Attributions in Dialogue

Reference: Managing Attributions in Dialogue Scenes: Who Said That? (Florida Writers Association)

One of the toughest things to explain, IMHO, is when attribution is necessary, when it’s not, and whether it goes in front or behind the dialogue. This blog linked above from the FWA is very bare bones and I don’t think goes quite far enough in answering the question I face with a lot of my clients. So here are my tips:

Punctuation is your friend

The FWA blog points out you should make sure that dialogue is doing “double duty” expressive enough in word choice that you can “hear” the shout or anger, or sadness. This to me is about characterization and not about exclamation marks – though it can be about ellipses (trailing off), em dashes (interruptions by self or others), and hyphens (for flustered speech).

“God damn it, Mark! I told you…DO NOT come in here when I’m working.”

“Please. D-don’t. I…I’ll be good. NO…no, please. I promise…”

“I got me a go-diddly-do righteous medal righ’cheer!”

Actions whenever possible

Describe a character’s actions in the same paragraphs as their speech. This will allow you to cut out attribution as actions are a signpost that the dialogue included in the paragraph is spoken by that character.

She picked up the pen from the desk and twirled it around her fingers. “I told you…DO NOT come in here when I’m working.”

Backing up, he put the desk between them. “Please. D-don’t. I…I’ll be good.” He put his hands up as Greg approached. NO…no, please. I promise…” He tasted blood as he went down under Greg’s blistering right hook.

Dancing a jig across the floor, Dudley waved the embossed gold disc on its red, white, and blue ribbon. “I got me a go-diddly-do righteous medal righ’cheer!”

Attribution in front

…or shortly after the beginning. Attributions identify who is speaking. If you can’t do it through the word choice, do it up front, so the reader can have a character voice (even just male vs female) in their head before they read the dialogue.

An attribution can also help a reader figure out how the dialogue should sound in their head when they read it. This means that any attributions needed to explain how a character will say dialogue (ie. “he whispered” “she screamed” “Jackie blurted”) should be written BEFORE the dialogue. This primes the reader to include the style in their mental read of the line and will increase their immersion.

If you describe who spoke or how it was spoken afterward, then it’s not helping the reader understand how to hear it in their head. They might reread, but then you’ve made them work too hard. “He said” after a long paragraph of dialogue is just a waste of words.

“I told you…” She lowered her voice. “DO NOT come in here when I’m working.” (note the implication is she doesn’t lower her voice until after saying “I told you”)

Her voice low, she said, “I told you…DO NOT come in here when I’m working.” (now the voice is low, showing a tightly controlled menace, from the start)

Last but not least, some words frequently used as attribution are actually actions, and cannot occur simultaneously with speech. “He gasped” for example. Or “She growled.”* Punctuate these as action sentences between dialogue bits, because the actions are interrupting the speaker’s speech, or use the “then” construction to show there’s an order to the action then the speech. “Note, “growl” really is an unintelligible sound, therefore if it’s followed by actually intelligible words, it is no longer being growled. However, the description of the speech can be called “gruff.”

He gasped then blurted, “What’d you go and do that for?”

“What…” Her breath hitched as tears clogged her throat. “Why you do that?”

What other questions do you have about writing dialogue? I’m building topics for writers workshops starting up again in February, so lay ’em on me.

~ Lara

Published by Lara Zielinsky

I have been writing and publishing for 20 years. I have been an editor of fiction for 15+ years. I am married, live in Florida and work from home full time as an editor.

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