Craft: Alternative Dialogue Attribution
David F. Shultz
The standard dialogue tag is “said”. Some people like to spice up their dialogue by using alternatives like “continued”, “replied”, “stated”, “joked”, “answered”, and so on, or by adding adverbs, as in “said tersely”, or “said angrily”. As a matter of subjective taste, I would caution against such alternative dialogue attributions. They have their place, of course, but they are easy to overdo, and easy to do badly.
For the most part, “said” is invisible to the reader, functioning more-or-less like punctuation. The reader passes over it quickly, and it doesn’t get in the way of reading. It keeps the pace quick. By contrast, synonyms like “stated” or “explained” or “answered” or “replied” add syllables and slow pacing without offering anything in return. This category of alternatives should be ruthlessly cut in edits. When you deviate from “said”, you should have a good reason for doing it, because it is always a trade-off with pacing.
Verbs like “joked” or “pleaded” add shades of meaning. In many cases, these should also be avoided. They are often redundant, since it should be obvious from the surrounding context and the content of the dialogue whether something is a joke or a plea, for example, so you aren’t getting anything by using these terms. They are also “telling” instead of showing—don’t tell us a character joked or pleaded; show us that it is a joke or a plea.
Some dialogue tags specify the manner in which something is said, like “shouted” or “whined” or “wheezed” or “screeched”. These verbs can be useful for characterizing a manner of speech, but they need to be used in moderation. If your established baseline is “said”, and suddenly a character “screeches”, it will feel more screechy. Conversely, if you constantly use alternatives, the reader will gloss over them, and they will have less effect. Your ability to use alternatives for effect depends on you using them sparingly.
All of this applies as well to adverbial modifiers on “said”. You could write “said tersely”, or you could just write terse dialogue—the terseness should be in the dialogue, so explicitly indicating that it is terse is redundant, and it is also “telling” instead of showing. You could say “said angrily” or “said wearily”, or use any of a variety of emotion-laden adverbs on “said”, but in all cases this will constitute “telling” instead of showing. If the reader can’t tell that someone is angry or sad or happy without being explicitly told, this might indicate a problem with how the scene is written.
You can often omit attribution entirely, particularly when there are only two speakers. If you can get away with it, it’s a good strategy, because it keeps the pacing quick.
Attribution can also be omitted when you have intercessory actions or intercessory narration between dialogue. If a character takes some action in the same paragraph as the dialogue, it is understood that they are the one speaking. Likewise, narration can cue the reader as to who is speaking. This can be an elegant option, but when overdone or forced it is among the clunkiest of the alternative attribution strategies, getting in the way of dialogue and substantially slowing the pacing. Intercessory actions shouldn’t ever be added for the sole purpose of indicating the speaker; there should always be some other function being performed, either progressing the action, revealing information, or developing character. Intercessory actions should also be avoided if they are redundant; you shouldn’t describe a character nodding if the content of their dialogue is just stating their agreement, for example.
There are genre differences to account for here. YA writing tends to have more alternative dialogue attribution; characters always seem to be screeching or joking or pleading or saying angrily, rather than just saying things. Different genres have different expectations, and it pays to have a good sense of the genre in which you are writing. The rule to “avoid alternative dialogue attribution” is relative to genre and style; the bar is different depending on what you are writing and who you are writing for.
To sum up the various strategies for alternative dialogue attribution:
- synonyms for “said” that don’t offer anything more, like “stated”, “replied”, and “answered”: cut ruthlessly
- alternatives with tonal colour, like “joked”, or “pleaded”: avoid—they are often either redundant or “telling” instead of “showing”
- alternatives that specify the manner in which something is said, like “screeched” or “groaned”: minimize—they are powerful tools but their power depends on being used sparingly
- adverbial modifiers on “said”, like “said angrily” or “said tersely”: avoid—they are often either redundant or “telling” instead of “showing”
- omitting attribution entirely: use it where it remains clear who is speaking—it speeds up pacing
- intercessory actions to indicate speaker: only use these if it is performing some narrative function(s) other than indicating speaker
Of course, there are exceptions to all of this. The most important thing is to be controlled and judicious in your use of language. Developing craft is not about mindlessly following rules; it is about understanding the underlying rationale for the “rules” so that you can use whichever techniques are most effective for your story.
Response from Y.M. Pang:
Alternative dialogue attributions aren’t innately offensive. However, they distract the reader from the actual dialogue. And because dialogue attribution usually comes after the dialogue, chances are the reader has read what the characters said and imagined the tone for themselves—only to find out after the fact that the character was actually screeching, enunciating, or offering gently. Characters can also come across as cartoonish if they’re shrieking and protesting all the time.
I confess, I was once on the other side of this debate. Years ago, a much younger me argued with a creative writing teacher about alternative dialogue attribution. She, like David, said not to use them. She, unlike David, did not adequately explain why not. I—the younger one—argued that numerous famous books used them; she pointed out that many of these were intended for a middle grade or teen audience, rather than an adult one.
She had a point. Alternative dialogue attributions are more accepted in middle grade novels compared to adult ones. Perhaps it’s to serve as a vocabulary teaching tool. Perhaps those narratives and characters are more exaggerated, so that people bellowing or hissing does not cause a tonal shift. Or perhaps younger readers aren’t as adamant about “transparent prose,” “show don’t tell” and other rules that writing advice articles like this one hammer into people as they grow up.
What does this all mean? I’m in agreement with David, but I’m not super insistent on this being a “rule.” It’s more a convention, and one small part of craftsmanship. If I meet my younger self, I’m not going to debate about dialogue attributions. Instead, I’ll tell myself to work on my actual dialogue. Oh, and fix those purple prose-y descriptions.
