Who Speaks? Pointers about Attribution in Dialogue
In this month’s column I want to cover an aspect of dialogue: how
you, as an author, let your readers know which of your characters is doing
the speaking. You may consider this aspect trivial, unimportant, nit-picky,
even dull. But understanding it and mastering it will contribute
significantly to the smoothness and the readability of your work.
He said: The Most Common Approach
The most frequently used method for signaling the speaker to the reader
is some variant of the phrase he said, or he asked, if the piece of dialogue
happens to be a question. Here are a few examples:
He said, “I want to go home now.”
He said: “I want to go home now.”
“I want to go home now,” he said.
“I want to go home now,” said he.
The first and the third variants are used most commonly, but I have seen
the second and the fourth frequently. Which should you use? Honestly, there
is little difference between these alternatives. My recommendation is for
you to consider which is clearest and least obtrusive to the reader. For
example, if the speeches are long, and there are more than two characters in
the conversation, you may prefer the first or second variant so that your
reader knows immediately who is speaking. Another factor in your choice is
the rhythm of your writing – you don’t want to stick with one form too long
in a single passage; it becomes monotonous.
Modifiers for Said
The word “said” does not have to stand alone; as an author, you can often
indicate how your characters are speaking. Perhaps they are speaking loudly
or quietly; perhaps they are speaking hurriedly or slowly; perhaps they are
speaking sweetly or nastily. This can be achieved quite easily by including
the adverb next to the word said. Here are a few examples:
“You don’t love him,” Julie said nastily. “You just love his money.”
“No, I’m not going to eat the spinach,” the pimply-faced teenager said
“I hate you!” the girl said passionately.
These adverbs modify how the speaker makes his or her speech. Now, I have
a prejudice against adverbs, because I believe they can encourage lazy
writing, in which the author tells instead of shows. Nevertheless, many
novels that I like are littered with adverbs used in just this manner, so
perhaps my prejudice is unreasonable.
Alternatives to “Said”
Often you can eliminate the said plus the adverb by using a
single word that combines both meanings. For example, perhaps instead of
said nastily you could write hissed.
Besides – he said, she said – don’t you get tired of writing the
word said over and over and over again? Aren’t there other words that will
do? Of course there are! So, here are a few alternatives to enrich your
Acknowledge, add, admit, affirm, allege, agree, announce, argue,
articulate, ask, assert, aver, avow, bark, beg, bid, bluff, bluster, boast,
brag, butt in, carp, challenge, chant, chime in, chirp, chorus, cite, claim,
command, comment, communicate, concede, confess, confide, contest, continue,
contradict, convey, correct, crab, declare, defend, deliver, demand, deny,
disclose, divulge, duel, echo, emphasize, encourage, enquire, enunciate,
exaggerate, exclaim, explain, expostulate, express, fence, fib, forward,
gab, gripe, groan, grumble, grunt, guess, harangue, hiss, howl, imply,
inquire, insist, instruct, interject, interrogate, interrupt, jeer, jest,
joke, kid, lambaste, lecture, lie, lip, maintain, make known, mention, moan,
mock, mumble, murmur, mutter, nag, object, offer, opine, orate, pant, parry,
plead, point out, prattle, profess, predicate, pronounce, protest, purr,
query, question, quip, quote, recite, refute, reiterate, rejoin, relate,
remark, render, reply, report, respond, retort, reveal, scream, screech,
shout, shriek, sing, snap, speak, stammer, state, stutter, suggest, swear,
tattle, tell, thunder, urge, utter, verbalize, vocalize, voice, warn,
warrant, wheeze, whisper, worry, yell, yowl
Now that I’ve given you some additional options, here are some caveats:
First, this list is by no means complete. There are plenty of other
Second, not all of these alternatives have quite the same meaning, so you
have to use them according to the situation.
Third, and perhaps most importantly – even though putting this list
together was challenging and fun, and even though using the right
alternative can be very effective – these alternatives should be used
sparingly in your replacement of the word “said.” Why is this? Well, if you
use them too frequently, they call attention to themselves. Here’s a piece
of dialogue to illustrate my point:
“It’s late,” he announced.
“No, it’s not,” she protested.
“We have to leave now,” he insisted.
“No, we don’t,” she contradicted.
“If we don’t leave now, we won’t make it!” he exclaimed.
“You worry too much,” she complained.
“Only because I’m with you,” he grumbled.
There are many problems with this sample dialogue – the content is dull
and the rhythm monotonous – and the dialogue is not being improved by the
verbs being used to signal attribution. These verbs are, in my opinion,
actually more interesting and more creative than the dialogue itself,
thereby calling attention to themselves. Each one by itself might be
considered acceptable, actually improving the conversation, but having so
many is overdone – rather like an ice cream with too many flavors, or a room
cluttered with too many knick knacks.
In contrast, the humble “said” calls less attention to itself. Even
though it may feel tiresome to type the word “said” over and over, you, as
the author, are generally far more aware of this word than are your readers.
Still, there are several other ways to approach this problem; let’s
It may be possible to skip attribution altogether. In short sections,
especially when just two characters are present, you can do this without
losing the reader. For example:
“It’s late,” he said.
“No, it’s not,” she protested.
“We have to leave now.”
It should be obvious to readers that the character speaking the third
sentence above is again “he.” In this instance, this is “obvious” for at
least two reasons. First, this is a conversation with only two characters,
and so when she isn’t speaking, then he must be.
Second, it is also obvious from what is being said. He is
maintaining that it is late, therefore the statement, “We have to leave
now,” only makes sense he says it.
