A Short Course on Dialogue Attributions


“So what’s the deal on dialogue attributions?” the young writer asked.
“I’ll tell you,” said the wise old writer. “It’s not complicated, but it’s important.”
“I’m ready to listen!” the young writer asseverated.
The wise old writer slapped him. “Don’t ever asseverate anything again. Just listen.”
Make Said Your Default
An attribution is there to let the reader know who is speaking. The simple saiddoes that and then politely leaves. Some writers, under the erroneous impression that said is not creative enough, will strain to find ways not to use it.
This is almost always a mistake.
Readers don’t really notice said, even as it serves its purpose. Any substitute word causes the readers to do a little more work. (More on that below.)
On the flip side, it’s possible to use said in an abusive fashion. This is done sometimes in hard-boiled fiction, like this:
“Open the door,” Jake said.

“It’s open,” Sam said.

“You don’t lock your door?” Jake said.

“Not on Tuesdays,” Sam said.

“That’s weird,” Jake said.

“Weird is in this year,” Sam said.
In this case, saidis forced on the readers for no reason. It feels like you’re getting tapped on the head with a rubber hammer with every line of dialogue. So leave out the attribution altogether when it’s obvious who is speaking.
“Open the door,” Jake said.

“It’s open,” Sam said.

“You don’t lock your door?”

“Not on Tuesdays.”

“That’s weird.”

“Weird is in this year.”
Should You Use Asked? He Asked
There are some teachers who say you should never use asked after a question mark. It’s redundant, they say.
I find that a bit too picky. I use said after a question mark, but also asked sometimes, for variety. I have no rule about it. I use what sounds right at the time.
No one has complained yet.
Use Alternatives Only If Absolutely Necessary
On occasion, you may need to find a substitute word. Whispered, for example.
What about growled?Barked? Spat? Expostulated?
Be careful. Almost always, the tone of the scene and the words of the character should tell the reader how the words are being spoken. Instead of using a thesaurus, work harder at making the words and the action more vivid. Let’s not see this:
“Put that down!” Charles shouted with emphasis.

“But it belongs to me!” Sylvia declared.

“Put that down,” Charles repeated, a bit more sedately but still with insistence.

“You are such an insistent type,” said Sylvia bitterly.
Ouch. And sedately? Bitterly? That brings us to:
Kill Most Adverbs, But Have Mercy On Some
I’m not the Terminator on this one. I don’t go out on a mission to kill all adverbs and never stop until every one is dead. I do think it’s best to let the dialogue itself, and surrounding action, make clear how something is said.
But on occasion, if it’s the most economical way to indicate something, I may use an adverb. Even though writing sticklers may feel their knickers getting in a twist over adverbs, I write for readers. Most readers don’t care about the occasional adverb. Nor do they wear knickers.
Occasionally Put Said in the Middle 

Every now and then, just to mix things up, put said in the middle of the dialogue. Put it in the first natural spot. 

“I think I’d better leave,” Millicent said, “before I lose my temper.” 

If one character uses the name of the other character, for emphasis, you can break up the dialogue this way:

“Rocky,” Mickey said, “this is the biggest fight of your life, especially considering you’re now seventy years old.” 

Use Action Beats For Variety, But Not Exclusively
Because dialogue is a form of action, we can utilize the physical to assist the verbal. This is called the action tag.  
The action tag offers a character’s physical movements instead of said, such as in Lisa Samson’s Women’s Intuition:
Marsha shoved her music into a satchel. “She’s on a no-sugar kick now anyway, Father.”

He turned to me with surprise. “You don’t say? How come?”
The action tag can follow the line as well:
“Come along, dear.” Harriet spun toward the door.
Warning: this is notto be done every time in place of said. Some writers have attempted to write entire novels without once giving an attribution. But the problem is this: every time there’s an action, even an innocuous one, the reader forms a picture. Too much of this becomes labor, because the reader’s mind is asking for the significance of the picture. The reading experience begins to feel like a series of speed bumps on a road.

John crossed his legs. “So what are you going to do about it?”

Mary tapped her finger on the table. “I haven’t decided.”

John sighed. “Think about it.”

Mary reached for her drink. “I can’t think.”

John scratched his nose.

“This place is creepy.” Mary looked around the restaurant.

John cleared his throat. “Perhaps we shouldn’t have come here.”

See what I mean? Use an action tag only for variety, never exclusively.

The young writer looked at the wise old writer and said, “Is that it?”

“That’s it. Easy, huh?”

“Easier than I thought,” articulated the young writer, smiling wryly, tapping his finger on the table.

The old writer slapped him again. “Just for that, you pick up the check.”

36 thoughts on “A Short Course on Dialogue Attributions

  1. Excellent advice, Jim. Next to starting in the wrong place, the abuse of dialogue tags is the most common mistake I see new writers make. You’ve covered all the bases here.

  2. Editors have preferences, too. My romance editor prefers action tags. My mystery editor likes “said” with the occasional action tag. It gets confusing for the writer (or at least for me!) when switching from one house/genre to another to write the next book.

  3. While Nancy makes a valid point about how subjective this is, I try to follow a minimalist philosophy. As a speed reader, I prefer “said” because I don’t have to dwell on it. In other words, I agree with almost everything said in this post! In particular, the question mark in the quotes followed by said is better for me than using asked or queried. My only addition would be to vary the order a wee bit when it’s natural: “said the terrorist Vladimir” to me sounds better than something stilted like “Vladimir said. He was the terrorist….” Just sayin’….

  4. One of the strengths of moving the attribution around is that you can change the pacing. Introducing a subtle pause in the middle of the dialogue can help draw the reader deeper into the story. And use of a quick hitting action beat to separate dialogue elements really draws the moment out and can be effective if not over-used or mundane.