Instead of saying, “Don’t use alternative dialogue attributions,” I would say, use your judgement. Read what you’ve written out loud. Does the alternative attribution add anything to the dialogue? Can the dialogue be rewritten to render the attribution unnecessary? Is the attribution appropriate in the context, and is it even a proper dialogue attribution (I’ve seen too many writers mistake “smiled” for a dialogue attribution)? Conversely, does switching to “said” make the dialogue more awkward?
The answers to these questions will tell you what attribution to use. Most times, I think you’ll find good old reliable “said” does the job fine.
Y.M. Pang is a Toronto-based author whose fiction has appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Strange Horizons, Clarkesworld, and many other venues. She is a Submissions Editor with Speculative North, and a dabbler in photography and art.
Response from Brandon Butler:
Using ‘said’ is safe advice, but I believe the main alternatives to using said are using no attribution at all, or intercessory action.
Most conversations involve only two characters, and after one use of ‘said’ kicks things off, you can usually imply the speakers for a few lines by the order in which the quotes appear. In sequential lines of unattributed dialogue, the speaker alternates, with person A speaking odd-numbered lines and person B speaking even numbered lines. This can be continued indefinitely, though 4 unattributed lines is probably a good limit before applying some other means of reminding the reader who’s speaking:
“I tire of writing dialog,” I said.
“It’s not so bad.”
“I just don’t know how to identify the speakers.”
“No? I wouldn’t worry—watch.”
Ok, so the above dialog example directly prompts further action: hey, nothing’s perfect. But for me it also feels like a natural break from the back and forth.
Meanwhile, intercessory actions provide an entire library of possibilities before even considering the use of ‘said’ again, let alone an alternative. It’s like blocking in theater: your characters can move around, shake heads, shrug shoulders, do anything to add color to the scene.
And just like theater or film, the point should be to use dialog when there is a need. Think about what you are trying to convey. Is there a way of doing it without dialog? Then 9 times out of 10, I find it’s better to do so (unless you’ve made a habit of underusing dialog TOO much). If a character is simply agreeing with a statement, nodding in response or some other gesture might be preferred.
Part of the art of writing should be to have the reader infer as much as possible, without making it feel like work. Make them WANT to read between the lines and work things out themselves. Too often, dialog spells things out, robbing the reader of an opportunity to speculate on what was meant by that last passage, or what may lie ahead.
Brandon Butler is a Nova Scotian author currently living in Toronto. He is a former winner of the Writers of the Future contest, and his work is forthcoming from or has appeared in Helios Quarterly Magazine, Third Flatiron Publishing and Bad Dream Entertainment.
Response from Justin Dill:
While the conventional view is that “said bookisms” should be avoided (or at least used sparingly), there’s a tendency to conflate such stylistic advice with “rules” that writers ought to memorize. We are taught to say no—rather than to declare, proclaim, or ejaculate no—to alternative dialogue attributions. But as with all such rules, this rule may occasionally be broken, so long as it is broken properly.
Why not use synonyms for said? Said synonyms, after all, must exist to serve some purpose. An extensive vocabulary rarely rears its head in everyday conversation; rather, it is in prose, especially prose of the artistic persuasion, that we are liberated from the constraints of the dreaded “plain language” and free to plunder the vast depths of the English language. If there is ever a time to postulate, quip, or avow, it is in our literary exploits.
The key is knowing how to use such words as tools rather than crutches. Don’t have your character thunder something because your dialogue did not sufficiently convey the extent of their volume; have them thunder something because you’ve been using meteorological terms in association with them to communicate something about their character—say, their stormy disposition. Don’t use “exclaimed” because you want to cut down on instances of the word “said” in your manuscript; use it because another character “claimed” something in the previous line and you enjoy a bit of harmless wordplay (and consider having the next character “disclaim” their dialogue). Don’t use “quod” as a dialogue attribution because you learned it in English class and were mesmerized by the sound of it; use it because you’re evoking a very particular old-fashioned narrative voice to fit the atmosphere of your historical novel.
If “said” is invisible, it doesn’t allow any opportunity for uniqueness. If all writers adhere to the same formula (in this case, the same method of dialogue attribution), that’s one less way in which writers can distinguish their narrative voices from one another. It’s common to think of dialogue attributions as part of the dialogue, as a cheap way to convey emotion that should have been conveyed in the character’s words themselves. But dialogue attribution is equally part of the narration, contributing to that nebulous concept we refer to as tone. And what of pacing? If dialogue attributions other than said aren’t invisible, they require more brain power to process and cause the reader to slow down and read a dialogue-heavy section of your narrative a little more slowly, where otherwise their eyes might have swiftly glazed over it.
As always, it’s important to know the downsides to breaking any rule. Use too many words that require heavy brain power to process, and you risk overwhelming the reader. Convey too much emotion in dialogue attributions, and you risk spoon-feeding emotions to your reader rather than genuinely evoking emotions. Have your characters boom, bellow, and boisterously bark things too frequently, and those words lose their meaning. Alternative dialogue attributions—like adverbial modifiers and intercessory actions—are a part of any good writer’s toolbox. It’s our job as writers to learn when and how to use those tools effectively.
Justin Dill is a Toronto-based writer of young adult fiction, a grammar enthusiast, and a horror movie buff. You can enlist his editorial services at royaleditorial.com. He also co-hosts the podcast Story from Scratch and releases music under the name Bloo Burds.