“Right,” Said Fred – But How Did He Say It?

Standard

I was reading the writing tips of a published author recently and amongst rather a lot of them was the advice that almost all dialogue attribution should use “said”. If the dialogue is a question, then “asked” is acceptable and if someone is responding, then “answered” is also okay. But nothing else. And even better, don’t use dialogue attribution at all.

Leaving aside questions of verb tense, I can’t tell you how much I disagree with this advice. Because while it tells me that a character was speaking, it gives no indication of how the character said the words. And often the words themselves just aren’t enough for me to know.

Consider the following:

“I love you,” she said. (Fairly straightforward, right? But how often is love straightforward?)

“I love you,” she whispered. (Doesn’t this convey vulnerability if she’s speaking to a romantic partner?)

“I love you,” she shouted. (Doesn’t this suggest strength or anger or maybe even distance?)

There are so many wonderful options for dialogue attribution and a conversation which continues with “he said, she said, he said, she said, he said, she said” eventually means the reader will start to skip words. (I was bored just reading that back to myself after writing it!)

I frequently have characters tell, point out, comment, admit, reveal, state, declare, ask, answer, assure, continue, enthuse, repeat, blurt, shout, yell, whisper, amend, add, query, caution, decide, agree, plea, nag and suggest among many others. It allows me to follow his other advice, which is never to use an adverb with dialogue attribution (such as “he said quickly”, “she said shortly”, “I said gravely” – I don’t hate adverbs the way some writers seem to because I believe every part of language is useful if used correctly and sparingly). I also use “say” but I don’t use it exclusively. It’s just too boring. For me as a writer and for the readers, too.

There are some efforts at dialogue attribution that annoy the hell out of me. I personally can’t stand it when characters “rasp” something – this seems to happen a lot in shorter romance fiction and it always seems to be coming from a man. It usually makes me want to get him a glass of water and pat him on the back until the frog in his throat disappears. But, on the other hand, it is a very clear description of speaking in a harsh way and sometimes difficulty in getting the words out – all without having to say the character spoke in a harsh way and had difficulty getting the words out.

Yet again it goes to show that just because you’ve made it, just because you’re published, just because you have a platform and a lot of people listening when you speak, it doesn’t mean you’re always right. Probably 95% of advice when it comes to writing is opinion and for everyone who says, “Don’t!” you will be able to find an equal number of counterparts who say, “Do!”

As long as you stick to the 5% that is non-negotiable and make informed decisions when it comes to the rest, don’t feel bad about ignoring the instructions of published authors. After all, they get it wrong almost as often as they get it right. They have editors to try to cover up this fact. And sometimes even that isn’t enough.

They can’t know it all. I can’t know it all. You can’t know it all. So don’t even pretend you do. You’ll just look like a fool.

*First published in Project December: A Book about Writing

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