Dialogue Attribution in Prose – An Opinion or Two…

The Kill Zone is pleased to welcome novelist, screenwriter, and playwright Thomas B. Sawyer. Thomas was Head Writer/Show runner of the hit CBS series, Murder, She Wrote, for which he wrote 24 episodes. Tom has written 9 network TV pilots (100 episodes), and was Head Writer/Show runner or Story Editor on 15 network TV series. The best-selling thriller, The Sixteenth Man, was his first novel. Both his book, Fiction Writing Demystified, and Storybase are Writer’s Digest Book Club Selections. His latest thriller is No Place to Run. He has taught writing at UCLA and other colleges and universities. He has been nominated for an Edgar and an Emmy.

The fact that I came to narrative fiction in reverse from most writers – in that I began as a screenwriter – afforded me more than a few attitudes. And definitely not least was/is on the topic of dialogue attribution.
In novels and short stories I had long been struck by what I regard as the rampant, mindless use of “he said,” “she said,” “said he” and the like. I know that many highly regarded and/or successful writers and teachers regard such usage as a kind of pinnacle of simplicity. I agree, but not in the affirmative sense of “simple.”

As I began to contemplate my first venture into the form, I began to think about such things more seriously. Why, I wondered, would experienced, quality writers who otherwise (rightly) bust their humps to avoid using clichés, surrender to these without guilt? Or, viewed another way, when does a particular phrase cease being “economical,” and morph into a cliché?
And how many millions of trees, I asked myself, have given their lives for such conceits?
To me, even worse – no, make that dumber – is “she asked.” It’s dumber because, since it so often follows a question mark, the reader knows it’s a question, right? So why repeat it?
And then there are “he blurted,” “she exclaimed,” “he queried,” etc. If you must attribute, rather than committing those atrocities, I guess “he said” begins to look attractive.
Did I have a solution? Yeah. When I set out to write my first novel, THE SIXTEENTH MAN, I set as a goal/challenge for myself – a little secret bar-raising, if you will – that I would never use any of those phrases. Ever. Nor, actually, any direct attribution – and yet maintain clarity for the reader. The result? While hardly revolutionary – I’ve since learned that numerous novelists do it – I’m convinced that it has made my writing better, more readable, and certainly more visual.
Here’s my approach, and the way I teach it.
Work on attribution the way you work on the rest of your writing, with the care you give to your dialogue and your descriptions. Will it make a dramatic difference to your readers? Not likely. Will they even be aware of it? Probably not. Especially on a conscious level. But – will it make a difference to you as a writer? Emphatically, yes. It’ll force you to think. To challenge yourself about stuff from which most narrative writers take the day off. So that all of your writing will become fresher.
And, in the process, I found that it contributed to finding my “voice.”
It also contributed to some criticism from certain literary types who warned me that as a novelist I could not “write for the camera.” I submit that they are mistaken. The reader is the camera. The reader is seeing the pictures. Imagining the scene.
Think about conventional, by-the-numbers dialogue attribution for a moment. “She said,” does almost nothing to help the reader envision the scene. It says nothing about the body-language of the speaker, or her inflection. Where were her hands? Was her head cocked to one side? Did she, during the speech, touch her face, or the person to whom she spoke? For me, settling for “said” implies that the speaker is delivering lines with arms hanging at his/her side. Again, for me as a reader, a brief description of body-language counts for a helluvva lot more than knowing what the person is wearing, or hair-color, or the texture of sofa-upholstery.
Admittedly, noting such detail isn’t always important, but when it helps the reader “see” the action, it seems to follow that it will also help the reader “hear” the words. In my own case, as with most-but-not-all writers, when it’s obviously clear for the reader which character is speaking, I omit attribution. But when the speaker is gesturing to emphasize a point, or is revealing, say, insecurity or anger or even an emotion that contradicts his or her words, that is worth communicating to the reader. Further, when a character’s response to another’s words isn’t spoken, but is rather a gesture, a look, that can be good storytelling.
I think of it as directing my actors – just as in my scriptwriting, describing when necessary those actions that augment their speeches – or – as in non-verbal responses – replace them entirely.

I urge any writer to try it. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.