You can continue the conversation without attributions for a little
while, relying on the reader to understand, from alternation and context,
who is saying which piece of dialogue. However, this falls apart when more
than two characters are speaking, and the reader can also become lost if it
continues too long. Also, you don’t want your readers to be able to tell
who’s speaking from context all the time, because this means that their
conversations contain no surprises.
Note that other clues within a speech may indicate who is speaking. These
include the manner of speech, such as a tendency to use bad grammar or long
words or other peculiarities (such as talking about “My Precious” –
generally uttered by Gollum/Sméagol of The Lord of the Rings); the
perspective that the character has on the world; what the character’s chief
concerns are (if a character in one of the Harry Potter books makes a
panicky statement about schoolwork, well, then, the speaker is probably
Hermione Granger). These last few bits are straying into the topic of
what people say, so this will be saved for a future column.
Names, especially used in a manner where one character is addressing
another, can also tell you who is speaking – or at least, who will speak
next. Here’s an example:
“Lucy, it’s late.”
“No, Ricky, it’s not.”
“We have to leave now, Lucy.”
“No, Ricky, we don’t.”
When the first character addresses Lucy, the reader assumes that the next
character to speak will be Lucy. Then when Lucy replies, using the name
Ricky, we assume that the next character to speak will be Ricky.
The technique of using names – although it seems to work fairly well in
the example above, for I can hear the characters getting louder with each
other as the conflict increases – this technique should be applied with
care. First, people don’t use each other’s names that often while speaking,
especially when just two of them are around. So dialogue employing this
technique can sound unnatural.
Second, when there are more than two participants in the conversation,
this approach does not always work. Lucy may always address her words to
Ricky – but if Fred is around, does he interrupt? Again, you don’t want to
rely too much on this method.
Another way to let the reader know who is speaking without resorting to
direct attribution is to imply it by combining a character’s piece of
dialogue with additional information about that character. This may sound
complicated and confusing; it’s easier to show than to explain further. So
here’s an example using conversational beats:
He glanced at his watch. “It’s late.”
“No, it’s not,” she protested, grabbing the decanter of sherry.
He rose to his feet. “We have to leave now.”
She poured herself another drink. “No, we don’t.”
The passage above contains only a single direct attribution, protested,
but you had no difficulty determining which character was speaking, did you?
Using conversational beats is my favorite method of handling dialogue
attribution. I like it because it gets away from having just talking heads,
which can become dull for the reader. Injecting these conversational beats
injects something more visual into a passage of dialogue (which would
otherwise simply concentrate on the auditory sense for the reader). The
conversational beats can also complement what the character is saying. The
glancing at the watch and the rising to the feet are both acts of someone
who wants to depart, while the woman’s actions emphasize the fact that she
wants to stay and have another drink.
The conversational beats connect your story to the dialogue in many ways.
You can use them to convey the character’s emotions or what the character is
“It’s late,” he said, glancing at his watch.
She raised an eyebrow. “No, it’s not.”
The raising of her eyebrow signals that she does not agree, that she
perhaps doubts his interpretation of the hour, or that she simply does not
believe him. Characters can have many physical responses that could
demonstrate how they are feeling, such as slamming doors, stamping feet,
wiping away tears, clearing throats, or twiddling their thumbs.
You can also integrate your conversation with the story’s action. Perhaps
the conversational beats serve simply to move along an activity. Imagine
that Stan and Stella are visiting the fair while having a conversation about
Stan handed two tickets to the man collecting them for the Ferris
wheel. He opened the gate for her. “Ready to see the city from up on high?”
Stella scooted onto the hard plastic seat, and pulled in her legs as
Stan climbed in after her. “I’m ready to listen to you tell me whether or
not you know where the painting is.”
“Do you really want to talk about that now?” As they swung gently
upwards, Stan gestured at the vista before them. “It’s too beautiful to
waste words on an old painting. It wasn’t even very good.”
As their seat kept climbing higher – the ground had to be eight
stories below them now – Stella experienced a wave of dizziness. What had
possessed her to agree to meet this guy at the fair, when she suffered from
vertigo? She clutched the bar that was holding them in, and willed herself
to concentrate. “That painting may not have been very valuable – but my
grandfather was the artist. So, you see, I need to find it.”
In the passage above, the conversational beats are moving along with the
dialogue – sometimes directly related to what is being said, at other times
not related to it at all. But the conversational beats, besides taking us to
a different setting and a different activity, also let the readers know who
is speaking. You could insert dialogue attributions in the passage above –
it would not hurt – but it is not necessary.
For attribution, there is no single best method. I believe you should mix
and match according to the needs of your story. As you become more conscious
of this part of your writing, you will develop your own sense rhythm and
your own artistic approach.
I must beg your forgiveness, for I have strayed far beyond the official
word limit for my column. I also hope I have not bored you, by focusing on a
part of writing that so many might consider mundane. If you want to complain
(or better yet, if you liked the article), you can write me at grossackva at
yahoo dot com. If not, until next time!
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About the Writer:
Victoria Grossack is, with Alice Underwood, the
internationally published author of Iokaste: The Novel of the
Mother-Wife of Oedipus, and other books coming out in the series called
the Tapestry of Bronze (Tapestry
of Bronze.com). You can also read more of her
articles on writing by ordering the e-book, Levels of Structure in
Victoria was a moderator of a critique group
for Coffeehouse for Writers and teaches the
From Leaves to Forests
Historical Fiction workshops for Coffeehouse for Writers.