  5. Thank you, James, she said gratefully.

    I am in the process right now of reviewing manuscript samples for a workshop I’m teaching at SleuthFest next month and I’m sort of perplexed by the fact that attribution remains a problem for some writers. “Said” is such a useful word that as you point out magically disappears so the reader is almost tricked into feeling they are really hearing characters talk. But then there’s the reverse problem — no attribution! Maybe this is a new fad but I’m seeing way too many MSs with so little attribution that I have to backtrack to figure out what the heck is going on. Use “said.” Nuff said.

    • It takes tremendous skill to do that, Kris. James M. Cain managed it, but it’s always clear who is speaking by the words. If a reader gets confused about who’s doing the talking, that’s more than a minor annoyance.

    • Amen to too little attribution. I read a fantasy author who not only uses too little attribution (and her characters all sound alike), but she also frequently has a character make two comments in a conversation, each in a separate paragraph, so counting backward to the last attribution while assuming an alternating pattern doesn’t work. If the stories weren’t so engrossing, I would have given up on them by now.


    • I suspect that it’s an overreaction to the ‘use as little attribution as possible’ camp. I’ve come across this in several books though I can’t recall which off the top of my head.

      The thinking, as nearly as I can follow, is that the voice of each character should be so clear and unique that you don’t need the attribution for identification. Indeed, if you need attribution, it is considered a failure in developing the characters fully and a testament to the lack of skill of the writer.

      My skills aren’t that good-might never be-so I attribute. Judiciously, of course.

  6. Thank you thank you thank you, I said enthusiastically! I am firmly on “Team Said.”

    As I revise the WIP, I am sprinkling in a few more tags here and there to make sure the speaker is known. I have a couple of “replied” and one “screamed” (there was just no way around it without CAPS and 50 !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!)

    The queen of dialogue tags is JK Rowling. I am listening to the Harry Potter books on tape and the “Ron said interjectedly” are total eyerollers. If there was a Harry Potter Dialogue Tag drinking game, I would never have made if out from under the stairs on Privett Drive.

    And I will hurt you (or at least close your book) if any of the following appear: grinned, giggled, chortled, guffawed, snarled, and sneered.

    Terri said thoughtfully and meaningfully

  7. Easier said than done, Jim. Seriously, you’ve written an excellent guide for writers. I’ll use an internal said to avoid the dreaded semi-colon. CEs love semis, she said, and writers hate them.
    As for getting lost in dialogue without attribution — that’s often the sign of a Robert Parker wannabee.

  8. Getting lost in dialogue ought to be a crime. Just as bad, maybe worse, is to have characters reappear, and the reader can’t recall who the heck they are. Now, this could just be me. But bit characters need to be recognizable — huge schnoz, two heads — if they’re going to come back after twenty pages, or the writer needs to drop a subtle clue or two as a reminder.

  9. Jim, you gave us a lecture that always bears repeating. I will confess, though, that early in the post I was mentally crafting my argument for an “asked” here and there, but I tossed it out after getting further into your post. Forgive me for letting my faith in you waver.

  10. Mr. Bell, these are all solid instructions on dialogue. Do you have an additional opinion on where you should add a tag when the character speaking goes on for several sentences? I have seen some place tag at the end. I find this annoying. As a reader, I would like to know who is talking early on rather than find out at the end of lengthy piece of dialogue. Still, that may be just me. What do you think?

  11. Thank you for this post. It clears things up a bit for me. I didn’t realize that I fell into the camp of too little attribution, until an editor pointed it out to me that I should use “said” more. I guess I was assuming that it was obvious who was speaking, but I was mistaken. I have always worried about repetitious words as well and thought that if I used said much, it would be too repetitive. It is good to know that it isn’t noticed as much as I thought.

  12. Robert McGiffert, a wonderful professor from the University of Montana School of Journalism, dealt with this issue in his “$2 Poem.” (Named so because he was paid $2 from Editor & Publisher when it was published in 1964.) Professor McGiffert passed away December 25, 2010, leaving behind many improved writers. He would have appreciated your post, Jim, though he would have given you hell for using the word “utilize” instead of use! Below is the poem.

    $2 Poem

    As any reader knows, a source can

    charge, declare, affirm, relate,
    recall, aver, reiterate,
    allege, conclude, explain, point out,
    answer, note, retort or shout,
    rejoin, demand, repeat, reply,
    ask, expostulate or sigh,
    blurt, suggest, report or mumble,
    add, shoot back, burst out or grumble,
    whisper, call, assert or state,
    vouchsafe, cry, asseverate,
    snort, recount, harrumph, opine,
    whimper, simper, wheedle, whine,
    mutter, murmur, bellow, bray,
    whinny or … let’s see now
    … SAY!

    – Robert C. McGiffert.

  13. I agree with all your points, Jim, but I do encourage my writer clients to use shouted, screamed, yelled, shrieked, yelped, and whispered. Paints a more accurate picture, instantly. Also, an exclamation mark with screamed, shrieked, etc.

  14. With the help of some friends, I broke speech tags down into 4 categories:
    1. “That was fast,” Tom said. (Original standard usage.)
    2. “That was fast,” Tom said. “I barely saw it.” (Original grammatical speech tag followed by untagged sentences.)
    3. Tom gasped. “That was fast.” (Action by named agent, followed or preceded by untagged quotation.)
    4. “That was fast.” (Quotation without any adjacent sentence that explains who said it.)

    We counted the first 30 quotations in 32 books (English or English translations), published from 1605 to 2003. The result was that books had almost only type 1 quotations until 1800, after which types 2 and 4 appeared suddenly. Type 3 increased gradually from 1800 until now.

    Results and graphs are here: http://www.fimfiction.net/blog/287031/writing-speech-tag-results

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