Coming up on our Kill Zone Guest Sundays, watch for blogs from Sandra Brown, Steve Berry, Robert Liparulo, Paul Kemprecos, Linda Fairstein, Julie Kramer, Grant Blackwood, and more.

8 thoughts on “Dialogue Attribution in Prose – An Opinion or Two…

  1. I would like to to try it, but I don’t understand what you’re getting at. Can you give some examples of this in action and explain how you go about doing this?

  2. Thanks for dropping by TKZ, Thomas. We’ve touched on dialogue tags here a few times in the past, and your post adds another layer of skill sets. BTW, my number one turn off is animal attributes. He barked. She hissed. Those usually stop me cold. Your post is a good example of how the techniques of different crafts can benefit each other. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Sawyer’s point is well taken.

    Creative attribution employing the “less is more” discipline of lean prose can’t possibly hurt good writing, and like any part of the creative process, if it works for the talented artist, it’ll likely be effective for those enjoying the work.

  4. I’m game! But I may need Tom or John G or one of you to chime in here on the how-to!

    *******With attribution:“I’ll take those off your hands right now,” Florence said, grabbing for the pills. “You’re not to be trusted.”

    “You can’t make me go cold turkey!” Burt exclaimed.

    Twisting away from her, he muttered, “You’re determined to kill me, aren’t you?”

    *******Without attribution:“I’ll take those off your hands right now.” Florence grabbed for the pills. “You’re not to be trusted.”

    Burt twisted away from her.
    “You can’t make me go cold turkey!”
    He made a tight fist around the bottle. “You’re determined to kill me, aren’t you?”

    Is that right? I’m still tempted to addd an “and said” in there someplace in the second example for the rhythm. Tom or someone, help me out here to show us how it’s done?

  5. Thanks for stopping by! I confess I have tried to do this but my agent then thought the dialogue started to lose it’s texture and got confusing – so clearly its something I need to work on more!

  6. thanks for an interesting and informative post. I can see cutting down on the attributions like “said” and “asked” but I can’t imagine cutting them out entirely. I guess I’ll have to read your book to see how it’s done. 🙂

  7. I was curious for some examples, so I checked out The Sixteenth Man on Amazon, where you can preview sample chapters. What I found is that contrary to what Sawyer said, he actually used a lot of direct attribution in his novel. And I feel that the attempt to avoid direct attribution led to a lot of unnecessary details and repeated gestures that disrupted the rhythm of the dialogue. Some examples:

    page 16: When Charlie didn’t respond, Stan added, “Okay, who’ve you known for longer?”

    There’s nothing wrong with this sentence, but the quote is clearly attributed to Stan.

    pg.22: “Preposterous,” was Goldman’s reply.

    Direct attribution, plus, I don’t see how this is better than just saying Goldman said.

    pg.23: Fran added, “And if you think V.J.’s uncomfortable, you oughta see his boss. Poor man’s laid up with–“

    pg. 41: Rudy jumped in: “Besides, even with the both of us it’d be out of the question.”

    This one I feel is cheating. The use of a colon connects what Rudy does to the quote, thereby counting as attribution. This colon technique is used a lot and beside the fact that this is still direct attribution, it’s also not anymore effective then ___said.

    pg. 45: Packard hesitated, then: “Yeah. That area.”

    pg. 55: “It’s in work, Hartman nodded as Alex Moffat entered, crossed unsteadily to DiMartini.

    pg. 55: DiMartini embraced him and whispered into his ear, “Better it happened now Alex…”

    Given what Sawyer said about ___asked, I was surprised to find on page 28:

    “What about a rock?” V.J. asked.

    When there’s not direct attribution, there’s often unnecessary details, such as on page 19:

    Charlie sighed. “So–what about your schoolwork?”

    There’s a lot of characters sighing and grinning, and I think part of this is because it was needed to avoid attribution. Certainly you want to add details to what the characters are doing to ground them in the scene–otherwise the characters appear to be talking in empty space–but too much detail breaks up the rhythm of the dialogue and becomes intrusive, and that’s what I think happened in The Sixteenth Man.

    So, with all due respect to Mr. Sawyer, I don’t think this method is more beneficial than using the normal ___said. It’s more visual, yes, but you sacrifice the rhythm of the story and it becomes to cluttered with unnecessary details. His method should definitely be employed, but not throughout the length of an entire story. Variety is key.

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