothing. Then return to adding a beat. Or two. One way to make them less repetitive is to vary where they're placed in the line of dialogue. Put a beat before the dialogue. Put the next beat after the first line of dialogue. You'll also want to vary what kind of beats you use.

Even so, on occasion bouncing between #1 to #2 isn't going to work for the sake of rhythm. This is going to happen more often when you have a group of three or more people speaking. Whenever I face this point, I add an SA. But it really is my last resort. And even as I type it, I know I'll revisit the line in editing. Overall, I'd guess my novels have somewhere below twenty SAs. Brink of Death only had about five.

Sometimes when I add an SA, I do use a descriptive one--he whispered, etc--if it's really called for. If it's the most effective. But by saving these as the last resort, I am forcing myself not to be lazy in writing. I'm forcing myself to find the most emotive way to write the scene.

The best way to learn these techniques is by studying examples. I'll post some tomorrow. If you want to leave your own dialogue bits to be edited in the comments, feel free.

Read Part 5


Amy said...

Hi :) Great post, really made me think about how I do dialogue, so I thought I'd give you some cannon fodder for your next post:

“This,” Halley said as he led her towards the alley the sound had come from, “is why the women you court never go anywhere with you more than once.”
“Oh, ha very ha,” Sam said, dodging a pile of rubbish that looked to have been there since the beginning of time, but even he jumped when the next roof tile smashed on the pavement a metre away from his foot, sending shards rattling across the ground.
“Hey, kid!” he yelled through cupped hands towards the roof, legs apart and – Halley thought – braced to jump to one side if necessary. “Mind where you’re dropping those things! You a East Canal Crawler or a South Streeter?”
A shaggy head poked out over the edge of the roof, silhouetted against the sky so that its features were nearly obscured, a tile in one hand and the other holding on to the guttering. “Like you’d see those East Canal bastards ‘round here! Whaddaya want?”
“I want to talk to Euan, if he’s about,” Sam shouted back, moving a hand to rest casually on his swordhilt. “Tell him that Tower scum Sam has come to see him.”
“Yeah? Alright,” the boy said, and lowered the tile back to the roof, pulling himself more upright at the roof’s edge and shoving the hard slate into a bag he slid onto his shoulders, then, with no apparent fear, swung his legs over the edge of the roof and skinnied down the drainpipe like a monkey, dropping the last few feet to land in the alley with a small thump.

Timothy Fish said...

He said. She said. He said. She said. It can get tedious for the reader, so I agree that cutting them out is helpful at times, and I frequently do so. Having said that, I don’t like the rule. By using the rule, we could tear apart what Amy graciously provided for examination, without even reading it. Many critiquers would do just that. Every “said” that is followed by an action beat would be marked with red ink.

Does ”Oh, ha very ha.” Sam dodged a pile of rubblish… flow better than ”Oh, ha very ha,” Sam said, dodging a pile of rubblish…? They both get the point across. We could make an argument for either one, but it comes down to a matter of opinion. My personal preference is the second, but the rule would require us to go with the first, because we can.

michael snyder said...

I have a goofy, anecdotal take on this one...

I borrowed a Robert B. Parker (rated PG-13 or worse) audio book from the local library for two reasons...1) I'd already listened to everything else I wanted, and 2) Joe Mantegna is the reader! (I could listen to that guy read microwave directions!)

Not sure if this is a chicken thing or an egg thing, but I found all the 'said' comments a little monotonous at first...but maybe that was just me? Maybe I'd just been studying my craft and had 'said' attributions on the brain? Because...(and this is a big because)...I grew to love them. Parker says either 'he said' or 'she said' after virtually every line of dialog. And Mantegna reads every single one. But for some reason it works.

Parker is not my favorite writer by a long shot. And I would never copy this style (okay, maybe if Mantegna volunteers to read something of mine and he just insists!). But it's interesting how certain things work (or don't) in the hands of certain writers.

No real point here, just enjoying the posts and comments.


Melanie said...

I'm anti-tag, but finally had to give in for a three-way argument. I just couldn't figure out a way around it.

I think my antipathy stems from my role as a newspaper copy editor. We have two reporters who start every paragraph with "someone said." I once counted eleven paragraphs in a row that began with "x said." I couldn't take it anymore. They would use attribution if someone said the grass is green.

I strike out attribution wherever I can.

Timothy Fish said...

I have a couple of thoughts that came to mind after reading the later comments. One, normal conversation, we tend to use speaker attribution and never rely on action beats. We might say, for example, “I went to visit Bob the other day and he jumped up on the coffee table and said, ‘I’ll be a money’s uncle!’” We would not say, “I went to visit Bob the other day. He jumped up on the coffee table. ‘I’ll be a monkey’s uncle!’” The second version is confusing because the listener doesn’t know whether the storyteller or Bob say, “I’ll be a monkey’s uncle!” In cases where the story will be read aloud, speaker attributes are not only good, but they are often essential for the listener to be able to understand the story.

In newspapers and scholar work, proper attribution is a requirement because it deals with the issue of fair use and plagiarism. But these types of works can use footnotes and legends. (see Chicago Manual of Style 15th ed. 4.83) In a novel, our fictional characters won’t accuse us of plagerism (normally), but I believe readers expect to know who said what.

Jeffrey said...

I tossed her the pack. She kept those green eyes on me. I felt like Tweety-Bird. She popped a stick of gum, and chewed, watched me in the mirror.

My throat hurt like a knot got tied in it. I loved her more than living. She’d saved me from my past. She saved me every day from my future. I’d been lost, and she brought me back. I’d be there again, but she held me here. My future would have been death alone in an empty room, but she found me, saved me, married me, gave me life.

“I’m going downtown,” I said. She watched me in the mirror and stepped back in an arrière, a feline draw. Tweety tried to not blink. “Brush your hair, darling, you don’t look like an ex private eye.”

“How’s that supposed to look like?”

“Like the hero.”


“What’s with the hat, cowboy?”

“Guy in a book——old timey cop, The Hot Kid, thought I’d try it out.”

She stared up at the hat for a moment, her brow wanted to wrinkle. “No, darling, please leave the hat here.”


“And take your cane, please?”

I loved her, so Tweety said, “Yes dear,” and fluttered to his cane. The goddess smiled and I saw how much she loved me, and was humbled. I couldn’t argue. The leg hurt and it cramped. It was weak and atrophied from diabetes.

“I’ll make an appointment for you with Dr. Lafayette,” she said.

Doctor Lafayette was an eye specialist. She was a little older than me, several inches under five feet tall, with black hair and dark eyes that tilted up at the corners, almost Asiatic. She was devout and remote, a French Celt from Brittany. We got along well because I was a Celt and spoke French. She monitored my glycosylated hemoglobin, because I was going blind in one eye from the diabetes. The light hurt a lot, so she had me wear a patch over it. The patch made me look like Black Bart the pirate. Except my hair was streaked black and white, like the tail of a skunk.

One day Lafayette just stared at me.

“Jeez, what is it, Doc?”

“I see a destiny in you Jacques.”

“What destiny.”

“A great destiny. A dangerous providence. Go straight home to your wife, and stay there.”

That’s all she would say. It made my guts clench, because she’d started out as her village’s Devin, or wise woman—a mystic seer.

Carla Gade said...

I'm enjoying reviewing your series on "rules" again. Thanks for all your helpful posts.